Wednesday, December 5, 2012

World's got Talent: Devlin on MOOCs

I read a provocative piece called "The Darwinization of Higher Education" by Keith Devlin, in which he makes a persuasive case for the talent sniffing abilities of MOOCs (massively open online courses).

He contends that the putative goal of such courses (mass education) has less to do with their real benefits:
Forget all those MOOC images of streaming videos of canned lectures, coupled with multiple-choice quizzes. Those are just part of the technology platform. In of themselves, they are not revolutionizing higher education. We have, after all, had distance education in one form or another for over half a century, and online education since the Internet began in earnest over twenty-five years ago. But that familiar landscape corresponds only to the last two letters in MOOC ("online course"). The source of the tsunami lies in those first two letters, which stand for "massively open."
Rather than focus on 90% of the students who drop out, identifying the few dozen who survive and flourish gives one an easy way to scour for talent. Quoting (emphasis mine)
At the level of the individual student, MOOCs are, quite frankly, not that great, and not at all as good as a traditional university education. This is reflected (in part) in those huge dropout rates and the low level of performance of the majority that stick it out. But in every MOOC, a relatively small percentage of students manage to make the course work to their advantage, and do well. And when that initial letter M refers not to tens of thousands but to "millions," those successes become a lot of talented individuals.  
One crucial talent in particular that successful MOOC students possess is being highly self-motivated and persistent. Right now, innate talent, self-motivation, and persistence are not enough to guarantee an individual success, if she or he does not live in the right part of the word or have access to the right resources. But with MOOCs, anyone with access to a broadband connection gets an entry ticket. The playing field may still not be level, but it's suddenly a whole lot more level than before. Level enough, in fact.
I've already seen numerous anecdotal variants of this model of talent identification work in the realm of open-source software. In fact, the employer of one of my grad-school room-mates found him via his presence and contribution to the Linux ecosystem.

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