Why Be Afraid of the Big Bad MOOC?

HM_LOGOHere is this month’s piece on the changing world of work from furniture maker Herman Miller, a company for which Peter Drucker long consulted and that continues to exemplify his principles of innovation and effectiveness.

Do massive open online courses—widely known by their acronym, MOOCs—portend the end of institutions of higher education as we’ve known them? Is learning in such manner all good, all bad or somewhere in between?

Given the wildly varying opinions about MOOCs (and Peter Drucker, for one, recognized both the pluses and minuses of online learning) I recently embarked on a very personal form of research: I signed up for one—English Composition led by Duke University Professor Denise Comer and team. Given that I work remotely for an office furniture company, I thought I’d be a natural for this learning style. Overall, the experience was very positive, and not unlike mobile working.

What worked well? The content was delivered in three- to seven-minute videos, making it easy to focus and convenient for viewing multiple times if needed. Comer included experts in humanities, social sciences and biological sciences who shared their points of view on writing for their respective disciplines.

The first writing project included an opportunity to participate in a Google “hangout session” with Daniel Coyle, author of The Talent Code. Unfortunately, I have an unpredictable schedule, and a flight to Chicago prevented me from signing up as a panelist. But upon arrival in Chicago and getting into a cab, my iPhone alerted me that the session was about to begin. I joined as an observer. After all, I was going to be in the cab for the next 40 minutes. Game changed.

What were the flaws? With so many students, who could possibly review all of the drafts and final papers? The students could, of course. There are legitimate concerns about under-supervised peer grading. Some academics consider this a “slippery slope.”

As Drucker told us, however, “the best way to learn is to teach.” If you really immersed yourself in the content, the tools for analyzing one another’s papers—with empathy and chances for discovery—were there.

Image courtesy of Herman Miller
Image courtesy of Herman Miller

My experience convinced me there is a place for some version of MOOCs in most areas of higher education. From a design standpoint, these courses present an opportunity to reevaluate the effectiveness of traditional content delivery and campus spaces allocated for that purpose. A recent two-year study by the University System of Georgia revealed that at one of the state’s campuses, the average classroom is used a mere 18.5 hours per 40-hour workweek, and many times seats are just two-thirds full. I would guess that this institution is not an anomaly. The key question is: How might these spaces be better used if course content was delivered online?

Meanwhile, for those students where a full-time, four-year residential educational experience is not accessible, might a free online course offer an introduction into the world of lifelong learning?

The answers will emerge when we start looking for ways to incorporate the best of MOOCs instead of being afraid that they will blow the house down.

Susan Whitmer, Research Lead, Education