Coursera is silly. Educational technology news has been all a-flutter over the last few months about the work that Coursera is doing to bring higher education into the open. But I tell you what: I signed up for one of their classes — a course on Science Fiction and Fantasy from the University of Michigan — only to discover something really startling. Really: startling.

For six years, I worked at the Community Colleges of Colorado Online (CCCO), a personnel-challenged, entirely adjunct endeavor that provides online courses to all thirteen community colleges in the state. Three of those six years, I was Program Chair for the English Department. All of our courses were run in a Blackboard learning management system (LMS), and consisted primarily of discussion forums, assignments submitted online, lectures delivered by text and audio, and online exams. During my tenure as chair, I worked to innovate the English classes to include open access course materials, greater and greater student interactivity, and a social “classroom” where students could go to work together, share ideas, even gossip. I left the position, and the school, four years ago.

Granted, I’ve only gotten a glance at what Coursera is doing; nonetheless, they appear to be offering the same brand of content that CCCO offered a decade ago — but without the innovations and interactivity available when I left the school. The one extra thing they’ve added are video-taped lectures by well-known professors — professors who, it turns out, don’t actually teach the course (I received an e-mail from a course “staff member”).

Something seems to be very wrong. Virtual education has come a long way. Today, we have applications that allow for synchronous dialogue between teacher and student, and between students; we have the ability to situate content from anywhere on the web inside our courses; we have the choice to teach a class through an LMS like Canvas or Blackboard, through Twitter, on Facebook, through a blog, Google Docs, and more. The possibilities for online teaching are impossibly varied.

Broadcasting Education
But that’s not what Mark Edmundson noticed and wrote about in his New York Times editorial of July 20, 2012. “Online education is a one-size-fits-all endeavor. It tends to be a monologue and not a real dialogue … This is particularly true of online courses for which the lectures are already filmed and in the can. It doesn’t matter who is sitting out there on the Internet watching; the course is what it is.”

I know a lot of online educators who were incensed by Edmundson’s views. Not only was his article based on the evidence of one “pre-filmed online course from Yale”; but his criticism comes from someone who doesn’t even have a Twitter account. More than anything, though, it was his lack of research that upset seasoned virtual teachers. Brad Rathgeber, Director of the Online School for Girls, parries Mr. Edmundson nicely when he says, “online education has been pushing the envelope over the last ten years to create more and better personalized learning for students, giving students choice in instruction, format, time, learning needs, learning styles, and more.”

And while I applaud Rathgeber’s insistence — and accuracy — I need to ask: If online education has made so much progress, why isn’t it more obvious? Why are the good folks at Coursera (who are actually just now catching up to those of us who’ve been doing this for a decade) getting all the attention, while also not putting the best face of online education forward?

Online teachers and course designers have more available to them now than ever in the way of interactive, collaborative tools their students can use to create community, and that they can use to inspire learning in virtual and hybrid environments. So, why are we seeing what some critics of Coursera, EdX, and Khan Academy call the return of “educational television” that institutions experimented with in the 1960s — lectures “in the can” from instructors students can’t even e-mail, call, or tweet?

That Beast, the MOOC
For many critics, the massive open online course (MOOC) of the sort that Coursera and EdX offer points specifically to the problems of online education: the divorce from meaningful student-teacher interaction which is the irreplaceable secret ingredient to learning. Edmundson says that: “With every class we teach, we need to learn who the people in front of us are … Teaching, even when you have a group of a hundred students on hand, is a matter of dialogue.”

I couldn’t agree more. There’s nothing like a spontaneous exchange between students and teacher to liven up a lesson plan and to bring learning home. At the same time, I couldn’t agree less with Edmundson that this isn’t possible online. The loss of flesh-and-blood students was the one thing I bemoaned when I entered online education; and it was the one thing I worked hard to reestablish. I was working with what are now considered antique technologies — today, that interactivity is absolutely possible. It’s already happening in online classrooms that fly under the radar.

Jesse Stommel reminds us in his article, The March of the MOOCs: Monstrous Open Online Courses, that “MOOCs are all untapped potential” and “MOOCs are trainable.” In reality, the shapelessness of the MOOC approach, the vast chaos of it, can likely contribute much more to resurrecting that important connection between student and teacher than can any other form of online learning. Edmundson himself says that “Every memorable class is a bit like a jazz composition. There is the basic melody that you work with. It is defined by the syllabus. But there is also a considerable measure of improvisation against that disciplining background.” And if there is any online educational approach that percusses the way jazz does, it’s the MOOC.

What’s needed is a willingness to innovate, to experiment, to play and be played with. The mistake that Coursera and its brethren are making is to oversimplify, to allow courses to be boiled to the bones, removing all the meat before serving to students. If what’s necessary for learning is a measure of improvisation, personalization, and pushing the envelope, then we need to free the online classroom from the rigor of threaded discussions, the bind of the LMS, and the bathos of the canned lecture. We need to create online spaces that are more than just auditoriums, and make them classrooms again.

[Photo by AurelioZen]