What We Miss by Comparing MOOCs to Traditional Classrooms

“They hear a program about sea creatures, another about the North Pole. Werner’s favourite is one about light: eclipses and sundials, auroras and wavelengths. When they find it, Werner feels as if he has been launched into a different existence, a secret place where great discoveries are possible, where an orphan from a coal town can solve some vital mystery hidden in the physical world.”
— Anthony Doerr, “All the Light We Cannot See” (2014) 

Perhaps imagining vivid worlds unlocked by new knowledge is a romantic notion or perhaps not. Movies and novels depict hallowed halls at Oxford, Harvard, the New York Public Library, the sense of buzzing possibilities underlying the quiet spaces. For over a century, public libraries in the U.S. have provided a promise beyond the material resources, an opportunity to move beyond present circumstances, to share in larger intellectual discussions. Famous authors have written about the freedom their first library card offered, access to a world previously beyond them, quiet space to engage ideas, to imagine. 

The increasing pace of technology offers many similar possibilities to access and engage extensive knowledge resources. Emerging digital options gain much attention from researchers, thought leaders, and popular media. Over the past couple years, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) have been touted as the future of education, a potential levelling tool to democratize education, an opportunity for everyone to access the best minds teaching the most current issues. Much has been said about how and whether MOOCs will supplement or supplant traditional educational institutions. Yet, these questions may ignore the larger possibilities of MOOCs. What if, instead of recreating classrooms online, MOOCs are actually a natural extension of libraries and texts in a digital age? Doesn’t it make sense that as technology progresses, our books would more closely represent Harry Potter’s experience of live discussions within pages? Perhaps the shelves of Hogwarts consisted of iPads with dusty leather-bound covers.

Isn’t the tradition of recording and reporting dynamic, game-changing lectures in text now extended through online course platforms? Current research of MOOCs finds that less than 4% of those who enroll in a course actually complete it. Yet, studies also uncover a practice of sampling akin to checking the table of contents and reading just the relevant chapters. High enrollment rates may reflect this selective engagement with relevant materials, much like sitting in a comfortable chair with books scattered at your feet, pages of interest flagged. Instead of thinking in terms of undergraduate education, MOOCs may instead be filling gaps in professional development programs. Instead of showing up to one class in a costly 10-week program, perhaps MOOC users are now sampling the parts most relevant to their personal or professional lives. Much like checking out several books from a library, users enroll in a selection of courses to fill needs and answer questions.

I am currently engaged in research with Drs. Jonathan Bright and Cristobal Cobo at the Oxford Internet Institute, in which we are finding that a proportion of MOOC users seek to physically meet, to view lectures together and discuss homework. While meetings occur in coffee shops and other likely public spaces, they frequently happen in libraries. Ironically, MOOCs may be bringing learning full circle, as students seek the physical space so conducive to study that libraries provide. When we consider that ancient libraries were conceived as spaces to support scholarly communion (in addition to their large text collections) and included gymnasiums and baths, as noted by Dr. Christine McCarthy Madsen (2011), the notion of MOOCs catalyzing a return to this original purpose does not seem far-fetched.

MOOCs are certainly more than books as traditionally conceived, but they are more than courses, too. MOOCs are a vehicle for accessing and extending knowledge. At the moment, MOOCs are organized as courses, but it is evident that learners are treating MOOCs more like books than courses, selectively accessing the information they need. At the edges of MOOC use, there seems to be a building momentum toward a return to the use of physical spaces of libraries for learning.

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