Oliver's Observatory

The Blog & Observations of Oliver H. Evans

Returning to MOOCs, Part 1


My initial foray into MOOCs was not the most successful undertaking I have made--mostly because I did not manage to complete either one I signed up for--neither the Model Thinking nor the Mathematical Thinking. But MOOCs have loomed larger and larger in my work in higher education, especially after retirement as I have discussed with some institutions ways they might use MOOCs; and I am going to return to them in the coming weeks, but this time with what I hope are fairly well-defined goals. And just to get one thing off the table immediately, those goals do not include successfully completing a MOOC.

To review, a MOOC is a Massive Open Online Course. They are currently being developed by a number of the most prestigious (which is to say credible) Universities, with more institutions becoming involved all the time, especially with Coursera, one of the most famous companies developing them. And the courses themselves are often taught by what are sometimes called Rock-Star Faculty.

Notable recently, for example, was the announcement that starting this past January, Taylor Branch would teach a MOOC on Civil Rights through the University of Baltimore. We can read Taylor Branch's books, of course. We could write him fan mail - or fan email, for that matter. But in theory signing up for his MOOC would allow some direct interaction with him - albeit one would have to wave his/her hand profusely to get his attention from among the tens-of-thousands of students who might sign up for his course. More interesting would be the possibility of joining - or forming - a learning community with whom to interact and with whom (possibly) someone such as Branch might interact.

Having access--even a very limited access--to a person of Taylor Branch's calibre is part of what makes the concepts of MOOCs so exciting to me. Access is for me one of the key drivers in how I view higher education--how to provide an avenue into the opportunities higher education can provide. Engaging in ideas, experiencing great embodiments of human imagination and insight, whether in the form of Hamlet, the b minor Mass, mathematical thinking, model thinking, or whatever, is an exciting and ultimately quite rewarding experience.

And in theory, MOOCs, whatever else they might do, seem to allow the potential not just for eavesdropping on monumental thinkers--e.g., a Taylor Branch--but in some sense actively engaging with them. And how much subtlety can be built into the experience of a MOOC when someone such as a Taylor Branch is doing the course is indicated in his discussion in this article of how the MOOC will work.

Having said all of that, I did not sign up for Taylor Branch's MOOC, but I am signed up for the repeat of Model Thinking and Mathematical Thinking, both of which, depending on your point of view, I either failed or Withdrew Passing from the last time.