MOOCS: The Coming Wave

Prof. Anthony Finkelstein, proprietor of Prof Serious Engineering posted this commentary 24 Feb. He captured succinctly my intuition about the education-innovation wave. While we cannot predict much of anything about where this is going, nor how fast, I’ll risk speculating that by 2020 the retarded landscapes like the US will look quite different (at least on the coasts). The revolution is likely to start at the tertiary level – simply because it isn’t as institutionally rigid as the state public schools, which are typically under the thumb of the teachers unions. Anthony begins with this:

You might have expected that I would have opined on the e-learning and the MOOC (Massive Open Online Courses) phenomenon before now. After all, everybody else in Higher Education has. I feared, that I had nothing further to add, and after reading this you may be tempted to agree. The course of the emerging debate suggests to me however, that some perspective is needed and this is what I would like to provide. I will do so now by way of a preliminary excursion.

A few years ago I was undertaking some research on behalf of a large industrial organisation whose primary business was photography. An organisation that was then, and still is, undergoing a significant and painful transformation in the face of a changed technological environment to which they had failed to adapt. A senior researcher, in confessional mood, reflected: “I became aware of the possibility of digital cameras many years before they became a practical reality … and then my mother had one. I just don’t know what happened in the intermediate period.”

This reflection strikes a familiar personal note, for me at least. Technology can, however far sighted you believe yourself to be, catch you unawares. Indeed, in certain cases at least, the greater your foresight the more likely you are to be surprised by the way trends unfold. Let me illustrate this by way of an example. Again some time ago, perhaps twenty years or more, I was attending a public lecture at the then Institution of Electrical Engineers. The speaker opened with a slide image that I had seen many many times before. I remarked on this to a friend sitting next to me, ‘not again’. The image was sufficiently well known that it had a nickname ‘the MIT rings’ (due to Nicolas Negroponte). It illustrated the potential for ‘digital convergence’: the coming together of communications, computing and content (seen as including data networks, television, telephone). Already the point being made seemed hackneyed and obvious.

Now wind forwards. Digital convergence has arrived. It is not a technical possibility, it is an everyday fact. My children rarely, if ever, watch television but browse video fragments and streams on the computer, I use Skype video calling, and listen to the radio on my ipad, just ordinary life. Unconverged technologies are dead or dying.

So what was I doing in the intermediate period between accepting the inevitability of digital convergence and living with the reality? Truthfully, I am not sure. Regrettably, not investing in Skype, YouTube and so on. The worrying thing is that, despite the fact that I knew what was going to happen, I discounted the consequences. Perhaps I had not fully absorbed the inevitability of the change, perhaps I attributed too much significance to the minor ebbs and currents in business, to the incidental features, to recognise the slow progress of a technological tidal wave that would sweep all before it. Or, maybe I simply lost focus.

(…)Please continue reading Anothy’s original essay.

One thought on “MOOCS: The Coming Wave

  1. Actually, teaching methods should have changed decades ago. When I was a student, I found lectures to be a waste of time. If I missed something, it was gone forever. On the other hand, if the material was in a book, I could re-read it as many times as necessary until I understood it.

    Presumably paper text books will become uncommon as the material will be published digitally; it’s already happening.

    There is still a place for classrooms. After reading the subject material, it is helpful to have discussions with other students and have a knowledgeable instructor or professor present to answer questions and expand upon the material. But please, no more lectures!!

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