THE BLOG

A MOOC Thought Experiment

12/10/2013 05:22 pm ET | Updated Feb 09, 2014

A number of years ago, I wrote occasional pieces for a now-defunct online publication that focused on the intersection of economics, politics and culture. And while my writing centered on the culture and politics bits, my favorite economist at the journal was Arnold Kling (whose work can still be found here).

A couple of days ago, I tried digging up a piece he wrote which gave an economics-based explanation as to why there was so much high and low quality stuff on the web.

Regarding high quality, he made the point that because we no longer live in an era when trained journalists or PhDs can count on landing high-paying jobs (either working for a newspaper or winning a tenured position at a university), that means a surplus of trained and skilled writers and researchers are finding other ways to express their creativity, through blogging, citizen journalism and other Internet-enabled publishing opportunities.

And, with regard to all the dreck on the web, that's due to a low (non-existent, actually) barrier to entry, which means that any nut with a grudge can publish any crap they like, regardless of whether it's intelligent, coherent or true.

But while searching out that piece, I stumbled on another article he wrote during the early era of blogging, which included an interesting thought experiment relevant for this year's exploration of MOOCs.

Most of the article will be of primary interest to the economically-minded, but right towards the beginning he proposes a method for determining whether a new technological innovation is a game changer versus a fad by reversing the historic order of innovation. For example, if we had gotten used to DVDs, and DVRs and someone came along trying to sell us on the wonders of VHS tape, we would probably recognize that this "new" technology was inferior to the "old." But, if reading had evolved so that it only ever took place on a computer screen, would we look at the book as some primitive artifact, or as a marvelous and superior technology to be celebrated for its high-resolution user interface, portability and convenience?

One of the arguments you'll often hear in support of MOOCs (or any technology-based means of remaking education) is that the way we teach has not really changed in over a thousand years. Lecturers are still lecturing, students are still scribbling down notes, taking tests and writing papers. But apart from the blackboard (a disruptive technology that allegedly triggered classroom riots when it was first introduced), can anyone point to something genuinely new that's happened in education during the last ten centuries?

Historians of education would likely flinch at such arguments, given that it makes "innovation" synonymous with the introduction of gadgetry (ignoring "low-tech" innovation, such as the introduction of the public school system and massive expansion of curriculums in an ever-growing number of fields). But, putting those objections aside for now, what might happen if we subjected MOOCs (or online learning generally) to Kling's thought experiment?

In this case, we would assume that the Internet had always been with us, and that it enabled all learning to take place in massive open learning environments. And further, let's assume that this system had been around long enough for MOOC makers to achieve their ultimate dream of supporting so many courses, that anyone could study any subject they wished, whenever they liked, at no cost, with lessons provided only by the world's best "rock star" professors.

With those assumptions in place, imagine now that a new thing suddenly showed up in your neighborhood, let's call it a "school," which offered a radical alternative to mainstream (i.e., MOOC-based) education. Inside its walls (walls also representing another cutting-edge innovation) would be things called "classrooms," where small numbers of students (20 to 30 tops) would be instructed by individual teachers who would lecture (just like those rock-star professors do in familiar MOOCs) but who would also work with students individually on exercises and assignments that might vary based on the nature of the teacher and/or the needs the class.

If we found ourselves in a such a world, would we look at that building up the street as some freakish, retrograde, non-starter, or marvel at the innovation of a learning modality that, while sacrificing the ability to watch the best professors in the world lecture on our screens, made up for this shortcoming by offering valuable "features," such as close individualized attention and the ability of students and teachers to interact within the same physical space? Would we consider this new concept as the equivalent of the post-DVD, VHS tape, or would we start thinking of ways to "flip" the MOOC in order to incorporate into it some of the exciting benefits of the new classroom-based learning concept?

Given that this is a thought experiment, the only results will come from thinking about it. Which I invite everyone to do.