The Netflix model of customized, easy to use selection could help revitalize the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) industry, according to Jonathan Keats at Wired. Since bursting onto the education scene in 2011, MOOCs have experienced both an increase in participants and in dropouts. As low as 5% of MOOC students are actually completing the courses that they have signed up for. This is a clear frustration for professors and producers who have put so much effort into developing this new form of distance education.
Keats suggests that MOOCs focus too much on job training, writing “the rapid retreat of MOOCs into vocational banality represents a squandered opportunity.” He cites inventor Buckminster Fuller, who presented an idea that “students would gain knowledge through ‘an intercontinentally networked documentaries call-up system, operative over any home two-way TV set'” in 1961. Keats believes that Fullers original vision was not about vocational studies but “generalism, to interest people in everything, so that they could grapple with complexly interconnected global problems.” This is how the Netflix model can save MOOCs. As Keats describes “recommendation engines like those employed by Netflix and YouTube” can “entice students to compulsively take up new interests.” A streamlined system of easy to view courses that are quick and simple to follow would allow students to study topics they are interested in, regardless of skill level and availability.
A number of MOOC enthusiasts remain confident that student-oriented improvements such as the one outlined in the Wired article –or other changes yet to be realized– will inevitably emerge. Stanford professor Mitchell Stevens, for example, remains optimistic. “I’m not disappointed with MOOCs,” Stevens reports to Stanford News, “We’re still in the horse-and-buggy stage.” Stevens is not alone when thinking that MOOCs have been successful despite their growing pains. Fellow Stanford professor (and co-director of the Stanford Lytics Lab), Candace Thille, explains that at least one major advantage of the recent experiments in MOOCs is that professors can now use this new form of online pedagogy to learn a great deal more about learning. Thille and Stevens, (along with John Mitchell) argue that the key to understanding the potential of MOOCs is understanding that they are not really “college courses. “They are a new instructional genre,” claim the authors in a recent op-ed, “somewhere between a digital textbook and a successful college course.”
This insight and other innovations (like the Netflix model that Jonathan Keats has been promoting) might well combine to infuse online learning with greater staying power in the second and third stages of its revolution. By having a simple, easy to use platform with access to a wide (almost infinite) range of compact subjects, lifelong students might eventually feel empowered to learn almost as easily as they channel surf. Of course, that means that MOOCs will have to develop greater humanities content and not just remain focused on the STEM and professional development fields that have so far been enticing the largest numbers of online registrants. Also, it might mean that online “courses” will have to become shorter and much more flexible in their commitment level, and most certainly less “massive” in their aspirations. Netflix, after all, succeeds in part because it understands the needs and habits of niche viewers. It might well be the ironic consequence of the MOOC experiment, that ultimately it proves to be transformative in our approaches to individualized learning.