The Future of College

A remarkable essay in the New York Times on the rise of massive open online courses (MOOCs) and their impact on higher education.

What is particularly striking is less the insatiable appetite for this sort of offering (which has been clear since the Thrun course at Stanford attracted 160,000 students — or over 20 four-year cycles of Stanford’s entire undergraduate enrollment of about 7,000), but how quickly the MOOC industry is adapting.

For example, how do professors adjust given that they have no signals from their audience about how a lecture is progressing?

Feedback came quickly. When his first lecture went online, students wrote hundreds, then thousands, of comments and questions in online discussion forums — far too many for Professor Duneier to keep up with. But crowd-sourcing technology helped:  every student reading the forum could vote questions and comments up or down, allowing him to spot important topics and tailor his lectures to respond.

[…] Professor Duneier has been thrilled. “Within three weeks, I had more feedback on my sociological ideas than I’d had in my whole teaching career,” he said. “I found that there’s no topic so sensitive that it can’t be discussed, civilly, in an international community.”

And how will MOOCs be graded if they are eventually to be recognized with some sort of certification? Crowdsource by using the students themselves, so that  each student must score the work of five classmates to get their own score (the average of their graders) — a tactic that is not uncommon in middle school classrooms across the country. The results?

Now, months after the course ended, [Professor Duneier] and his assistants are hand-scoring the final exams, checking the scores they assign (he avoids the word “grades”) against those given by students. So far, he has found an impressive correlation of 0.88. The average peer score was 16.94 of 24 possible points, compared with an average teaching-staff score of 15.64. Peer graders give more accurate scores on good exams than bad ones, they found, and the lower the score, the more variance among graders.

Like many people, I’m fascinated by the meteoric rise of MOOCs.  However I also think there is something happening that may be as interesting as the global distribution of lectures: the way that those lectures, and the people giving them, will change. The impact on the audience can be somewhat anticipated; but how MOOCs will disrupt the methods and tactics for teaching is a brave new world indeed.

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