THE BLOG
03/16/2013 05:16 pm ET Updated May 16, 2013

Learners Are People, Not Isolated Test-Taking Brains: Why MOOCs Both Work and Fail

MOOCs -- massive open online courses -- are not the same thing as the enormously popular interactive games titled Massively Multiplayer Online Games (MMOGs). Nor are they the same thing as going to college. And this matters.

MOOCs are good at certain things and terrible at others, and we need to understand the difference if we wish to educate human beings, not just workers with credentials.

In case you missed it: MOOCs are the latest thing, online courses that package the best, most effective classes and send them out, free, to the world. Tom Friedman and many others see them as the saving power for the coming world, the "disruptive innovation," in Clayton Christensen's phrase, that will challenge conventional education. Some see this as "meeting the unmet need for higher education."

Many critics (including myself) worry about the passive "sage on the stage" model of learning that MOOCs exemplify, but what I want to talk about here, along with games, is the non-academic side of residential colleges. (I am not weighing in here on what happens in classes; some are effective and some ineffective, but for exactly the same reasons as I am about to unfold.)

Comparing MOOCS with MMOGs and residential colleges might seem odd. But the contrast is instructive: both create relationships, play, and intrinsic rewards.

MOOCs are not play.

And they are not games.

And they do not encourage meaningful interaction, certainly not if they are to result in certification. If you want certification, you do it alone. That's how testing is done. Cheating epidemics are feared.

MOOCs do not engage the fully physical person.

I have had my own disruptions, but they are not favoring the MOOCs:

For most of my life I had a hard time taking seriously the online gaming world but I have learned some facts that changed my mind, among them that MMOGs, such as Happy Farm, have 228 million active users and World of Warcraft has almost 12 million monthly subscribers -- almost the same number as students enrolled in higher education in the United States.

Stanford communications scholar Nick Yee identified three types of motivation that explain the popularity of MMOGs: achievement, social, and immersion factors. These are compelling human motives.

Liberal arts and other residential campuses also draw students. But I would argue that aside from the financial gains promised by a college diploma, the aspect of residential colleges that is especially compelling for many students is not the academic side of college but the same goals as Yee saw.

As a professor I used to regard the non-curricular side of college as competition with what I saw as the central focus of college (the academic side). Then about a decade ago I began to wonder what it meant that students cared so much about all those activities. Why were students so committed and so competent at them? Why were they so meaningful to them?

On residential campuses students direct plays; they function as professional athletes fought over by recruiters; they produce dance parties; they tutor disadvantaged children; build houses for previously homeless people; organize food drives; play in bands.

I came to notice the contrast with classrooms, where often students are treated as children, scrutinized and marked "tardy" or berated for seeing to their bodily needs, where the overseeing adults are largely regarded as adversaries rather than as partners.

As I learned more about learning, it began to make sense to me that classes and the academic side of school are not the principal draw for a large number of students. Humans are and must be both embodied and enmeshed in social networks. Their full selves are present in the face-to-face activities that entice them -- often much more than in classrooms where students are expected to engage in purely cognitive activities often in isolation from others.

In the increasingly important "co-curriculum" students not only master complex "leadership" and "team-building" skills for their resumes, but they also enjoy them.

A few weeks ago I did a brief exercise among first-year college students, asking why they were in college. After jobs, money, and careers, a number of them listed "fun" as a compelling motivation.

Instead of dismissing this as frivolous and distracting from the central purpose of turning out workers, we need to attend to this as one of the principal aspects of our humanity.

Students like play -- as do all people, as Google knows.

Play not only fosters productivity and creativity, but also makes life more meaningful. And it helps learning.

So the most skilled performers and educators may deliver "knowledge" and information through MOOCs. Students can catch the enthusiasm just as they might from watching PBS shows. If they want to do assignments they can get feedback from fellow volunteer students. Some MOOCs include discussion fora.

MOOCs may deliver academic information in an enjoyable way, and students motivated by credentials may complete the course along with all its evaluations. Some enjoy learning and writing and test-taking, after all, just as in regular classrooms.

But those people we encounter in school or in online games are more than simply learning machines. And they know it themselves.

Humans are not isolated test-taking brains. Those learners are people, fully engaged with multiple dimensions of their life: social, physical, pleasure-appreciating, playful. We can carve out the cognitive and academic, but most students will resist that in one way or another, at every level of schooling.

If our ultimate goal is to educate human beings, then we must focus not only on knowledge and information, discipline and surveillance as measured by tests, but also on non-academic pleasures, motivations, skills, and the full array of human engagement that sustains attention and meaning. MOOCs may give us insight into this perennial necessity -- if only by missing. We will soon know.

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