Sunday, July 7, 2013

A MOOC is NOT a Textbook

When I first started using video lectures from Jennifer Widom's Database MOOC and Andrew Ng's Machine Learning MOOC in Spring 2012 for my courses at Vanderbilt, I was worried about what people might think.  I did at least two things in response. One, I started creating my own online content that others could use; giving back made me feel much better about using the content of others. Two, I cast the MOOCs as "multimedia textbooks", just the next step in a natural evolution (e.g., At the time I really did think of a MOOC as something of a "textbook." But the fact is that a MOOC is NOT a textbook, multimedia or otherwise, perhaps an obvious truth that I only reconsidered recently as I prepared for a panel presentation ( at AAUP 2013 (

Others have also advocated MOOCs as multimedia textbooks for reasons of promoting acceptance by skeptics of online education, and while MOOCs may contain material that will become part of such textbooks, MOOCs aren't textbooks per se. I think that MOOC-offering organizations acknowledge this, perhaps implicitly, in that they are entering into agreements with other resource providers, like textbook publishers, so as to augment the MOOC experience (e.g.,

Beyond stating the obvious, I am thinking aloud here about how community-developed, online, multimedia textbooks might arise.

The authors of even a mediocre textbook aspire to be somewhat comprehensive in their coverage of a field, almost always including more material than any one instructor would cover in any one course, and as importantly, a good textbook will synthesize across that material. A good textbook supports large-scale customization, as different instructors at different universities create their own course variations, each anchored by the same textbook. By and large, MOOCs aren't (yet!) designed with customization in mind. Like other courses, a MOOC is a single trajectory through a single selected subset of a field's content. Some MOOCs (and online courses before the 'MO' movement) have multiple tracks, and this is a BIG innovation relative to what's typically done with an on-campus course. Each track is a trajectory, and the differing, albeit overlapping tracks of a MOOC represent a step towards supporting choice and customization, but only a step.

While supporting limited choice, a MOOC still covers only a small part of the material that a typical textbook might cover. A textbook for artificial intelligence (e.g.,, for example, will often cover natural language processing (NLP) by computer, and different computational approaches in this area, but its rarely material that I cover. This is another example of a textbook providing the freedom to follow one of many different tracks, some that include NLP, and some not.

While courses, online or otherwise, support limited choice of trajectories through material, online repositories of educational content, such a TeachingTree ( or even YouTube ( on a much larger scale, support "unlimited" choice and customization -- these latter resources are UNDER-constrained in terms of choice, just as MOOCs are OVER-constrained, at least if we want to start thinking of such resources as "textbooks." A good textbook, one might argue, is "optimally" constrained, providing enough choice for instructors to follow different trajectories, but also providing enough structure, constraints, and guidance so that the choice is not overwhelming!

Repositories of online educational material are growing, providing ever increasing choice for educators and learners, but as yet, these repositories provide insufficient constraints and guidance on how choice can be effectively navigated for course customization. There is interest and work in using crowd-sourcing, through mechanisms such as Wikimedia, to build structure on top of these resources (e.g.,, but I think that it will take dedicated authors, working individually or in small groups, to step up to the plate and synthesize across these online resources if we are to see good-quality multimedia textbooks -- resources that effectively tradeoff choice and structure -- not too under or over constrained.

So, perhaps I overreacted in saying that a MOOC is not a textbook. Rather, along this continuum between over and under constraint for purposes of supporting customization and diversity of content and teaching style, a MOOC, or any other course for that matter, lies on the over-constrained end, something of an impoverished textbook at best -- though it may in fact be an excellent course!

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