Mass engagement

October 18, 2012

Within just a few months, the term "Mooc" (massive open online courses) has jumped from one used by online-learning cognoscenti to the stuff of Times Higher Education opinion pieces by Alan Ryan ("Massive black mirror", 4 October) and articles by John Hennessy, president of Stanford University ("Virtually it's our best shot", THE World University Rankings 2012-13 supplement, 4 October). This shows that deep thinking about technology-enhanced learning is taking place away from the narrow field of learning technology.

Ryan is right that Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig's online computer science course of 2011 was massive, open and online, and therefore a Mooc. But he missed by far the most striking thing about the course (which I know because I spent five to 10 hours a week for 10 weeks as one of its students last year): despite its 160,000 enrolments, 50,000-plus active students and 20,000 completers, the course made us learners feel that we were receiving one-to-one instruction from Norvig and Thrun. As Rob Rambusch, a fellow student of mine, put it: "The class felt like sitting in a bar with a really smart friend who is explaining something you haven't yet grasped but are about to."

Ryan is right to suggest that Moocs, badly implemented, would be a fix that fails, eliminating the effort by learners that is a necessary but insufficient condition for learning. But Thrun and Norvig's course engendered focused and mass engagement in learning at extremely low cost. It is this success that justifies the attention that Moocs and other large-scale learning technologies are getting.

Seb Schmoller, Former chief executive of the Association for Learning Technology

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