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MoocDonalds: Are MOOCs Fast Food?

While poor-quality Massive Open Online Courses can currently get by as low-quality, high-accessibility content, we will soon reach an age where badging and other quality-assurance methods will control the quality of MOOCs. Photo by Pressmaster.

Most of us have options when it comes to food.  We can buy groceries and make choices in terms of quality — from junk food to organic, from Captain Crunch to granola and corn dogs to kale.  When we eat out we can grab fast food, stop at a chain restaurant, or choose a fine dining experience.  We can eat there, eat in our cars, or take it home. We can finish it off at home as a midnight snack.  Different options make sense at different stages of our lives, and on different days, and these choices have implications in terms of cost, time, social interactions, and ultimately, in terms of overall wellness.  For billions of less fortunate others, however, options are few and a next meal is not guaranteed.

The scenario in education is similar.  While billions of people are limited by finances, family obligations and geography, whose access to higher education is limited by their access to technology, many of us have options and the ability to make choices. With some sacrifice, many of us can afford to devote a number of years to higher education in a location of the institution’s choice, working with the faculty they have collected and the accepting the academic menu they have selected.

At the lower-access end of the spectrum; it has been difficult but it’s getting better.  It’s not easy to educate one’s self, but books have long been available, and now online lectures, videos, simulations and other learning resources have extend a constrained learner’s options.  And most recently, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) appear to be capable of extending higher education to potentially huge numbers of people for whom this was not previously possible.

Consider the parallel between our educational options and our options in terms of eating.  I see first rate face-to-face higher education experiences as the “fine dining” experience, crafted by expert chefs and delivered in lovely settings by well-prepared, capable people, but only accessible only to some and at a high cost in terms of both money and time.  (You can extend the metaphor yourself in comments beneath this post if you like, but I’m going to pivot, get out my crystal ball, and predict the future.)

In our eating, we don’t choose one path or the other.  Those of us who can afford to, combine meals at home with dining and take out.  We base our decisions on many factors that change on a daily if not hourly basis.  Education, I predict, will be more like that.  The digital badging movement (which offers badges to learners who master smaller units of knowledge and/or demonstrate component skills) may bring micro-certification to education, and we’ll then be able to “read the label” on courses and make more informed decisions with regard to quality.  Transcripts will be replaced by collections of badges that learners acquire, and they will get those badges from a variety of sources – learning some things in MOOCs and some in face-to face sessions designed to develop skills and refine performance into the nuanced expertise required for success in most fields.  We won’t be buying “meal plans” or signing a contract with an “all you can eat” buffet.  We’ll be recognizing an educational need and finding and engaging in options that make sense, personally.

MOOCs are not “fast food”

Today’s first generation MOOCs, like other disruptive technologies, will quickly evolve, overcoming current shortcomings.  We need to fuel that evolution by developing the assessment tools that will support higher-order learning on a massive scale—we need to put technologies to work to support self, peer, and expert evaluations, to provide expert feedback in a fraction of the time currently required.  MOOCs are an important option in the educational landscape—a landscape from which the next generation of students will assemble the knowledge, skills, and credentials they need, as they need them, and from the sources that make best sense at the time.

Learners will have good data on which to make decisions, including Amazon-style customer recommendations and detailed statements about what they will be able to do upon completion.  Payment will entitle them to repeat their attempts to master the content, rather than a one-shot test followed by a ranking that sorts them rather than teaching them.  And, thanks to the digital badging movement’s decision to include links to data about the criteria and assessment tools associated with each badge, learners and potential employers will also be able to discern what is measured and how well.

Soon we’ll all have options, and we’ll be able to  “read the label,” understand quality, and make wise and personally satisfying choices keeping quality, time, and cost in mind.

Bon Appetite!

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