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The Coursera Gift Horse?

On multiple occasions, a friend or family member not in the field of education has asked me for my opinion of Khan Academy. Maybe they saw Sal Khan on 60 Minutes or a teacher has introduced my friend or family member to KA.

My response usually goes something like this: “I have a few concerns about KA. First, I wish Sal Khan would tone down his rhetoric. He has created a huge set of open educational resources and made it available for free. For that, he should be commended. But, he has neither invented something particularly new, nor is he about to ‘revolutionize’ schooling as we know it. A little humility and recognition of those who have come before him in the field of both math education and educational technology would be nice. Second, I’m concerned that Sal Khan is “posing” as an “expert” in areas where he has little formal training. He’s moved on from math to other subject areas, and I don’t understand  why he’s given so much legitimacy. Finally, I know of quite a few math educators who I greatly respect who have serious concerns about the pedagogy of KA and also about some of the content. There may be good uses of KA (such as, perhaps, having kids watch videos looking for possible errors), but I would like to know more about the implications of KA for learning math before fully embracing KA.”

So, the last two concerns boil down to Khan’s credibility with respect to what Lee Shulman called pedagogical and content knowledge.

Yesterday, on Twitter, I wondered allowed if the criticism of Khan Academy would be muted if this was, say, Bertrand Russell instead of Sal Khan. In a larger sense, I was asking: “What if the world’s foremost experts were creating tutorials and sharing their content knowledge with everyone for free?

Well, guess what? They are. See e.g. Coursera, Udacity, edX, etc.

The criticisms of these so-called xMOOCs have been loud and clear (at least among those I interact with online). I have some of my own concerns about these companies, too. But, I have been thinking a lot lately about these MOOCs and framing them as open educational resources rather than just courses. Today, I began my foray into a Coursera course on Social Network Analysis (SNA). I’ve learned a decent amount about SNA, largely on my own, but the depth of my knowledge is pretty limited and there are gaps in my understanding of SNA. Now, I have an opportunity to learn more about SNA from Lada A. Adamic, an associate professor in the School of Information and the Center for the Study of Complex Systems at the University of Michigan. She’s a prominent expert in social network analysis employed by one of the great research universities in the United States; she is doing some really interesting work in the field. I get to take a course taught by her. For free. On a subject I’m really interested in. So, what’s the problem exactly?

We can quibble with the quality of the learning experience. I’m only a couple of videos in and I can already think of tweaks I’d make to the platform. And, maybe I’ll get tired of the didacticism after a while. But, for now, I’m pretty excited about this opportunity. I’m not going to fret about MOOCs destroying higher education as we know it. I’m not going to wring my hands about the loss of humanity from learning through a machine. I’m not going to look this gift horse in the mouth.

[Image credit: AJC1]

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