My favorite learning environment would fail today's education technology standards

I want to tell you about one of my favorite ways to learn new things:
  • It is essentially a lecture, I'm not able to ask questions or get clarification from it, I just sit there in my chair for hour after hour. 
  • Occasionally it is available online, but this option is relatively new, nonetheless I am able to access it from anywhere. 
  • It doesn't cost much money and I often get myself involved in at least 2 at a time. There's rarely an extrinsic motivation for me to learn this way but yet I have a pretty high completion rate.

If you haven't guessed by now, I'm talking about books. However, these talking points (and many more) have been raised in support/derision of MOOCs. You know, those Massive Open Online Courses everyone is talking about. Its funny to me that people are not raising the same issues about books that they are about education technology. The number of kids turned off to education by bad pedagogy using books is likely far greater than those who have not completed a MOOC. Yet everyone is coming out strongly for or against the idea of MOOCs. I guess books have just been around longer.

Now about completion rates, a physical classroom has a monopoly on your time. Say you signed up for: Physics 101 for 3 days a week / 1.5 hours a day (plus homework) at your local university. You have likely paid for this class and your ability to get a degree and potentially a job requires that you pass the class. You have a lot of extrinsic motivation and perhaps an equal amount of intrinsic motivation (because Physics is awesome).

MOOCs have a few things working against it. You signed up for the course (or multiple courses) because you've always wanted to learn more about     fill in the blank    . You likely have none of the extrinsic motivators mentioned above, in fact you probably have a few working against your completion of the course like your day job, the school you are attending for credit, or other aspects of your life.

What to do, where/how should we learn? Well that's a question that is different for each topic and learner but here are some of my thoughts.
  • When a student tells me they want to go to college to study     fill in the blank     because it sounds interesting, I tell them to go buy the book, get an internship, or something else like that. I've heard universities defend their place in society because of the experience and community. That's great and I agree, but I can have a discussion about a topic anywhere. I've said this to students for years, and I'll say it now, "Go to college to get a job (about something you are passionate about)". If you are paying a university tens of thousands of dollars a year just to learn something, with little or no job prospects, you are either fabulously wealthy or out of your mind. Make sure you are going to get a return on your investment.
  • Semester long courses and video tutorials are not my preferred method of learning but they may work for you. It used to be the only way to learn something was to get a book or take a class. Now you can find all kinds of ways to learn a topic in whatever medium you wish. There are hundreds of videos about the Pythagorean Theorem alone! There's also websites, books written for all levels of learner, MOOCs, forums, meetups, etc.
  • If you want to learn more about a topic, a long course might not be the best way to start off. Do a little research on your own first to find out if you really want to invest weeks of time and energy into it (plus it would greatly improve the registration/completion ratio).

I love the Web and books because I can get what I need and thats it. But, before you bring up the shallows argument, believe me I read giant tomes cover to cover because once I learn a little, I want to go deeper and understand more. MOOCs are a fantastic resource, but we need to be a little less obsessed with completion rates and as my colleague says determine whether or not people are meeting their learning goals/needs. Learning is a messy lifelong process and sometimes it takes weeks/years to fully understand something.

I've always defended things like this (we seem to have shifted our ire from Khan Academy to MOOCs) not because of what they are, but because of what they could be. Formal classrooms have existed for hundreds of years, the technology powering these MOOCs are not even a decade old. Technology will catch up with pedagogy and even provide opportunities to learn in ways not easily accomplished otherwise. That's no excuse for a poorly designed class. A poorly designed online course is no better (and often worse) than its live counterpart so please think of your learner experience but also think of how the new medium impacts your content.

I'm excited that more people are talking about education and technology's role in effectively supporting it. Regardless of your opinion of MOOCs, they have made pedagogy and are making content accessible to learners a part of the national conversation. We should always defend others right to experiment (and fail) and continue to be skeptical of overhyped claims.