After attending the Technapex’s MOOC Madness event last Monday, I found myself both excited about the potential MOOCs have to expand the reach of higher education, as well as slightly sore about some of the assumptions that were made about online learning.
The main presumption that irked me was the argument that the best learning takes place inside a physical classroom. I understand that the intention behind this position is that personal interaction and collaboration between students will inspire the most creativity and therefore maximize understanding; however, I have issues with the connections made between this interaction and the classroom environment, specifically within higher ed institutions. Most of the material presented in a university course does not necessitate a physical classroom, and is even observed to be the less-preferred option among students. The connection between comprehensive learning and a typical classroom environment was that presented and supported by the panel; however, my own personal experiences as a student have led to my support of a very contrary stance.
Understand that this is post is coming from my own personal experience as a third-year environmental science student very involved in the scientific side of UC Berkeley — I don’t have much of a humanities background. I will not pretend to be the be-all-end-all when it comes to the undergraduate experience, and I’m sure that there will of course be some understandable differences between my views and my humanities counterparts. While these differences are expected, they are still very important to consider when contemplating the effects of the implementation of online education. Unlike the panel’s belief (and quite possibly the belief of my liberal arts peers), from my firsthand experience it is clear that the classroom as a moldable, dynamic environment is a concept lost on the majority of STEM university courses.
I find that the majority of the time I spend in class (the time spent in lecture) is less of a wholesome and enriching environment filled with collaboration and idea-swapping and rather more a big hollow room where I sit for 50-minute time slots and someone shares his or her own thoughts and opinions. While this information is usually well-presented and necessary to succeed in the course, I do not feel as though there is any interaction between me and my peers during these times, much less my professor. As far as my experience in lecture is concerned, I could skip the classroom altogether and have the exact same experience if I were to watch the lecture at home in my bedroom, a choice that many students make when the option presents itself.
Many of the classes required by my major are typical general education science courses (think physics, biology, and chemistry), and are among the largest of the various classes offered at UC Berkeley, enrolling between 500 and 800 students at a time. Many of these courses are also webcast via YouTube, so in reality, only about 200 or so students will actually show up in the lecture hall. My point in making this a numbers game is to show that students are already choosing to attend classes online rather than in person. Because so many classes are webcast, students are given the choice to either attend live lectures or to wait about 12 hours until a webcast of the lecture is put online, giving them the freedom to watch the lecture at the speed and location of their choosing.
If we simply look at the number of students in attendance, the difference is clear. Students prefer to have more flexibility and watch the webcasts of lectures rather than walk onto campus to attend the lectures at their scheduled times.The lecture aspect of MOOCs is not very difficult to put together, and proves to be similar to the currently preferred method of lecturing experienced by STEM students at institutions such as UC Berkeley.
While my experiences may seem to encourage the furthering and development of online educational resources, the one in-person classroom experience I could see being very difficult to emulate online would be that of weekly discussion and lab sections. Discussion sections at UC Berkeley are usually one hour of class per week, run by GSIs (Graduate Student Instructors), and provide a smaller group environment in which students are able to ask questions directly to an instructor as well as get to know one another as they discuss course topics introduced that week.
This is the minority of class time for most students, and does not involve the instruction skills of a professor, yet accounts for most of the understanding and deep comprehension of course material. Creating this environment in an online setting is what I as a student would foresee as being the biggest challenge that MOOCs and online courses need to overcome, but is definitely not an impossible task. My discussions are the most enriching part of my university courses, and in my opinion, finding an adequate online substitute for this short (but incredibly helpful) class time would lend MOOCs much more credibility and depth of content.
I agree that students need collaboration and group interaction in order to become fully-formed thinkers; however, I still do not feel as though this is attained in the majority of my time spent in Berkeley classrooms. While the panel was correct in identifying the issue, I’m not too sure that they see how this issue is already present within higher ed institutions, much less understand the best way to resolve such a problem. While I do agree that cooperation and personal interaction are important components to comprehensive learning, I’m not entirely convinced that institutions of higher learning always take advantage of the opportunities that the physical classroom provides, as this type of dynamic collaboration is something I as a student only experience in the small amount of class time spent in discussion sections.
If MOOCs and online course providers and instructors can find a way to create discussion section environments for online students, then more power to them. Keep on innovating and creating, but be sure that the integrity of the course — as well as the depth of understanding– is not lost as classes are converted to an online format.