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Topic: Response to: "Debate Over MOOCs Reaches Harvard"
Replies: 1   Last Post: May 11, 2013 8:22 PM

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Jerry P. Becker

Posts: 16,576
Registered: 12/3/04
Response to: "Debate Over MOOCs Reaches Harvard"
Posted: May 11, 2013 8:22 PM
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Forwarded for your further information. See note below from Barbara
Jaworski, and from Tony Croft. This is in response to the MOOC
posting yesterday (and included below).
Dear Jerry - I forwarded the article you sent below to a colleague of
mine who is working on MOOCs for my university He sent the following
message back which I think is worth forwarding.

From Tony Croft (Loughborough University, UK).

There is a lot of negative press from the establishment. This often
revolves around the importance of interaction with the tutor in
seminars and lectures - and also interaction with other students -
characteristics which I am aware are difficult or impossible to
replicate in a MOOC.

In my course, Differential Equations, the attendance at my lectures
is generally good, despite me making lots of videos available to
students throughout the course. The full set of notes is available at
the start. Of course, some students will take these as an excuse not
to come to lectures, but many more still do come. I was surprised
when we collected the module feedback recently how many students
referred to the value of the videos. These additional resources are
valued supplements to the lecture.

In the article you sent me we read:

"I'm a passionate believer in the traditional lecture," Ms. Roberts
said. "Students won't pay attention to a videotape of a lecture they
watch on a computer in their dorm room."

This is patently untrue. When I read statements like this it
suggests to me that people are simply defending vested interests.

Here is an excerpt from a paper of mine:

An unsolicited email came from a student on the course, who has an
Autism Spectrum Disorder and ``often find[s] lecture halls and
tutorial rooms confusing and distracting". He finds it difficult to
concentrate in these environments and perceives student/tutor
interaction as stressful.

The MathsCasts [videos] transformed the module for him, as he can
now play the video in a quiet environment, with pausing and
fast-forwarding available as needed. He said that ``It is like having
a teacher on demand".

This student went on to pass the module at a high level and after the
examination wrote again:

"Just to let you know, the screencasts were very useful before the
final exam. I watched them the day before and achieved my best exam
result of semester two. I'm sure this was because the concepts were
crisp and clear after viewing the explanations once more. If
something similar was available for other modules I think my grades
would be higher."

What the critics of MOOCs don't do is apply the same thresholds of
quality to traditional teaching. Of course, there are excellent
lecturers and excellent lectures, but we know that there are also
very poor lecturers and poor lectures. The experience of many
students in a lecture is a poor one. It seems to me that there is
good and bad on both sides.

How Loughborough will develop its MOOC presence remains to be seen -
it is still too early days to know. However, there are some
principles which seem to be emerging:

1. Developing a MOOC is not a money-making exercise.

2. As far as the senior management is concerned the aim is not to
have lots of students complete courses (figures vary but completion
rates are extremely low). The primary reason for getting involved is
that FutureLearn is a portal and a showcase for UK higher education.
Loughborough wants to raise awareness around the world of its
existence; it wants to raise its profile. FutureLearn will vigorously
promote UK HE, but only for those institutions involved. Hence they
believe it better to be in than out.

3. Any MOOC created should be of value and enhance the experience of
our own students. (As far as the maths MOOC is concerned we are
likely - in the first instance - to concentrate on material for one
of three groups : (a) special needs students (b) those preparing for
employers' numeracy tests c) preparation for the Science &
Engineering Foundation Programme.)

4. All those involved are aware that the MOOC may fail. It is risky
and there are no business models at the moment. Nevertheless we can
learn from the experience, and that is what we intend to do.

Thank you for continuing to send these missives through.


Sent: 10 May 2013 18:37
Subject: Debate Over MOOCs Reaches Harvard

From The Chronicle of Higher Education, Friday, May 10, 2013. See
Debate Over MOOCs Reaches Harvard

By Dan Berrett

Cambridge, Mass.

Ambivalence about MOOCs, which has increasingly been voiced on
campuses across the country, is also being heard among faculty
members at Harvard University.

While the level of unease expressed at Harvard, during a conference
on Wednesday and in other venues, is not as unified or oppositional
as recent statements made at American, Duke, and San Jose State
Universities, it is all the more notable for arising among the
faculty of an institution that has invested $30-million in a
nonprofit organization that produces massive open online courses.

At Wednesday's forum, a conference on teaching and learning, several
speakers touted the virtues of in-person, physically centered
education. The gathering also served as an implicit and, at times,
explicit pedagogical counterargument to the rise of MOOCs.

EdX, the nonprofit MOOC provider founded by Harvard and the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was "the elephant in the
room," Jennifer L. Roberts, a professor of the history of art and
architecture at Harvard, said after her remarks at the meeting of the
Harvard Initiative for Learning and Teaching.

The initiative, which is supported by a $40-million gift from two
benefactors, Gustave M. and Rita E. Hauser, is intended to encourage
faculty members to experiment and improve the quality of teaching and
learning at Harvard. While some projects supported by the grant
feature technology, none are MOOCs.

