Are MOOCs the new textbooks?

By Gregor Kiczales posted on December 4th, 2013

One way to think about the role that MOOCs may play in undergraduate education is to call them the new textbooks.

That’s a comfortable characterization of MOOCs. They will evolve to play a content delivery and reference role similar to that of textbooks. We understand how they fit and our existing structures will not need to change that much. Sure we’ll flip the classroom, and of course we will spend more on IT, but the basic dynamics of the university classroom won’t change that much.

But I’m not sure MOOCs are going to stay quietly in that cubbyhole.

One significant difference between MOOCs and textbooks has to do with the role of author. With a textbook the author is a fairly passive player in the classroom. Unless the writing is truly exceptional, their persona does not intrude in the course in a big way. The instructor is the primary force in the course, and this is something faculty regularly take advantage of to distance the course from the textbook when they need to.

But the presenter of a MOOC is not likely to be a passive player in the same sense. Video is a dynamic medium, that used well can establish a significant emotional connection between the speaker and the audience. This is already clear in some MOOCs, and as production gets better and better this emotional quality of the courses will only improve.

What’s more, MOOC instructors are always at their best. They never have an off day. They never have a pressing grant deadline. All those bad takes got edited out. The students will also always hear them clearly, and when they don’t, the MOOC instructor will patiently repeat what they said. As many times as the student wants.

Kevin Leyton-Brown told me during his Game Theory MOOC that he got email from participants who said they felt like he was their friend because they had been watching him on video. Browsing through forum postings from the last week of any number of MOOCs you will find many students talking about the personal impact the MOOC instructor has had in their lives. I’m not aware that the authors of many biology textbooks get this kind of fan mail.

One impact of this is that instructors may find it emotionally much more difficult to teach with a MOOC than teach with a textbook. With a textbook it is easy for the instructor to be not just the expert, but also to have it be their course. With a MOOC that might be harder. Indeed some reports from flipped classrooms suggest instructor discomfort with using video in which they are not the presenter. It’s hard to say how this will play out, but it’s worth asking ourselves do we only throw textbook authors under the bus[*] for good reasons (they are wrong)? Or do we sometimes do it for other reasons (we want to establish ourselves as primary in the eyes of our students). Either way, MOOC presenters aren’t going to be as easy to cast out of the room as textbook authors are.

Another big difference between MOOCs and textbooks is that a MOOC producer can more productively reinvest income than most textbooks. Unlike a book a MOOC is an inherently rapid-cycle development project. (The story about shooting it once and then it runs itself is among the most questionable of MOOC claims.) Each time a MOOC runs it can be improved – indeed to remain competitive it probably has to be improved. This is not just about re-shooting videos. Data from prior runs can be used to improve in-video and post video quizzes. Short custom videos can be shot to play in response to specific wrong quiz answers. Assignments can be changed, added, linked together. Adaptive learning techniques can be used to develop an interactive suite of practice problems for students. There’s no end of work that can be done. All of which is expensive, but if the MOOC has a leading position might be affordable.

This means that MOOCs are a far more natural platform play[*] than textbooks. The MOOC technology inherently supports offering multiple different versions of the course, or breaking the course into modules that can be used in different ways by different consumers. This modularization also costs money, but again, leading MOOCs may be able to support that.

This aspect of MOOCs may tend to offset problems arising from the emotional presence of the MOOC presenter in the classroom. If what emerges is an ecosystem of modular MOOC platforms, then we may see that for many courses instructors don’t “simply follow” a single MOOC. Instead they use a number of MOOCs as resources (what Keith Devlin calls MOORs) and develop a curated collection of elements for their own course.

I think there are other important differences between MOOCs and textbooks. But blog posts, like MOOC videos, shouldn’t be too long.


Gregor Kiczales is a Professor of Computer Science and Provost’s Fellow for Flexible Learning Strategy.

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