Open online courses are popular – here and there, mostly there!


Tom Friedman’s bubba, Michael Sandel

I just spent the last two days at a great conference convened by M.I.T. and Harvard on “Online Learning and the Future of Residential Education” — a k a “How can colleges charge $50,000 a year if my kid can learn it all free from massive open online courses?”

You may think this MOOCs revolution is hyped, but my driver in Boston disagrees. You see, I was picked up at Logan Airport by my old friend Michael Sandel, who teaches the famous Socratic, 1,000-student “Justice” course at Harvard, which is launching March 12 as the first humanities offering on the M.I.T.-Harvard edX online learning platform. When he met me at the airport I saw he was wearing some very colorful sneakers.

“Where did you get those?” I asked. Well, Sandel explained, he had recently been in South Korea, where his Justice course has been translated into Korean and shown on national television. It has made him such a popular figure there that the Koreans asked him to throw out the ceremonial first pitch at a professional baseball game — and gave him the colored shoes to boot! Yes, a Harvard philosopher was asked to throw out the first pitch in Korea because so many fans enjoy the way he helps them think through big moral dilemmas.

Sandel had just lectured in Seoul in an outdoor amphitheater to 14,000 people, with audience participation. His online Justice lectures, with Chinese subtitles, have already had more than 20 million views on Chinese Web sites, which prompted The China Daily to note that “Sandel has the kind of popularity in China usually reserved for Hollywood movie stars and N.B.A. players.”

O.K., not every professor will develop a global following, but the MOOCs revolution, which will go through many growing pains, is here and is real. These were my key take-aways from the conference:

Institutions of higher learning must move, as the historian Walter Russell Mead puts it, from a model of “time served” to a model of “stuff learned.”

Therefore, we have to get beyond the current system of information and delivery — the professorial “sage on the stage”…

We demand that plumbers and kindergarten teachers be certified to do what they do, but there is no requirement that college professors know how to teach.

Bottom line: There is still huge value in the residential college experience and the teacher-student and student-student interactions it facilitates. But to thrive, universities will have to nurture even more of those unique experiences while blending in technology to improve education outcomes in measurable ways at lower costs. We still need more research on what works, but standing still is not an option.

Couldn’t agree more. But, then, I’m a geek who’s been online since 1983.

I don’t even have one of those enormous round thermometers nailed to one of the trees in the courtyard anymore. If I need a close approximation of the temperature [and wind chill] before I head out for a walk with our dog – I glance at my iPad.

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