Why MOOCs? Why not?

The ideas and viewpoints expressed in the posts on the Ideas and Creations blog are solely the view of the author(s). Luther College's mission statement calls us to "embrace diversity and challenge one another to learn in community," and to be "enlivened and transformed by encounters with one another, by the exchange of ideas, and by the life of faith and learning." Alumni, faculty, staff, students and friends of the college are encouraged to express their views, model "good disagreement" and engage in respectful dialogue.

As I begin to write this, I'm in the airport awaiting my flight home after a Spring Break trip with some old friends. It has been a great few days to reconnect, reflect, and appreciate the beauty of the Lake Tahoe area. Since photography is a hobby for me, I'll include a photo or two from the trip.

The purpose of this post today, in addition to the photography, is to pose the question: "What is the role of online education at Luther College?" We are a small, residential, liberal arts, college of the church. The mission statement of the college highlights the fact that we are at the intersection of river, woodland and prairie, not a hub of Internet traffic. Yet, change is coming and I would like us to be a part of the change, not left in the dust.

My Photo Stream-973

Two weeks before spring break I had the opportunity to participate in the first Learning @ Scale conference which was held prior to our annual computer science educators conference. I've been thinking a lot about the change that is coming. A lot of really smart, well funded people are trying to make high quality education freely available. Of course Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs) were a huge topic of conversation at both conferences.

One of the interesting things that I learned the first day of Learning @ Scale was that there are now two types of MOOCs: xMOOCs and cMOOCs. The term xMOOC refers to the current generation of MOOCs largely characterized by the professor in the role of "sage on the stage." Loads of people have determined that xMOOCs are a failure, largely because of the high dropout rate among the participants. A dropout rate approaching 90% is typical for most xMOOCs. Of those that do finish, the majority of them are people that already have a college degree, and are dubbed the motivated learners. We at Luther might think of them as lifelong learners using technology to achieve that goal.

Like most things in the high tech world, the developers behind MOOCs are learning from their failures and rapidly adapting, hence the term cMOOC, where the letter "c" stands for community. Now this is something we at Luther College know something about. The question is how to create a MOOC where the professor moves from the role of performer, to a role of fostering a community of learners. The theory is that cMOOCs will retain more learners, at different levels of education, where people learn from each other as well as the professor.


I see two interesting directions for conversation. First, can Luther make use of MOOCs and other online materials to improve our own courses, or even offer courses that we might not otherwise be able to offer? In a smaller institution like Luther its a given that we can't be experts in everything that our students might want to know. In my own situation, I was able to offer a class on programming iPhones and iPads, by making use of an excellent series of lectures by a professor at Stanford. The students watched the video lectures outside of class. Now, I may not be an expert in iOS programming, but because of my experience, I was able to enhance the experience. In class I was able to answer questions, work additional examples, and assist the students in small groups, with the challenging set of homeworks assigned in the videos. It really does seem like the best of both worlds when Luther students can learn, in community, from some of the best minds in our field.

The second, and for me more interesting question is should Luther professors be creating our own MOOCs? I say why not? Why not showcase some of our own expertise for the world? Why not bring some of our knowledge about community building to the wider community? This might be a way to bring the Luther community closer together. Why not invite alumni to participate in a MOOC alongside current Luther students? Who knows what kind of connections might be formed. Who knows what this might do for recruiting?

So there you are, colleagues, alumni, and other readers. What do you think?

Brad Miller

Brad Miller

Brad Miller is a professor emeritus of computer science and data science at Luther College where he also served as chair of the department. Miller’s primary teaching interests included Machine Learning, Data Visualization, and Web Programming. Miller’s research focuses on interactive textbooks and has developed into the organization known as Runestone Interactive. Runestone interactive serves free, high quality textbooks in the browser to over 20,000 students a day around the world. Miller loves to cook and travel, you can read about his adventures on his blog A Reputable Journal.

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