Wednesday, February 26, 2014

MOOCs and the Church of Reason

Greetings from the Australian National University in Canberra, where Professor Anant Agarwal, President of edX, and a panel of experts, is discussing "Blow up the lecture? Is the traditional lecture on the way out?". For those in Canberra, there will be a further presentation at 5:30pm this evening and for others there will be a podcast version.

ANU is currently accepting enrolments for its first two edX on-line courses: Engaging India and Greatest Unsolved Mysteries of the Universe.

In my own view is that neither lectures, nor MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), are the future of university education. Lectures, live or via video, are a useful supplement to an education program, but are not essential. As Robert Pirsig detailed in his Church of Reason” chapter of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Pirsig's fictional character, a teacher and computer software documenter, argued that the physical university campus was not the real university, it was the community of scholars. This foreshadows  today's discussion of the on-line university.

Four years ago I gave up giving lecture based university courses and have been teaching ANU masters students on-line in an asynchronous (non-real-time mode) using text based materials. Where possible, I supplement this with some video materials and students can arrange to drop and and see me (or on-line in synchronous real time mode). But research shows that while students like to see and speak to their lecturer and to watch videos, this does not improve their learning outcomes. So in my view lectures, and their on-line equivalent, should be offered as an optional extra for the mainstream of education, which will be on-line, task based and text rich.


  1. Photo by David Burke (@Orangedrummaboy).

    1. Yes, as the caption says, the photo is by David Burke: