What’s a MOOC Good For, Anyway?

This week, I’ve spent several hours with a friend whose intellect is recognized by a Ph.D. from an Ivy League university. We’re both deeply engaged at the intersection of media and learning, most often for some form of public good. Yesterday, we talked about why people go to school.  To be more specific, why people go to school beyond the point where law requires them (us) to do so.

Harvard-MOOCWhen I read this readwrite article, an interview with Harvard’s new vice provost of advances in learning (excellent job title!), I started thinking about why anybody bothers with, say, TED Talks, or for that matter, why we read non-fiction books.

Just as we’ve managed to bottle up massive quantities of spirituality into the structures we call religions, we’ve managed to do the same with massive quantities of learning into the notion of school and organized education. MOOCs shake up that formula. A MOOC–a massively open online course–carries no price tag, and, although it may be offered by the likes of Harvard or Stanford or UPenn, it carries no credit, either. You take the course because, well, because you want to learn.

The distinction is a simple one, or so one might argue. There is learning, and there is education, and if they sometimes overlap (as they are intended to do), they might serve different purposes. Learning is all about personal development, and refinement of understanding. Education’s purpose is a degree, a formal recognition, typically for a price, that serves as an admission ticket into parts of the job marketplace that are otherwise inaccessible.

So what’s a MOOC good for? Same thing as a book, I think. It’s for learning. Turns out, millions of people simply want to learn, on line, for their own development and understanding.

Of course, that’s not the whole story. Do read the readwrite article (interesting phrase, that), and you’ll find that a bit more of the picture comes into focus.

Provocative Economics from C. Christensen

Excellent article in last Sunday’s NY Times by Clayton Christensen.

Christensen is a Harvard professor who studies innovation, and has written several superb books about how and why it works. His theories turn on a key concept: there are several types of innovation, most notably innovation that sustains and incrementally improves a current situation, and innovation that disrupts, changes the rules.

In this article, he expands his thinking to explain why and how capital can and must be freed to fund an emerging new economy.

BTW: C.C. writes an excellent blog.

The picture comes from Harvard Business School. Whether he is or is not the “top” guy, he’s certain high on my list.

Go read the article. Totally worth your time.

Know What? Why?

New York Times illustration by Viktor Koen

Here’s an article by former Harvard President Lawrence Summers. It was tucked into the Education Life section of the January 22, 2012 issue, so you may have missed it.


Summers is attempting to change the debate. Some key ideas:

1. Getting information is now the easy part. Twenty-first century education ought to be about processing and contextualizing information.

2. Processing and contextualizing leads to collaboration.

3. New technology allows the best teachers to be connected to every student. Everything else seems to be clutter.

4. Despite best efforts on the interactive side, most learning is passive: watch, listen, learn. Active learning is the future, but we’re just beginning to understand how and why.

5. Learn a language. Travel the world. Be global.

6. Education must shift from information dissemination to analysis.

Although he’s on the elitist side, the ideas make sense. The complete article isn’t long, but it does present ideas worth pondering.

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