This January Thomas Friedman wrote in the New York Times,  “There is one big thing happening that leaves me incredibly hopeful about the future…Nothing has more potential to lift more people out of poverty — by providing them an affordable education to get a job or improve in the job they have. Nothing has more potential to unlock a billion more brains to solve the world’s biggest problems. And nothing has more potential to enable us to reimagine higher education.”

The beacon of hope that Friedman was referring to is the MOOC (Massive Open Online Course).


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Massive because they enroll thousands of students and open because they are free and accessible to everyone with a computer.  They provide students around the world with instruction from professors who had previously been locked behind the gates of elite universities.

For example in 2012 20 teenagers in Mongolia enrolled in a course on circuits and electronics normally taken by MIT sophomores.  Twelve of the students earned certificates of completion.  One of them, 15-year old Battushig, received 100% on the final exam. 

This democratizing of education has many believing that MOOCs will leverage education to improve the lives of people across the globe.

In a blog for Inside Higher Ed, Tracy Mitrano suggests that MOOCs could be the launching pad for what she calls “global education” (an idea that aligns beautifully with our description of what school could be).

Mitrano explains that MOOCs could help “create collaborative courses” that “strive to apply ‘the basics’ to real, contemporary global challenges” such as global climate change or eradicating starvation globally.

MOOCs, however, aren’t all sunshine and rainbows.  Unlike traditional online courses, students do not receive credit for MOOCs (hence the free part).  In addition as their name implies enrollment can be massive (on the order of 1,000’s of students) so feedback, individual support, and even grading are difficult.  Quality and student completion are also concerns.


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Clearly the debate on MOOCs is far from over, but when you consider MOOCs though the lens of disciplinary thinking there are so pretty amazing pluses.

For one, teaching students to understand and apply the thinking of a discipline requires faculty with deep disciplinary thinking themselves.   Developing that content knowledge and figuring out how to teach it to others effectively is not easy.  Having a few incredibly well-designed courses by disciplinary experts could go along way to improving instruction in this area.


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Consider this, instead of every physics 101 teacher in the world designing a course that teaches students to think like a physicist (with uneven success), a few  brilliant physics teachers, professors, and experts could collaborate to create a super course which would be free and available to all.

What about that individualized support and feedback we all know is so important?  Students would still need that.  Even though the content of the course is being delivered by experts in this MOOC scenario, teachers would need to continue to do the invaluable work of supporting students directly by helping them process and apply what is being presented.

It might look something like this:

Critical input about disciplinary thinking = MOOC

Coaching in application and feedback = peers and teacher

In this scenario, students would learn about the thinking of the discipline from experts and apply that thinking in a collaborative and supportive environment.  Moving education in this direction would undoubtedly result in challenges, but the question is: would it work better than what we do now?  And if so, how do we make it happen?

MOOCs might not be a silver bullet, but they are steaming into the world of education with enough force to create genuine change. Our charge is to figure out  how we can shape that change to realize the Friedman’s hope – unlocking young people’s brains to solve the world’s biggest problems.