Lessons From the MOOC, and a Defense of Classrooms

This year, I started flipping my first class.  Flipped classes have a lot in common with Massive Open Online Courses.  Therefore, as I read more about MOOC’s, and what makes them successful, I asked the question:  How can I use the concepts of a MOOC to enhance my flipped class?


Most of these ideas are very realistic and, to be honest, already in use in my classroom (though I’d like to do more!)  However, “trusting students” to the point of not monitoring their progress is probably setting them up for failure.  It must be remembered that MOOC’s are, by and large, aimed at adults.  Many students, even at excellent schools, just don’t have the wisdom and experience to realize that careful pacing is not optional if they want to be successful.

What is so wrong with the classroom?

Prominent education writers are coming up with some serious language:

“staying with classroom-based schools could permanently sink our chances of rebuilding our economy and restoring our shrinking middle class to its glory days.”

“the classroom has been obsolete for several decades” — Prakash Nair

Perhaps I am just more reluctant to change than I realize, but I don’t see the fundamental problems of the classroom.   Was it built to serve the needs of the industrial revolution?  Perhaps.  Does that mean that having a group of learners physically together, in one room, with a common goal and a guide to help them, is such an inherently flawed system?  And what would you rather replace that with–lonely students hunched over their laptops in their beds?

I would argue that the classroom is actually a the ideal foundation for learning, and we just need to optimize it.  It seems that arguments against the classroom are not aware that classrooms, in fact, can change!  For example, “As students and teachers do better when they have variety, flexibility, and comfort in their environment—the very qualities that classrooms lack.”   Classrooms being built now are full of comfy furniture, customisable workspaces, natural lighting, and (most importantly!) charging ports everywhere you turn.

Nobody seems to be mentioning the fact that face-to-face social interaction, even if it is a fraction of classtime, has huge value, and that is lost when we go online.  Social isolation is a real, growing, and dangerous problem, and interacting via MOOC’s, forums, Blackboard, messaging, etc. is not a replacement for being in the same physical space as your peers.  Sure–give students the option to watch a lecture on whatever device they want, or learn the content by reading a textbook in the window-couch, the floor, the bean-bags or the desk.  But have them do it in the same room,  with their peers nearby, so they can learn to be happy, healthy, socialized adults.  As Susan Blum points out, “Humans are and must be both embodied and enmeshed in social networks,” both real and virtual.

The classroom is not the problem.  We just need to reconsider what a classroom has to look like, feel like, function like.  In my discipline, a laboratory is an excellent environment and I wouldn’t suggest any fundamental changes.  Do these ‘classroom critics’ think that chemistry should be learned solely through simulations viewed on screens?   If I had a blank check, I’d simply ask for  more of what we currently have:  larger seating areas (a few couches would be nice–but don’t take my desks!), more glassware, more datalogging equipment, and more time.

It seems to me that “the classroom” is often the scapegoat for standardized education. If you have a problem with standardized education–fair enough.  But lets not throw the baby out with the bathwater.  Shared learning spaces are good things. There is no reason that little Johnny, who is really interested in the way things burn, can’t do his learning in the same space as little Jiwan, who loves to experiment with plants.  In fact, there is undoubtedly going to be a synergy that occurs with this shared space and differing (but related) goals.  The root of most of the problems with our education system stems from our obsession with holding all students accountable to a set of pre-determined, content-based standards, not with the concept of a room full of learners.

19 Responses

  1. “Nobody seems to be mentioning the fact that face-to-face social interaction, even if it is a fraction of classtime, has huge value, and that is lost when we go online.” – I’m very much in agreement with you here, Ryan. Great post and important perspectives you’ve shared. It’s funny considering I’m sitting here in a coffee shop assessing Coetail posts rather than being home – even though I’m only a 2 min walk from my condo and all its comforts. It’s simply because I often find that I work best when in a somewhat social situation. Perhaps it’s my ambivert nature but I can’t work as effectively home in silence. The nature of more successfully working independently but together has been a known factor in the rise of coffee shops – check this out: link to jstor.org

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