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Guest Blog

Mon, 02/11/2013 - 20:15

Joseph M. Le DouxThere has been a lot of discussion lately in the press, and on university campuses, about MOOCs (massive open online courses), such as those produced by edX, Udacity, and Coursera. MOOCs, because they are free and available online, can be taken by huge numbers of students, with enrollments in some courses reportedly nearing 100,000. On January 26, 2013, in a NY Times op-ed piece, "Revolution Hits the Universities," Thomas L. Friedman extolled the revolutionary promise of MOOCs, claiming, “nothing has more potential to enable us to reimagine higher education than the massive open online course.” He is not the only one enthralled by the promise of MOOCs; Coursera, which was founded less than one year ago, has already attracted more than $20 million in venture capital funding, Harvard and MIT have each contributed $30 million to create edX, and Udacity has successfully raised $15 million to support its efforts.

Much of this excitement seems to center around the idea that MOOCs have the potential to radically alter the current long-standing business model of higher education. Universities are concerned they will lose out if they don’t immediately get involved in producing MOOCs. Michael Horn, a co-founder of Innosight Institute, a Silicon Valley think tank that focuses on education, was recently quoted in a USA Today article as saying that “there is a bit of a herd mentality” among the schools, and that many are reacting to the MOOC craze “without much strategic thought.”

Seemingly lost in all this excitement about the new business model for education is learning. I wonder – why do we think that MOOCs are the answer to the challenges we face in creating more effective learning environments? 

If improving learning is the goal, shouldn’t universities be positioning themselves to address the key challenges that are facing educators of the future, using approaches to create effective learning environments that are supported by learning sciences research?

In my mind, some of the key challenges facing educators of the future are:

  1. How to foster and help create a more diverse student body - we need to reach many more students from all kinds of backgrounds than we do with our current institutions.
  2. How to implement more effective research-based learning environments that will best support the learning of these more diverse student bodies of the future.
  3. The identification of the key skills and conceptual understandings these students will need in order to successfully contribute to, and compete in, the 21st-century workforce.

Given this, how will MOOCs help educate the more diverse student bodies of the 21st century?

We may find that MOOCs work well for self-motivated students who have a lot of technology at their fingertips, have been raised in stimulating intellectual environments all their lives, who have lots of support mechanisms within their grasp to help them learn the material, and who have the wherewithal to spend the time and energy required to learn deeply what is being taught in these MOOCs.

But what about those students who don't have the resources required to support their learning, who have not been raised in intellectually stimulating environments, who don't even know how to study well? It is hard to see how MOOCs will work for these students, yet these are the students that it is most important that we reach in order to meet the challenges of 21st-century education.

I would much rather see the resources of Georgia Tech and our nation’s other educational institutions, being used to support the creation of research-based learning environments that can most effectively support the learning of all students, regardless of their background. Learning environments that do not rely on the lecture. Learning environments that make good use of those precious and valuable times when students are in direct contact with their instructors.

We have worked hard in the biomedical engineering department at Georgia Tech to prototype these kinds of learning environments. Several years ago, we created a freshman engineering problem-based learning (PBL) course in which teams of eight students work closely with a faculty mentor to grapple with open-ended, complex, real-world problems of the current day, such as how to design pancreatic cancer screening protocols that actually saves lives, or determining the cause of the cholera epidemic in Haiti.

We have also implemented a new way to teach "hard-core" entry-level engineering courses that we call the problem-solving studio approach (PSS) approach, in which students work in teams of two at tables of four, to solve engineering problems on publicly visible shared learning spaces, while the instructor and top-notch undergraduate students who are graduates of the course, roam the room mentoring the students, critiquing and commenting on their work, and coaching them with questions designed to help facilitate their learning. This is a cognitive apprenticeship model of learning that promotes real-time situated feedback that is personalized to each student. It's an environment that fosters the development of close relationships among the students, and between the mentors and their students, one that encourages engagement, question-asking and deep thinking. It's an environment that empowers the students to be agents of their own learning, and that promotes and rewards students who work collaboratively with others to maximize their understanding of the material.

There are several other efforts at Georgia Tech to implement similar learning environments: Don Webster (CEE) has flipped his classroom, off loading lectures to videos that are viewed outside the classroom, to make time during class for him to interact more closely with his students. Amy Pritchett (AE/ISyE) has implemented PBL in two undergraduate courses, and David Hu (ME) has redesigned a graduate level course on viscosity to be completely problem-driven. Bob Kirkman and Roberta Berry, both in the School of Public Policy, have implemented the PBL approach in both small and large enrollment classes.

I believe these are the classrooms of the 21st century. I believe that technology can be used to help promote learning in these environments, if we employ it thoughtfully, and if we think of technology as one possible tool of many, that can be used to augment learning. We must remember, though, that technology is not necessary to create highly effective learning environments, and can, if not used wisely, actually impede learning. The only technology students use in our problem-solving studio courses are calculators – and sometimes even their use is restricted because they sometimes make it all too easy for students to resort to ineffective "plug-and-chug" approaches that don't enhance their learning or problem-solving skills.

One day it will become clear that MOOCs are not going to revolutionize education. Most likely, MOOCs will establish a niche in the educational landscape, perhaps by serving as a resource for lectures that will free professors to spend more time where it is most needed – in planning meaningful in-class learning experiences for their students – but MOOCs will not be THE solution to our major educational challenges. So what happens then?

My hope is that the intense interest and significant funding that is currently being showered on MOOCs will instead be used to invest in faculty who are motivated to learn about learning, who have the courage to abandon the lecture in order to create student-centered learning environments, and to provide the just-in-time support they will need to successfully pull all this off. The sooner this happens, the better for our universities, our faculty, and our students.

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