education's digital future

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JOURNALISTS, AS 2013 ended, were busy declaring the death of MOOCs, more formally known as massive open online courses. Silicon Valley startup Udacity, one of the first to offer the free Web-based college classes, had just announced its pivot to vocational training — a sure sign to some that this much-hyped revolution in higher education had failed. The collective sigh of relief from more traditional colleges and universities was audible.

A new study by researchers at Glasgow Caledonian and Harvard Universities has found that massive open online courses (MOOCs) miss the opportunity to exploit the knowledge and expertise of those studying in them.

Funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, it is the first study to examine the learning behaviours of professionals in MOOCs – free, online courses with unlimited participation offered by some of the world’s leading universities.

What if you were admitted to Stanford not for four years at age 18, but for six years you could use at any time in your life? What if you declared a "mission" rather than a major? What if your transcript displayed not the courses you have taken, but the skills and ideas you have put to work in the world?

A year ago, every public school student in New York State fell under the watchful eye of InBloom, a data analytics company. Schools sent the company an enormous batch of data spanning 400-odd fields that included a wide range of personal details, from test scores and special-education enrollment to whether kids got free lunches. The idea was to compile enough information so teachers or software could tailor assignments to each student’s needs.

Students in massive open online courses are apt to take a passive approach to learning, avoiding collaboration with others, seeking only passing grades, and therefore not retaining new knowledge, a new study has found.

Researchers at Glasgow Caledonian University surveyed about 400 students who were taking the Harvard Medical School’s “Fundamentals of Clinical Trials,” a MOOC intended for health professionals and offered through the U.S.-based platform edX.

In a pilot program with Coursera, the New York Public Library plans to organize meet-ups at which people taking massive open online courses can gather and discuss the courses with help from “trained facilitators.”

The partnership is part the MOOC company’s effort to build an infrastructure for in-person learning around its free online courses. Research has suggested that MOOC students who receive offline help earn higher scores on their assessments.

We’re currently looking at points of skepticism about flipped learning and the flipped classroom. In the last post, we discussed the issue of students objecting to the flipped classroom because it is nothing more than having students teach themselves the subject.

Last year Coursera announced partnerships with international organizations to expand the number of its massive open online courses available in foreign languages. Now the for-profit MOOC provider is going a step further by establishing a Global Translator Community in which individuals will volunteer to help translate lectures.

I had to take a bit of a hiatus for the last two weeks to finish up the semester and to give and grade exams. Now that this is over, I wanted to come back and address some of the comments in these two posts. Specifically, many of those comments are principled skepticisms of flipped learning and the flipped classroom, and rather than bury my responses in an already crowded comment thread, I thought they deserved to be brought up point by point for discussion.

Les Perelman, a former director of undergraduate writing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, sits in his wife’s office and reads aloud from his latest essay.

"Privateness has not been and undoubtedly never will be lauded, precarious, and decent," he reads. "Humankind will always subjugate privateness."

Not exactly E.B. White. Then again, Mr. Perelman wrote the essay in less than one second, using the Basic Automatic B.S. Essay Language Generator, or Babel, a new piece of weaponry in his continuing war on automated essay-grading software.

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