edX 6.00x – time for the final exam, but will MOOCs be bad for social mobility?
There’s just a day or so to go before the edX 6.00x final exam is opened up. There’s a 12 hour window to complete it in and the course team estimate that it will take around 4 hours of effort. I’m hoping to find some time to have a go at it over the weekend, but given the problems the course has suffered since the second midterm exam and that my grade is already a passing one, I can’t say that I’m all that enthusiastic about the prospect at the moment.
It’s not that the material presented has been bad. Quite the opposite – it’s certainly up to the standard of the ‘High Level Programming A and B’ courses I took at Warwick University many years ago as part of my computer science degree. With the possible exception of the course needing to devote a little more time to object orientation than the rather mad single week brain dump it tried to cover it in, it’s been well paced too.
The biggest problem has been the lack of leadership shown when things started to go seriously wrong with the schedule around 2/3rds of the way in. With hindsight, I fear that my “MOOC that failed to scale” rant in mid December was rather too accurate in its diagnosis of the key challenges facing edX if they really do want to be part of “the biggest single change to education since the printing press”.
Even before illness and personal tragedy had struck the (single?) member of staff attempting valiantly to keep the show on the road, key learning tools (finger exercises in the course jargon) had started to be omitted, problem sets were being issued late and incomplete, and a decision had been taken to cancel one of the 11 graded problem sets originally scheduled. In the event, another graded problem set was also dropped at the start of this year (on graph traversal problems – but it was quite good fun to do the ungraded version provided!) Even the graded problem set 9 which was eventually issued was rather perfunctory, bearing no relationship to the material the course had moved onto. Finally and belatedly, some real leadership was shown by the edX management and a fulsome and welcome apology was issued to participants.
For my own selfish reasons as a lifelong learner, I want initiatives like edX to be successful and useful. I’m taking courses such as those offered by edX purely for “personal development reasons”. As such, they are highly unlikely to benefit my future career success one way or the other. Free of charge is therefore definitely a good model for me!
However, I’m concerned that the hype surrounding MOOCs potentially threatens the diversity of provision in higher education for those that really need it. If governments around the world start to believe that more traditional HE institutions are not required (and I’m including established distance learning providers like the Open University in this bracket), we run the risk of narrowing not only the subjects on offer to our young people, but restricting academic freedom and innovation by concentrating power and resources in ever fewer, richer and distant institutions. Such a move would result in increasingly expensive in-person tuition for the few who can afford it, with a restricted online offer for those who are unable to pay – or unwilling to mortgage their futures.
Paradoxically therefore, I believe that the unintended consequence of the proliferation of MOOCs could be to reduce access to the kind of higher educational qualifications which can genuinely act as an enabler of social mobility.