In a recent Minding the Campus essay, Benjamin Ginsberg, professor of political science at Johns Hopkins, worries about Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). … Ginsberg, though he has no beef with smaller online classes, is among the denouncers of MOOCs. … he does fear that cost-cutting administrators at other institutions will happily embrace a “curriculum in which students watch canned lectures and take computer-graded exams.” Such students “would receive a paltry and pathetic education.”
As a course of action, Jonathan Marks reports, Ginsburg proposes to withstand the MOOCification of curricula. Part of it is to name and shame professors who teach courses through MOOCs and their schools. Marks finds this advice wanting and suggests we first set out to 'think more seriously about the merits and limits of MOOCs'. His argument for why we should do so, is strong. Unfortunately, the article is weak on fleshing out this point of evidence gathering. Marks propagates what is approaching the status of an urban myth, that we know very little about the learning effects of online learning. This is simply not true. Distance teaching universities have researched media use for at least 25 years (cf. http://sco.lt/7jAgoT). But closer to home for Jonathan Marks, in 2009 already Barbara Means and co-workers published a meta-study that resulted from "A systematic search of the research literature from 1996 through July 2008. [It] identified more than a thousand empirical studies of online learning" (http://tiny.cc/n15kzw). And then there is the study by William Bowen Marks himself discusses.
So there is evidence but, as Tony Bates among others has pointed out, it is the wrong kind of evidence. In these studies a course taught through different media, say face-to-face and purely online, is studied for differences in learning effects. The aim is to attribute the superior learning results of either one version of the course to the medium through which it has been taught. However, 'medium' is not a genuine single factor, it bundles a lot of differences under one rubric. So face-to-face is about a particular professor with a particular teaching style, a particular class size, particular means to support his or her teaching, etc. Similarly, online is about a particular LMS or VLE, about a particular quality of the resources, a particular instructional design behind the online course, etc. As Tony Bates puts it; "… different media can be used to assist learners to learn in different ways and achieve different outcomes" (http://tiny.cc/5t6kzw).
In my opinion, therefore, if we want to know about the merits and demerits of MOOCs, we need to follow a design-based approach. We need to pick a particular course to turn into a MOOC, then develop an appropriate instructional design for it and improve that in a number of cycles. Only then we can start asking questions about effectiveness, efficiency, satisfaction, accessibility and the like. We may never be able to say in an unqualified way that the MOOC version of a course is as good as or worse than the face-to-face version. "It depends" should be the answer, and the real knowledge resides in what it depends on. Critics and evangelists of MOOCs alike will have to make do with this, anything else would amount to deceiving themselves. (@pbsloep)