The revolution in university… extension programs

Last summer and this, my daughter and I have been slowly working our way through the online lectures in Leonard Susskind’s second trimester of PHY 25 (The Theoretical Minimum: Classical Mechanics).1 We just finished the fifth lecture this weekend, a delay largely accounted for by our having different diurnal clocks (or, rather, my having a diurnal one and my daughter having a more nocturnal one) and my dithering over parts of two summers. As the physics major, my daughter is getting more out it than I am, but I have vaguely remembered enough vector calculus to follow some of Susskind’s discussion of the Noether theorem and related stuff. (I married a Bryn Mawr math major, so I know who Emmy Noether is and where she’s buried: Bryn Mawr College’s cloisters walkway.) It has been thoroughly enjoyable in an “ow, my brain hurts from that” sense.

But probably like the attendees in Susskind’s lectures, the vast majority of those viewing any iTunes U material, and many in various MOOCs, I do not see this as a standard college class, no matter how educational it is. First, I have done nothing for this experience other than watching lectures and having my mind blown (and given my limited time, I am glad I am not trying to work problem sets). Second, there has been little interchange with the bulk of others experiencing these lectures (other than talking with the sole other person in the household viewing them). For anyone who has the delusion that MOOCs currently could serve as an equivalent of college classes for the majority of viewers, I urge you to read the perspective of someone who first dropped out of a MOOC and then finished a second one, such as Audrey Watters’s columns at Inside Higher Ed.

On MOOCs as educational experiments, I will defer to the judgment of others with more expertise in online education, other than one observation about experiments — most experiments instruct through failure and frustration. We should expect failure with MOOCs for a good long time and be very suspicious of any claims of instant success in educating a broad majority of users.

On the other hand, online lectures, MOOCs, and similar efforts to broaden the reach of universities do serve a public purpose in the way that extension programs do, by providing access to university-based expertise. In that way, iTunes, Youtube, and MOOCs all have immediate utility and justification. I am delighted that anyone with an Internet connection can learn a little about poetry and physics online. We just shouldn’t expect these online opportunities to be more than what they are.

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  1. At least according to Amazon, Basic Books is publishing a book written from all six extension courses in early 2013. []