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Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Google and edX

By Jon Haber, DegreeofFreedom on September 16, 2013
Google has made forays into the educational s space over the years, notably by packaging many of their free services such as Google Apps and Calendar in ways that make them accessible (and free) for students and teachers (many of whom have already entered the Google universe via services such as gMail and Google+).

This is in addition to the spontaneous use by educators of Google products such as Google+ Hangouts (offering free video conferencing) which you’ll find integrated into a number of MOOC classes. And Google is already a player (albeit a small one) in the online education space with their Coursebuilder product.

But Coursebuilder’s catalog today consists of just a few dozen classes, most of them fairly specialized (i.e., narrow). And the fact that Coursebuilder has never come up in any of the MOOC conversations I’ve had over the last year is an indication that even an organization as huge and omnipresent as Google isn’t automatically granted dominance in any market it chooses to enter.

Which is what makes the coming together of Google and edX so interesting. For in addition to bringing a robust and open set of teaching technologies to the partnership, edX is also bringing along it’s pedigree as an offspring of two of the world’s most respected universities: Harvard and MIT. Which means that courses launched on MOOC.org are likely to seem more legitimately “MOOC-y” than courses delivered via other platforms.

This halo effect will likely come into play as content starts making its way onto the new platform. For one needs to keep in mind that there already exist platforms that allow anyone to create their own online courses, charge what they like for them (including nothing), and distribute them worldwide. Udemy is a prime example of such a service which today delivers many times the number of courses you’ll find on all of the all of the Big Three MOOC providers combined.

But the bulk of Udemy courses are in areas such as how-to training on technical, business or lifestyle subjects. And the few dozen courses they have that could be construed as paralleling what you’d get at a traditional university (mostly in the humanities and social sciences) can best be described as sketchy when compared to more robust offerings you’d get in a Coursea, Udacity or edX course.

For instance, a Udemy art history survey course I took consisted entirely of dozens of video lectures that seemed like repurposed content from other sources. And another course I just completed on Greek Religion was well taught by an enthusiastic professor, but never provided anything beyond the professor talking into his computer’s webcam.

Apparently other tools such as discussion boards and assessment are available via the Udemy platform, but are used inconsistently, making the product seem primarily like a video delivery system. And small enrollments (except for a few“blockbuster” courses such as ones that teach Microsoft Excel) demonstrate why most people need convincing that such a “come-one-come-all” service should be considers as playing the same game as are Stanford or MIT when they release their massive open classes to the world.

Now it’s not entirely clear who MOOC.org is going to draw with regard to content creation and whether those who take advantage of the platform will think of it as anything other than one more channel for the delivery of homemade content with little regard to polish or academic rigor. But the set of tools provided by edX’s software, and that platform’s open nature (which means programmers will be able to extend the service, as do WordPress add-in developers) means MOOC.org will at least have the potential to do more than offer cooking tips or lessons on how to set up your aquarium.

In a review of that art history course linked above, I talked about how academia –like journalism – is a field where the number of people qualified to participate far surpasses the number of well-paid positions (which, in the case of higher ed, means tenure-track teaching jobs). Which is why you can find such solid educational and academic work on the web, just like you can find quality citizen journalism that offers far more what you’d get in one of the dying daily newspapers or weekly news magazines.

But the Internet’s low barrier to entry also means anyone who feels like it can declare themselves a professor, just as any nut with a grudge can publish whatever crap they like and call it journalism. So even if MOOC.org elevates the capability of what people can use to teach online, content (in this case, creative educational content that makes use of the full facilities of edX) will continue to be king, or at least determine if MOOCs really can make it without Ivy League professors continuing to be the face of learning.

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