Education Trends

Where MOOCs Miss the Mark: The Student-Teacher Relationship

February 8, 2013
Image credit: ajc1 via flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The mistake about MOOCs (massive open online courses) is that they discount the central component of effective teaching -- the relationship forged between student and teacher.

Sure, students around the world gain access to previously inaccessible and unimaginable content from some of the world's renowned universities and professors from MIT, Harvard and Stanford. These students can grow inspired by the possibility of absorbing information through online lectures and platforms, as 12-year-old Khadija Niazi of Pakistan explained recently at the World Economic Forum. The New York Times reported, "Ms. Niazi has been taking courses, free so far, from Udacity and Coursera, two of the earliest providers of this new form of instruction. Her latest enthusiasm is for astrobiology, because she is fascinated by UFOs and wants to become a physicist."

This is nothing short of amazing and shows the flattening of the education world. Thomas Friedman celebrates the power of the MOOC: "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."

However, MOOCs make a key assumption that the students enrolling in these courses have a certain degree of motivation and are reasonably adept self-starters as learners.

The Importance of Belonging

For students who know what they want and when they want it in terms of online content, MOOCs are a fabulous new option to build and construct personalized learning ecosystems.

Unfortunately, for many learners, MOOCs lack the possibility of mentorship and close guidance that comes through the building of a meaningful relationship between student and teacher.

One student who was exposed to Khan Academy lectures in a math class commented that she much preferred listening to her math teacher explain the same concepts because she likes this teacher and feels comfortable asking questions and going for extra help outside of class. This student-teacher bond is more challenging to develop and sustain through online learning, which by its design is constructed through distance and the tubes of the Internet.

The fact will always remain that great teachers inspire through their passion for their subject and their ability to communicate and connect with students in face-to-face interactions and relationships.

Noted author and blogger Annie Murphy Paul writes: "The level of comfort we feel in another person's presence can powerfully influence how intelligent we feel, and in some sense, how intelligent we actually are, at least in that moment. Now multiply that one-on-one interaction by tens or hundreds, and you start to get a sense of how important a sense of belonging to a learning community can be."

MOOCs are not yet able to cultivate the sense of belonging in "another person's presence." Not to mention that the completion rate of MOOCs is quite low. According to The New York Times, "Less than 10 percent of MOOC students finish the courses they sign up for on their own." While the exposure to great content is alluring, the lasting impact may be fleeting unless MOOCs can figure out a way to establish the relationship piece between students and teachers.

Do you have any experience with MOOCs? How might MOOCs begin to connect content with relationships?

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