Standing Watch by, on Flickr

MOOCs and pistol shrimp in the Sea of Cortez

By Marcy Slapcoff, Teaching and Learning Services.

I think this opinion piece from the New York Times  presents an interesting and original take on online courses. Are MOOCs so highly organized (curated, is the term the author uses) that they eliminate the possibility of learning anything that is not on the syllabus, anything that cannot be easily assessed?

Great face-to-face courses create situations where everyone, including the instructor, can tackle problems together and discover something new in the process. The author describes a field course where two of his students discover what makes the the popping sound in the Sea of Cortez (spoiler alert – it’s the pistol shrimp!) The course becomes a triangle between the instructor, the student, and the world and the learning outcomes are surprising and likely to be remembered forever.

I think there is the potential for MOOCs to be designed as inquiry-based instruction, but most of what is currently out there focuses on the delivery of content  above all else. Imagine MOOCS as arenas for global citizen science – a place where instructors could help their students not just figure out the mating calls of shrimp underwater but also  grapple with the uncertainty around them and deal with unanswered questions. Thousands of students could be mobilized worldwide to address  pressing issues while learning something at the same time. Wouldn’t that be exciting??

Photo Credit: Standing Watch by, on Flickr

2 thoughts on “MOOCs and pistol shrimp in the Sea of Cortez”

  1. Thank you for sharing this. I love the last sentence of the opinion piece:

    “Rather, they are reminders that college serves purposes entirely unrelated to accreditation: courses prompt and equip students to investigate the world, leading not merely to a diploma and a salary, but to a more engaged life — not just to a richer bank balance, but to a richer existence”.


  2. Marcy: Great post, and the piece in NYT was quite interesting, also. My fear with MOOCs is (in part) exactly this – ‘full contact’ teaching is what really matters. Discussion and discovery and discovery of the unexpected provide the most amazing teaching and learning opportunities. In my field laboratory the other day, student found ‘blue crayfish’ – it brought excitement, wonder and awe. It was unexpected and prompted an unplanned discussion about pigmentation in arthropods. That would not have been possible in a MOOC. Now, in fairness, this is NOT want MOOCs promise, anyway – I think the real advantage of MOOCs is to get people excited about Higher Ed, excited about knowledge, but to get the ‘full contact’ experience means students need to enrol in non-MOOC courses, too.


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