May 12, 2013

The changing face of education: Part 2

BY STEWART DENENBERG, Technology and Society

---- — In the previous column, I discussed some of my reactions to the arrival of the MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) into the world of Education. Initially I was interested in comparing online courses of yesteryear with this new entry and particularly in comparing ACCOLADE (A pretty good online computer-managed instruction system that I designed and implemented in the early 70s) with them. Like many comparisons in real life, there were tradeoffs — pros and cons on each side of the ledger — but I had to give the edge to the MOOCs. In this column I want to examine the next and more important question: What are some of the Pros and Cons of using a MOOC vs. the traditional classroom?


In theory, a MOOC allows Mastery learning. Unlike a conventional course where the learning period is fixed (usually one semester or 15 weeks) and the grades vary between E (failure) and A (Excellence), Mastery Learning has only two outcomes: Mastery of the subject or Not Yet Mastered and the time period allowed for completion of the course varies amongst the students. Like the US Army: you keep at it until you’ve mastered the subject; some take longer, some don’t. In a nutshell: conventional classes vary the grades and fix the time period while Mastery Learning varies the time period and fixes the grade. Additionally, the student has opportunity to engage in self-paced learning and evaluation.

Students in large classes are more likely to speak out on the email/chat room portion of a MOOC than they would be in a live classroom.

Ability to reach a truly massive number of students in one course — while there is a low bar for admission, to receive credit the bar can be set as high as the instructor wishes.

In a large, globally offered course there is going to be much more diversity in age and culture and thus each student benefits from being exposed to diverse and different points of view. Student’s perspective is broadened.

Cheating on exams can be controlled in some ways better than large conventional courses through the use of video cameras and computer software.

MOOCs offer a way for administrators to lower the cost of college.


Students are less polite in their communications. While a face-to-face encounter softens our criticisms, electronic media acts to disassociate personal responsibility from the conversation and the results can range from uncomfortable to downright nasty. This behavior, seen also on bulletin boards, blogs and chat rooms is known as “flaming”.

When students take a live class they usually have the opportunity to meet with their advisor and teachers; they live in an environment that supports the goals of learning and are thus more motivated to attend the course.

A video lecture provides no nonverbal feedback to the teacher from the students (blank stares, gazing out the window, sleeping) and thus the teacher cannot take steps to make the presentation more interesting (take a few minutes break and ask the student next to you to explain a concept that is still puzzling).

It takes a teacher in the range of 100 to 200 hours to produce one hour of video; this requires a huge startup cost and commitment by the teacher. Interestingly this has not changed much since the ‘70s.

Although MOOCs may be a way for administrators to lower the cost of college, they threaten to replace teachers — thus jobs are lost and the unions are busted. 

Initial data show completion rates are low — in the 10 to 20 percent range.

Assuming the Cons can be addressed, MOOCs seem to be the wave of the future, but take a moment to recall the promises made about TV in the 1940s and even into the 50s. TV was going to replace bricks and mortar schools and we could all be educated from home. And what do we have now: five hundred channels of Infotainment, at best. My guess is that we will see hybrid systems with a mixture of live and online classes which will vary by discipline — there are good reasons to deliver a poetry and a science course in different ways.

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