June 9, 2013

The changing face of education: Part 3

BY STEWART DENENBERG, Technology and Society

---- — In the first part of this series of columns, I described what a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) was and compared it to a prototype that I implemented in the ‘70s to see if we had made any educational progress over the past half-century. Don’t laugh — it took 25 years for the overhead projector to move from the bowling alley to the classroom.

In Part 2, I compared MOOCs to the present-day classroom environment and concluded that although current Online Courses have downsides (what doesn’t?), they will probably be addressed and solved, and they will be in the wave of the future for education.

In this column, I want to wrap up the discussion and address some pedagogical and political issues associated with MOOCs.

They don’t yet solve the classic problem of pedagogy: Every discipline requires mastery in two areas, theory and practice. We need both because they strengthen each other; practice helps you better understand the theory, and a better grasp of the theory makes you a more effective practitioner. But which aspect should be taught first? The pedagogical model I grew up with was always to present the theory first with a lecture and give the practice as homework. While this worked fine with me, I know that it failed miserably with many of my peers.

I was lucky enough to be taught by a math professor who used a minor modification to greatly benefit me; he always ended a lecture with a brief introduction to the next topic, then for homework we were to read the textbook’s explanation then practice with some homework problems. In the following lecture, he would continue with the theory and answer any residual questions. Years later, I realized that his solution to the “theory before practice or vice-versa” problem was to make it into an A-B-A process where A stands for theory and B for practice.

There are also B-A-B theories, where the students begin by trying to discover the theory for themselves by attempting to solve problems that fit under that theory (as you might expect, this can be very effective and/or very frustrating). As the old joke goes, “In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice, but in practice there is.” So how does all of this mumbo jumbo relate to a MOOC?

Many MOOCs have adopted a hybrid approach to the pedagogy that has the student first acquire the theory online through video lectures and other resources such as online books. Next, the students meet in online chat rooms as well as live lab sessions where they are helped by teaching assistants and by each other to solve the assigned problems on the current topic. This is a variant of the current hot pedagogy in education, the “flipped classroom,” where the lecture is delivered outside of the classroom (over the Internet) and the “homework” is done communally with guidance by the instructor during class meeting times.

With regard to the politics, there is an interesting article called “Who Owns the MOOCs?” by Ry Rivard, from March 19, 2013, on the Inside Higher Education website. The article examines not only the intellectual property issues involved when a university faculty member relinquishes their ownership of course materials they have developed to a for-profit MOOC provider like Coursera, but also raises the issue of a Union contract renegotiation. While University administration may claim that the faculty member voluntarily gives up their intellectual property rights, the Union argues that this is a broader concern and affects the livelihood of all faculty. In fact, I remember an adviser on my doctoral committee who had grave doubts about my designing a Computer Managed Instructional system, which could then be used by college administrators to replace faculty.

On a lighter note, the Inside Higher Education website has an entry by Ted Fiske, from Feb 12, 2013, which suggests new college songs for those institutions using MOOCs.

Here’s the one from Cornell:

“Far above Cayuga’s waters with its waves of blue,

Stand our noble M-O-O-Cs, glorious to view.

Massive Open Online Courses, loud their praises tell.

Hail O dig’tal Alma Mater, now called e-Cornell.”

Dr. Stewart A. Denenberg is an emeritus professor of computer science at Plattsburgh State, retiring recently after 30 years there. Before that, he worked as a technical writer, programmer and consultant to the U.S. Navy and private Industry. Send comments and suggestions to his blog at, where there is additional text and links. He can also be reached at



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