Monthly Archives: May 2013

Can a computer help you swim?

People often ask me whether e-learning is “just as good” as face to face. Now, as a rule, I’m not inclined to be evasive, but my stock answer is “it depends”. However, I go on to add that e-learning methods can be effectively deployed to teach a much wider range of knowledge and skills than most people give it credit for.


There are certain practical skills which e-learning is not (yet) good for. I wouldn’t want to be a passenger in a car driven by someone who had learned to drive purely at a computer. Someone who jumps in a river after a series of virtual swimming lessons may regret not having signed up for a course at her local pool. Computer simulations are getting better and better and can certainly support practical classes, but cannot entirely substitute for them.


Sceptics tend to identify the lack of a social dimension as a key weakness of e-learning, compared with attending a face to face class. It’s certainly true that, for most people, learning is more successful if it’s a social activity: we learn from our fellow students as well as from teachers and resources. Social learning can encourage deep learning as well as develop critical thinking and the ability to formulate arguments coherently. However, it’s a mistake to assume that e-learning is a solitary activity. There are many ways in which social interaction can be facilitated even among students attending a purely on-line course.


I recently participated in a short-lived MOOC run by Coursera (ironically it folded because of technical difficulties, but that’s another story). One of the best things about the course during the few weeks that it ran was the terrific sense of community among the learners, of whom there were thousands. It was a MOOC on on-line education, aimed at teachers and lecturers. I met and had stimulating discussions with teachers from all over the world – all via a simple on-line discussion board.


Sometimes a course has to be entirely on-line, whether to reach the target student audience or for reasons of resource. The designer of the fully on-line course has to give careful thought to creating the most suitable social framework for the intended students. For many students, the social dimension afforded by social media will be just as satisfactory as a live experience, and, indeed, often more so.


MOOCs: has the counter-revolution started?

Philosophy professors at San Jose State University in California have rebelled against a suggestion by their management that they should start using an edX MOOC called “JusticeX” on their courses. They have sent an open letter (via Chronicle of Higher Education) to the Harvard Professor responsible for the MOOC, Michael Sandel, accusing him of being complicit in a process which imperils public universities and, ironically given the nature of the course in question, compromises social justice.

This follows the rejection by faculty at Amherst College, Massachusetts, of a proposal that the College should join edX, James Vernon, writing in the Guardian, thinks that the MOOC “avalanche” may yet be stopped and describes a campaign to thwart a Californian senator’s bill to promote on-line education for credit. Is this the start of a backlash by faculty and institutions against the MOOC revolution?

The SJSU professors argue that “There is no pedagogical problem in [their] department that JusticeX solves” and that the introduction of MOOCs into public universities is motivated purely by financial considerations.  They are not opposed to using technology in education, and, indeed, they have their own on-line and blended courses, but they say it’s “time to call it like it is”. The rise of MOOCs serves a financial, not a pedagogical, agenda.

Professor Sandel says that he offered his course to edX purely in order to make an educational resource freely available for anyone to use in any way they see fit. He seems to have no desire to see his course undermining the fabric of publicly-funded universities or the employment prospects of his fellow academics. SJSU’s provost Ellen Junn claims that the university merely suggested to the department that they use Sandel’s MOOC as a resource in much the same way that they might use a text book.

Are the philosophy profs right? Or are they latter-day Luddites, trying to destroy the 21st century equivalent of power-assisted looms in a doomed attempt to save their own jobs?

It would naïve in the extreme to think that those who control the purse-strings aren’t eyeing up MOOCs (and indeed other types of on-line offering) as a cheap option. If Harvard-quality higher education courses could be delivered to everyone via a computer screen at minimal cost, that would indeed be the answer to any finance director’s (or finance minister’s) dreams.

The problem, of course, is that the quality inherent in a Harvard education is not encapsulated in the typical MOOC, which is merely a recording of some lectures, with some additional material (such as on-line tests). To think that the quality of an education lies entirely in attending classes given by a rock-star lecturer, is to miss the point entirely. Indeed, we’ve long known that attending large group lectures is one of the least effective ways to learn. And what about the guided discussion, the individual feedback, the help with study skills, the library resources, the extended reading, the opportunity for submitting lengthy formative written work, the stimulation of peer group debate…..? Not to mention the pastoral care and advice and all the other aspects that go to make up a student’s experience at university.

This is not to say that on-line and blended university courses cannot be qualitatively equivalent to a face-to-face course. There’s plenty of evidence that they can be. But it’s not a cheap option: it requires investment, imagination and creativity and is unlikely to be successful if human interaction is eliminated.

It’s also not to say that MOOCs aren’t a good thing: the dissemination of knowledge and understanding to a wider audience, especially to those without access to universities, can only be beneficial.

But should MOOCs take the place of existing university courses? If that were to happen, many students would indeed be short-changed.