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Can MOOCs Replace Traditional Textbooks?

MOOC content can be a valuable addition to course materials, but more experimentation is needed.

Take any college textbook these days, and chances are there's a massive open online course out there on the topic. And with so many online resources available, some educators are beginning to question the value of the traditional printed textbook.

"Textbooks are expensive," noted Peter Tsigaris, professor of economics at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, British Columbia. "And almost all the information is available online. If something else exists that is almost a perfect substitute, and is much cheaper, why would you buy something that is a lot more expensive and outdated?"

The tipping point for Tsigaris came two years ago when he determined that available online material was "just as good" as any textbook. He experimented with the idea, using resources such as MOOC content in place of a required text. "MOOCs help organize the information for you," said Tsigaris. "For the students' textbook, I use the Saylor Organization, which is based on the Creative Commons [license], and you can take the material without any copyright issues. Plus I added the Khan Academy to my lectures, and PowerPoint slides, so the students had quite a bit of information."

Tsigaris spends a lot of time sorting that information and steering students to relevant links or helpful MOOCs. "I tell students that these MOOCs are available and feel free to go and register," he explained. "A 7- to 8-week Coursera course from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign was offered near the same time as my course. I told my students, 'I give you my lectures and my examples, but please feel free to take this online course that is free, and go watch the videos of the instructor there, and you get a different perspective, different examples, and different explanations.'"

David Schuster, assistant professor at San Jose State University (SJSU) in California, uses a similar approach to flip his statistics course. "My Stat 95 course utilizes a model where students do inside of the class what is usually done on the outside of the class and vice versa," he explained. "Instead of coming to class to passively watch a lecture," students review lecture content at home from Udacity, developed by professors in the SJSU psychology department. There is still a text in Schuster's course, but it is recommended and not required — students use it as a reference guide.

Schuster evaluates other online resources on a case-by-case basis. "If I thought it would be useful, I would adopt it," he said. "The main question is does it include an accurate representation of the material, and is it pedagogically sound? You have to ask, 'What is it going to do for the student's learning?' I'm not willing to just embrace something because it's new technology."

Tsigaris agreed that technology is not an end in itself. Rather than relying on MOOCs for core course content, he frequently uses them in creative ways, such as extra credit. "With a certain Coursera course, I told my students, 'If you complete this course, and you ping me the certificate, I will give you three extra marks at the end on your grade for my class,'" he noted. "Seven completed the MOOC. Two were A+ students already, but the other five were B-range students. I surveyed them and asked if it helped. They said yes, it did."

Still, the MOOC landscape continues to evolve, and the role of MOOC content vs. textbooks remains unclear. One thing is sure in Tsigaris' mind, however: Change is inevitable, and experimentation is key. "I tend to experiment," he said. "If it doesn't work, I'll get back to what I used to do. I'm not worried about changing. Because there were a minority of students who wanted a textbook last time, next time I will offer an a la carte menu.

"If you want the textbook, you can use it, and I'll tell students how much it will cost," he continued. "If you want to use the online version, then you can use it, and this is what it will cost. And if you want to use free material, you can. So students can select whatever they feel comfortable with, as opposed to requiring one particular textbook."

About the Author

Greg Thompson is a freelance writer based in Fort Collins, CO.

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