Can Massive Open Online Courses Make Up for an Outdated K-12 Education System?

In this photo taken Nov. 15, 2012, Peter Struck, Associate Professor of Classical Studies at the University of Pennsylvania r
In this photo taken Nov. 15, 2012, Peter Struck, Associate Professor of Classical Studies at the University of Pennsylvania records a lecture by Struck on Greek Mythology in Philadelphia. In 15 years of teaching, Struck has guided perhaps a few hundred students annually in his classes on Greek and Roman mythology through the works of Homer, Sophocles, Aeschylus and others — "the oldest strands of our cultural DNA." But if you gathered all of those tuition-paying, in-person students together, the group would pale in size compared with the 54,000 from around the world who, this fall alone, are taking his class online for free — a "Massive Open Online Course," or MOOC, offered through a company called Coursera. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

Overall, schools seem to be doing a poor job of preparing today's children for the world they will live in. And I'm not just talking about American schools. The problem seems to be almost global. The evidence for this hits me square in the eyes each day when I log on to read some of the forum posts from students from all across the globe who are taking my Stanford MOOC on "mathematical thinking," now into its fourth week.

Using some elementary parts of mathematics as a basis, the course sets out to develop the kind of creative, "out of the box" thinking that practically every forward-looking government report around the world tells us is going to be critical as we move through the 21st Century. The kind of creativity that education expert Sir Ken Robinson talks about in his virally famous talks. (For example, this one given at the RSA in 2010, and subsequently animated by them.)

Other than standard high school mathematics, the only real prerequisite for my course is knowing how to learn. That ability is, as Sir Ken and many others have observed, the one thing above all that schools should be developing in their students.

I see that ability in many of my MOOC students. But they are the adult students who have spent some years in the workforce. What I see in the students in high schools or those currently enrolled in a traditional college, is a total dependence on the "show me five similar examples and then ask me to do a sixth that is essentially the same" approach.

Put frankly, that is the educational method animal psychologists use to train Bonobo apes. More to the point, it is also the method that was developed (for children) in the early 19th Century, when countries around the world were introducing universal education. Its purpose was to prepare a workforce to fuel the post industrial revolution society. A key requirement was to train millions of people to think inside particular boxes. And that is what it did, very effectively.

Which was fine back then, but is woefully inappropriate in today's world. So much so, that the kids who are most likely to be the leaders in tomorrow's world are regularly diagnosed as having a problem (ADHD) and anaesthetized by Ritalin and other drugs in order to force them through an outdated, factory-production-line form of education that bores the most creative to distraction.

In my MOOC class, I have (I extrapolate) thousands of young people from around the world, who have enrolled because they want to acquire the kind of mathematically-grounded, creative thinking they know they will need, but whose school education has simply not prepared them to take ready advantage of the opportunity that MOOCs offer.

It's definitely not their fault. Indeed, I see the ones who have shown the initiative to sign up for the course -- which is purely about the learning, and offers no credential. But all they have ever experienced in their educational journey is examples-rich instruction, generally with an emphasis on working alone. When presented with a problem for which I have not shown them any examples, they have no idea how to proceed. They cannot follow my advice as to how to set about solving a novel problems (ask yourself exactly what the problem says, note down what you know that may be relevant, look at it from different angles, formulate a simpler version, discuss it with others working on the same problem, etc., a list well known to the older students in my class who get paid to do just that every day), because they have never been asked to do anything of this kind.

Given the stranglehold on U.S. public K-12 education held by various powerful groups with a vested interest in preserving the status quo, buttressed further by others who want to enter the same lucrative market, MOOCs offer a wonderful opportunity to overcome the damage schools do (often against the wishes of the teachers), and provide the workforce the nation now needs and will increasingly need in even greater numbers. But to achieve that, those of us developing these new courses need to resist the pressures - from many sides, including many of the students themselves -- to conform to existing educational models.

One feature MOOCs offer, that is phenomenally powerful educationally, is to separate credentialing from the learning process. When the marks a student receives on each assignment or test count towards the final grade on which a credential is awarded, as familiarly happens in K-12, the awarding of course grades can no longer be used as an effective way for a student (and an instructor) to gauge progress. The grade becomes more important than the learning. But in a MOOC, the two can (and should!) be kept separate.

This issue has been moot until now, since no institution has awarded a credential for a MOOC, but that is in the process of changing. Still, we can have the best of both worlds. Since a student can take a MOOC as many times as she or he wants, with the only cost being time (learning time!), the student can elect which iteration of the course to take for a credential.

Another powerful feature of MOOCs we can take advantage of, is that the traditional course structure of assignment release and submission times can be repurposed to create periods of intense activity, when thousands of social-media connected students around the world are all working on the same set of problems, and can form small working groups to collaborate and help, support, and encourage one another to achieve a difficult common goal.

There are other features of MOOCs too that can be leveraged to provide good learning. Even so, I doubt that a MOOC can ever provide the kind of first-rate learning you can get at a top ranked university like Stanford, which regularly turn out young people equipped for today's world. But I think that with some effort, we can scale enough of it so that MOOCs can make up for much of the damage resulting from putting 21st Century students through a 19th Century school system. And we can do it on a global scale.

Alternatively, perhaps driven purely by economic considerations, we can let MOOCs settle to become simply a Web version of the traditional educational system everyone is familiar -- and comfortable -- with.

Right now, my MOOC students fall into two camps, those who value the former (21st Century learning), the others crying for the latter (19th Century instruction). Most worrying, the split appears to be largely based on age -- with the ones who will most desperately need the former (tomorrow's generation) being the ones asking for the latter (yesterday's education).

For more details on my MOOC, see my blog