Unbundle This! Why MOOCs 2.0 Are the True Disruption in Higher Education

By Dan Butin

RCEd Commentary

MOOCs, we have all discovered, are not the answer. After all the hype, we are in the trough of disillusionment about the capacity of such massive open online courses to profoundly disrupt any aspect of higher education. As Andrew Kelly’s just-released report aptly sums up, “MOOCs are a tool, not a solution.” Tools help us do our current jobs better, and MOOCs thus become just another method for expanding access in higher education.

But I think we are missing the true nature of the disruption upon us. That is because we have been thinking in completely the wrong way about MOOCs. We have all thought of them as more-or-less traditional courses. But they are not. Instead, I want to suggest that “MOOCs 2.0” – my gloss on all of the digital technologies undergirding MOOC platforms – will be the most profound transformation of higher education in the next decade because they will force us to rethink and revise what we actually mean by teaching and learning.

Kelly is thus underestimating MOOCs as an “education experiment” because he continues to think about them as courses, even as he advocates for not comparing them to traditional courses. But if we begin to realize that we can unbundle MOOCs, that they are at bottom exactly just a set of interconnected yet distinct tools, then it becomes possible to realize that these different tools have much to offer in reforming higher education.

It is of course easy to mistake MOOCs for courses. That is in fact how they have been built and structured: as weekly classes with video lectures, homework assignments, quizzes, and final exams; and, at least during the initial excitement, such MOOCs were hyped as replacing traditional academic courses. But this way of thinking is but a relic of a bygone era. Even more problematically, this way of thinking made us all realize how deeply limited MOOCs were, as the first iteration of MOOCs were nothing but a pedagogically-poor version of the tried and failed model of video lecturing (“stand-and-deliver” teaching) that ignored the last one hundred years of educational research about how students learn.

But the real disruption, the MOOC 2.0 disruption, is when we come to realize that a MOOC is just a set of bundled components – such as cloud computing, automatic assessment, data analytics, adaptive learning, video streaming – that have been jury-rigged together to imitate a course. We can in fact unbundle each and every one of these components and reconstitute them in a way that actually makes educational sense.

MIT, for example, has begun to talk about this as the modularization of the curriculum whereby you can unbundle the curriculum into its most basic “nugget” parts. In so doing, we can be much more precise about what we are teaching, much more exact in assessing whether it has been learned, and much more thoughtful in putting these nuggets together into a meaningful and sequential structure that builds upon previous nuggets. Harvard is going down a similar road as it has built an entire production apparatus to help faculty better convey their course information. And behind the scenes, research efforts are underway (here are MIT’s and Harvard’s) to determine the exact contours of such learning, everything from student motivations and learning support systems to the structure, sequence, and delivery mode of course content.

What this foretells is an already-developing new paradigm of “micro-lessons”: curricular modules with clear learning objectives that are expertly taught, linked to automated, web-based or peer-supported tutoring, instantaneously assessed, and keyed to other curricular modules just below or above the student’s current level of understanding. This is mastery learning at its best, and in many ways it represents the holy grail of competency-based education and the fundamental implosion of the credit hour basis for education. It allows students to demonstrate proficiency of clearly defined learning objectives at their own pace in a way that is measurable and, importantly, scalable.

Southern New Hampshire University’s “College for America” is trying this model – students’ “proof of learning” of “granular competencies” – in its newly-approved associates and bachelor’s degrees. But MIT and Harvard are potentially taking this even one step further, in that automated, stand-alone learning modules could actually break Baumol’s cost disease: the idea that teaching is a labor-intensive process with an upper limit determined by the capacity and productivity of individual faculty. Once this happens, I would suggest, then all bets are off.

But let me conclude where I began in order to put these fundamental disruptions in perspective. MOOCs are not courses and neither are patched-together learning modules. We used to think of education in that way; yet as MOOC designers are starting to show us, this is just an engineering problem of finding and tweaking the best mode of content transmission.

That is not education. As folks within MIT have begun to forcefully express, there is a “magic beyond the MOOCs” exactly because real learning helps us to transform knowledge through its contextualization and application. No MOOC will ever do that. The real question, though, for all of us, is whether higher education can. 

Dan Butin is an Associate Professor and Founding Dean of the School of Education & Social Policy at Merrimack College and the Executive Director of the Center for Engaged Democracy. For the 2013-14 academic year he is a nonresident Visiting Scientist at MIT's Office of Digital Learning.