Speakers at the conference included faculty members from Harvard and
elsewhere, many of them experts in what the day's organizers framed
as the "science" of learning and the "art" of teaching-which, when
combined, result in something the speakers said is seldom realized on
any campus: an excellent education.

"Everyone wants to produce it. Everyone wants to consume it," said
Frances X. Frei, a professor of service management at Harvard
Business School. "Yet it's rare."

For instance, a frequently cited educational goal like critical
thinking is difficult to truly instill in students, said Daniel
Willingham, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia.

When the term refers to developing students' ability to understand
what he called the "deep structure" of an idea and apply it
elsewhere, the task can be particularly labor intensive: Students
often need more than a semester to learn the deep structure of an
idea in a discipline, he said.

Speaking Up for MOOCs

MOOCs did have their admirers at the conference.

EdX courses are flexible and modular, said Julio Frenk, dean of
Harvard's School of Public Health. They allow students to demonstrate
their competency with specific areas of knowledge in ways that
traditional courses often do not, and they give far more students an
opportunity to learn from Harvard faculty members than would
otherwise be able to.

At one time, a blackboard was an innovation, he noted. Progress
occurs when new innovations come along that build and improve on past

"There's always a risk of failing," said Dr. Frenk. "But I think the
risk of standing still is greater."

Some speakers, like Ms. Roberts, extolled traditionalist virtues like
patience. She described an exercise that she gives her students to
cultivate their ability to critically analyze images: They must visit
the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and spend three hours looking at
the painting "Boy With a Squirrel," by John Singleton Copley.

The exercise, she said, is intended to break students of their
habitual distractedness and thirst for immediate gratification.

She also raised doubts about the educational value of teaching a
course virtually to thousands of students. Pressure to create and
adopt MOOCs was greater than the evidence of the effectiveness of
this mode of teaching, she added.

"I'm a passionate believer in the traditional lecture," Ms. Roberts
said. "Students won't pay attention to a videotape of a lecture they
watch on a computer in their dorm room."

Andrew Ho, an associate professor of education and chair of the
research committee for HarvardX, the unit responsible for Harvard's
content on edX, appeared on the same panel as Ms. Roberts. He said
that she was correct to be skeptical and that her critiques offered
all the more reason for the courses to be researched empirically.

Ms. Roberts is not the only skeptic. Members of Harvard's Faculty of
Arts and Sciences said at a meeting on Tuesday that they had not been
sufficiently consulted in developing HarvardX and that its research
base was thin, according to an account in The Harvard Crimson, the
student newspaper.

A campus-climate survey administered during the spring semester asked
faculty members about their interest in innovative teaching and in
participating in edX, with possible responses ranging from "not
interested" to "extremely interested." Preliminary analyses suggest
that faculty members are far more interested in innovative teaching
methods than in delivering their courses via edX, according to a
member of the institutional-research department.

Limited Data on What Works

While a storm of media interest has greeted MOOCs, there still have
not been very many offered through HarvardX. Two such courses have
been completed and analyzed, and the data for four others will be
assessed this summer. Eventually, a Harvard spokesman said, a MOOC
developed by the university will come to be seen as another learning
tool that a faculty member at an institution can use or ignore, much
like a textbook written by a Harvard professor.

MOOCs are also still young, advocates say. Education researchers like
Mr. Ho will analyze the results of Harvard's MOOCs to see what works
and what does not.

Besides, many speakers noted, evidence has rarely been established
that the "aha moments" that faculty treasure in their classrooms-in
which students seem to suddenly grasp a concept-actually occur.

Teaching online is "enabling us to rethink what we do on our campus,"
said Alan M. Garber, Harvard's provost. HarvardX courses are being
used to complement existing offerings, to flip courses and to make
them more dynamic.

And yet, he added, "in the world of the future, I don't see the small
seminar disappearing."

While such an assurance may placate Harvard students, it does not
resolve broader concerns about MOOCs' unintended consequences that
have been raised by the philosophy faculty at San Jose State and were
echoed on Wednesday by Nannerl O. Keohane, who also spoke at the

As higher education seeks to change and adapt, it is important to
preserve its best aspects, said Ms. Keohane, who is president emerita
of Duke University and Wellesley College, and a visiting professor at
Princeton. The college-going experience should be centered in a
physical place where students and faculty members feel they belong to
an institution that has transmitted knowledge for generations, she

Even more vital, said Ms. Keohane, is that access to higher education
be broadly preserved.

The worry, she said, is that online education and MOOCs will be
relegated to the "less fortunate," while the top 5 percent of the
population will have the opportunity to attend places like Harvard or

Eventually, she suggested, such institutions could again become
bastions of a demographic elite, as they were in the 19th century.
Jerry P. Becker
Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction
Southern Illinois University
625 Wham Drive
Mail Code 4610
Carbondale, IL 62901-4610
Phone: (618) 453-4241 [O]
(618) 457-8903 [H]
Fax: (618) 453-4244
E-mail: <>

Jerry P. Becker
Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction
Southern Illinois University
625 Wham Drive
Mail Code 4610
Carbondale, IL 62901-4610
Phone: (618) 453-4241 [O]
(618) 457-8903 [H]
Fax: (618) 453-4244

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