Free Education

As I get ready for my massively open online course (MOOC) on gamification this summer, I’ve been following discussions about MOOCs with great interest.  I think this new form of instruction may play a significant role in the transformation of universities in the coming decades.  First, though, we’ll need to overcome the confusion about what MOOCs are.

A MOOC is different than a traditional online course (offered to a limited group of enrolled students) and the open courseware pioneered by universities such as MIT (disseminating course materials and recordings, but not an actual course).  A MOOC is massive and open, meaning that anyone around the world can join.  And massive means massive — some MOOCs have attracted over 100,000 students.  But the MOOC is still a course, meaning an interactive experience with assignments, discussion, and usually assessments.  It’s not just a recording or one-way broadcast of the “real” class.  Doing both of those things at once is extremely hard.  We’re at the earliest stages of figuring out how to do it, but there’s every reason to think the global Internet can support this new form of pedagogy.

Right now there are two main categories of MOOCs.  The first generation began three or four years ago, led by individual academics, with an emphasis on being open in every sense of the word.  MOOCs such as Change11 are based on a “connectivist” paradigm: learning comes from making connections. The course is a network with only a vaguely-defined curriculum, advancing through a web of participant chats, blog posts, tweets, and discussion forum posts.  The second-generation MOOCs, led by Udacity, Coursera, and EdX, use a more traditional course structure, with a defined syllabus, tests, and certificates of completion. And though all three currently offer courses for free, they envision significant business opportunities in MOOCs.  Udacity and Coursera have venture capital funding, and EdX was seeded with $60 million from its partners, Harvard and MIT.  In time these two kinds of MOOCs may converge, but they’re trying to do subtly different things.

For me, the most important questions are how MOOCs might change higher education, and how they might change my own practice as a university professor.

The second is of most immediate interest.  I’m diving in to teach one of the first MOOCs partly because I see no better way to learn about how to do it effectively.  And I’m particularly excited about leveraging my learnings from the MOOC into my in-person courses here at Wharton.  I’m teaching three versions of my gamification course this year, including the MOOC, and they will all be different experiences.  A MOOC offers the infrastructure to “flip the class“, so that students watch lectures at home on their own time, and use the classroom for interactive discussion and group work. Eventually I envision a continuum in which none of my courses are inherently “inside” or “outside” my university, but the dividing line is how I interact with students. In a successful MOOC, scale necessitates that students learn from each other.  That should happen on campus too, but it’s a different form of peer learning in-person and with an instructor to facilitate.

What about the broader impacts?  Will MOOCs really challenge the hegemony of universities?  Will they break the cycle of skyrocketing costs and declining outcomes that are beginning to raise concerns about the viability of the U.S. higher education system?

Here’s where the confusion comes in.  The least revolutionary aspect of MOOCs is the price.  I see lots of discussion about how MOOCs will cut the cost of college.  This article from the Daily Beast is typical.  Sure, there are so many students because the price is zero.  But price has never been the barrier to online courses transforming higher education.  MIT has been posting is course materials online at a price of zero for a decade, and it’s just one example.  And even before the Internet, it was rarely difficult to audit university courses for free… as Steve Jobs did after dropping out of Reed College.  So the fact that MOOCs make courses free isn’t a big deal in itself.  Even the possibility that MOOCs will offer course credit or a full online degree program at a fraction of the cost of a physical university isn’t unique: there are dozens of online colleges already in business with that same promise.  We still have ten students clamoring to pay the $56,000 Penn charges for tuition and housing for every one that we accept.

So is there anything truly revolutionary about MOOCs?  I think there is, at least potentially.

The key is to consider free education in the same light as Lawrence Lessig’s concept of Free Culture.  To put more concretely, the open source software pioneer Richard Stahlman famously emphasized the distinction between free as in “free speech” and as in “free beer.”  MOOCs that are free in the beer sense are far less interesting than those free in the speech sense.  Real freedom means openness: to new ways of teaching, to new ways of learning, to radical sharing of the contents of a course, and to redefining both what counts as a course and how a course relates to a university education.

That’s where technology come into play.  The connectivist MOOCs excel in using social media for a radically participatory, decentralized learning experience.  The commercial MOOCs, in addition to their potential for broad-scale marketing and partnerships, have the advantage in developing software infrastructure for things like automated grading, automated peer assessments, and learning analytics.  Both categories have revolutionary potential, although we’re a long way from realizing it.

The human dynamics are also favorable.  There are half a million people like me teaching college courses in the U.S.  Even a small percentage leading MOOCs will generate large numbers. And at a time of so much tumult in education, including universities, the big guns lining up behind MOOCs are bound to attract notice.  No one seeking to transform institutions should ignore the motivational power of fear and greed, even though those forces, once unleashed, can be difficult to control.  There are plenty of dangers amid the opportunities.

Again, all of this is in its infancy.  Just as many of us saw the potential of e-commerce in the mid-90s and social networking in the early 2000s, even though we couldn’t predict Google, Amazon, and Facebook, I’m far more confident about the significance of MOOCs than the particular trajectory they will take.  I’m looking forward to refining my perspective when I lead my MOOC this summer.