Is Calculus MOOCable?

There’s been lots of discussion in higher education regarding the emergence of MOOCs:  Massively Open Online Courses.  These courses are free to anyone interested and are taken in an entirely online format; they are typically taught by well-known professors from elite universities.

Among many questions about MOOCs that are being asked on the campuses of good, but not elite, universities such as mine: “Could these MOOCs replace the education we provide?”

There are many directions from which to approach this question.  A fundamental one is economical.  Matt Yglesias has an insightful recent post, inspired by a much longer article by Kevin Carey in the Washington Monthly about the “disruptive technology” in academe that is emerging out of Silicon Valley.  Like lots of articles in the Washington Monthly, this one by Carey is packed with interesting tidbits, and is worth the longer read when you have the time.  One lesson to take away from the WM article is:  venture capitalists are investing large sums of money in companies whose intent is to challenge (overthrow?) traditional colleges and universities.  And there are lots of avenues by which higher education will be challenged.

Yglesias’s main point is:  while colleges and universities are not businesses, they have a business model.  And the basic gist of that model is that low-level, high-volume courses generate lots of revenue and enable institutions to do some of its most valuable, but least efficient work in small, upper-division classes.  He thinks that MOOCs have the potential to “compete away” this “low quality” but high-dollar-producing stuff that colleges do.  That would pose real problems for how they’d be able to afford the high quality, low volume (and likely money-losing) services they currently offer.

Mike Caufield goes further, claiming that MOOCs could actually kill higher education, due to the structure of American colleges’ business model, piggy-backing on the point of Yglesias.  He points to particular classes that are “MOOC-able”, ones that can be replicated in high volume at low cost, where literally tens of thousands of students could take a single course.  His example is Intro Psych; Yglesias’s example is an intro course on the French Revolution.  But these examples, and these lines of reasoning, beg the question: are these classes really MOOC-able?  And, hitting closer to home, is calculus MOOC-able?

A few short thoughts, as I still need to think more about these questions:

– if a college class merely consists of going to lectures, listening to an expert, and taking a handful of exams, then I don’t think the class is promoting much in the way of learning.  Such a course deserves to be replaced by a MOOC.  It’s ridiculous to think of paying $1000 for such a class (rough cost for 3 credits at GVSU for a full-time student taking 15 hours a semester), much less the almost $4500 that a school like Williams College charges (I took the annual tuition and divided by 30 credits to get an approximate cost per credit hour).  Sitting passively in large lectures is easily replaced by watching said lectures on YouTube.

– if college generally is mainly about information transfer from faculty to student, then it, too, deserves to be MOOCed.  But as far as I’m concerned, we’re way past the 19th century model of education as information transfer, and have been for some time.  If we are teaching our classes in the form of “here is some information that I have that I want to share with you; write it down,” well, then here, too, we deserve to be run out of business.  There are way more important things to learn and do, and information transfer is free, easy, and completely searchable.

– I’m likely biased, since part of the way I make my living is by teaching calculus, but I think calculus is hard to MOOC.  To help me understand the issues better, I’m going to take Robert Ghrist’s Coursera Calculus class this coming January.  I’m really curious to see how that goes.  But I think there’s lots of evidence that calculus is hard to learn, and even harder to learn in a large lecture setting.  One of our mathematical professional societies recommends that undergraduate courses in mathematics have at most 30 students.  In my experience, I see students achieve the most significant gains in learning through interacting directly with me and with one another (under my supervision).  I don’t understand how a person of average collegiate aptitude trying to learn calculus for the first time can be one of 25,000 students in an online class and, without the opportunity to ask questions and get some human feedback on mistakes, be able to make real progress in gaining deep understanding.

But maybe calculus is MOOCable.  And that would make it really, really free.  More than any book.


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