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An Open Letter: Let's Start the Discourse Over on MOOCs

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Dear Public Discourse,

It's a new year. Let's start over. 

Love, MOOCs

My favorite MOOC story of the year was written by Steve Kolowich, a reporter for the Chronicle of Higher Education. He went to San Jose State University, ground zero of the MOOC debate, and he organized a meeting between philosophy chair Peter Hadreas and engineering lecturer Khosrow Ghadiri. Hadreas is well-known for leading a department that expressed strong opposition to incorporating MOOCs in their teaching, and Ghadiri is well-known for what appears to be a very successful adoption of some edX courseware in the residential course. They had a very nice meeting:

As it turns out, no fisticuffs or hot-tempered exchanges take place. No one accuses the other of holding back higher education or driving it into a ditch. There's none of the overheated rhetoric typical of online comments, op-eds, and other forums for jousting over what higher education needs in this time of technological innovation and economic upheaval. There's not, I learn, really very much disagreement at all.

It's kind of a boring article. Certainly more boring that "New startup ShivaEd promises to create MOOCs that burn higher education down to cinders and birth it anew!" or "Post-colonial, neoliberal video lecture cabal threatens to replace post-colonial, neoliberal textbook publishing cabal!" But boring in a "here are some sensible things to say about a complex topic" sort of way.

MOOCs are an interesting development in a decades old effort to leverage online tools in a centuries-old effort to create systems of distance education. I think we'll find some areas where high-scale, low-touch technology-mediated learning experiences work really well--probably places like introductory courses in statistics and computer science--and then we can re-deploy resources to places where high-touch matters more. When working with the toughest populations of students in remedial courses, there will be no magic formula, and lots of expensive high-touch will always matter more.

So here's to a 2014 filled with nuance, thoughtful critique, and small victories.

Happy New Year to all. Many thanks to those who have read these missives and corresponded with me over the year. 

 For regular updates, follow me on Twitter at @bjfr and for my publications, C.V., and online portfolio, visit EdTechResearcher.

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