A Small-Business Owner Goes Back to School the MOOC Way: Part 3, the Textbook

March 18, 2013 — Leave a comment

This is the third post about my experience taking a MOOC (massive open online course). In part 1, I discussed the basics of the class and shared my early thoughts about the Coursera experience. In part 2, I expressed my frustration with the course assignments and humbly admitted to failing the second assignment.

The Introduction to Finance course is now into its seventh week, and I have fallen behind. In part this is because I made the common-sense decision to skip the assignments from here on out. It was clear from the second assignment, which I failed, that I was not going to be able to pass future assignments given the time I was willing to commit and given the lack of course support for struggling students like myself. Interestingly, I posted a note on the class discussion forum about my blog series, and several fellow students responded there (as they did in comments to this blog) to admit that they were having the same problems that I was: they found the assignments poorly designed and highly frustrating to work through, with no resolution at the end. When you don’t know why you missed a question, or how badly, it’s pretty difficult to learn anything from the experience.

In any event, having tossed the assignments overboard like so much excess baggage, I have continued to watch the video lectures, which I find informative and interesting. That said, without the need to keep up with the assignments, there is no longer a deadline on my video watching. I have thus fallen behind the weekly schedule, but this doesn’t concern me too much, since I’m doing the whole exercise for my general edification anyway.

MOOCs and Textbooks

In all of the fevered discussion about MOOCs that is taking place in higher-ed circles, one consistent theme is that MOOCs may replace traditional textbooks. Given my experience with my finance MOOC, I could see this happening. However, it depends on the subject area in question and on how we define a “textbook.”

In the case of the finance MOOC, the professor has suggested several “optional” textbooks, including one that is available for free online. They are optional, however, because they mainly cover the same ground as the professor does in his lectures, albeit with perhaps more depth. In other words, finance (at least this particular course, taught this particular way) is one of those disciplines where the typical lecture involves a basic introduction and explanation of fundamental tenets and concepts. Since those are the very things covered in a traditional textbook, I could certainly see how MOOC lectures could begin to supplant the textbooks in many areas.

Even in history courses, for all I know there are still professors whose lecture style involves a methodical transmission of the basic facts/events/themes in question—the very things covered in traditional history textbooks. However, my guess is that it’s more common for history classrooms to feature discussion based on readings that students have been asked to do prior to class, whether those readings consist of a textbook, primary sources, journal articles, or monographs.

Whatever the case, a MOOC cannot consist of class discussion, at least not as presently designed. It can really only involve the more traditional form of lecturing, with the professor expounding on main facts/events/themes. So here again, where we see history MOOCs being developed, I could imagine that they could proceed without any textbook.

Next-Generation Textbooks

However, at least in the area of history—and I suspect many other disciplines—traditional textbooks are beginning to morph into hybrid digital tools that blend a “textbook” with so-called courseware: assessments, primary documents, and so forth. Witness Cengage’s MindTap or Pearson’s MyHistoryLab or our own Milestone Documents. Unless I’m mistaken, the first two are still grounded on specific existing textbooks. (Milestone Documents is not.) Nevertheless, will MOOCs replace these?

My guess is, hardly likely. Certainly one could picture a MOOC being developed that creates not only the video lectures but also ALL supporting tools and elements from scratch. But this is an extremely expensive proposition, and I can’t see institutions going to this level with their MOOCs.

Instead, schools may well partner with the big education providers to incorporate their already existing digital courseware bundles into specific MOOCs. But in this scenario, the “textbook”—if we can still call it that—survives. It should be to no one’s surprise that the textbook giants have maneuvered themselves into a position of power. MOOCs replacing Pearson? Don’t make me laugh.

In my opinion, the whole discussion about MOOCs and textbooks is incidental to the much bigger issues of faculty retention/replacement, student benefits (or lack thereof), cost, and the general defunding of public education, at least in the United States. I’ll add my two cents to some of those issues in my next post.

Neil Schlager

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