Home > Uncategorized > MOOCs and Mastery: Irresistible Forces

MOOCs and Mastery: Irresistible Forces

November 1, 2013

Two NYTimes articles triggered my regret that I didn’t finish the book I started eleven years ago whose working title was Beyond Factory Schools. After retiring from as Superintendent from an upstate NY district I reflected on the current state of education at the time (this was when No Child Left Behind was just taking root) and the nascent technology and thought that the time was ripe to abandon the factory model for schooling and replace it with what I called the Network School. The title of this blog is an indication that I haven’t given up on that notion.

Tamara Lewin’s article “US Teams Up with Operator of Online Course Course Provider to Plan a Global Network” describes the USDOEs work with Coursera to provide “learning hubs” that will provide an opportunity for online students to“…discuss course materials, and meet at least occasionally with a teacher or facilitator.”  The learning hubs will provide a way for MOOC providers to assess student progress using some measure other than a standardized bubble test, thereby undercutting some of the criticism leveled against on line learning.

Are You Competent? Prove It” by Anna Kamenetz describes the new metrics being used to measure learning: competency tests as opposed to seat time. The article offers a brief history of competency based instruction and summarizes the direction education is headed in one paragraph:

Mr. Merisotis of Lumina says that deconstructing curriculum into abstract, interrelated competencies like these is the way of the future for all programs, whether based on assessment or credit hour. “What you’re seeing is a growing recognition that all postsecondary credentials should have competencies that students can demonstrate as a result of their education,” he says.

I wrote comments in response to both articles that made reference to Chapter 6 of Deschooling Society by Ivan Illich, a book I read as a graduate student in the early 1970s, well before laptop computers, cell phones, and the internet. The title of the chapter is “Learning Webs” and it envisions a world where education is deinstitutionalized and replaced by learning exchanges that are accessible throughout ones life. Fittingly, the book can be downloaded for free. I believe that THIS is where the abandonment of the Carnegie Unit and MOOCs are leading us. Instead of education being provided in factory schools it will be provided in an individualized ad hoc basis and assessed by teachers in a new form of “public education” based on measuring mastery instead of courses completed.

When this new form of schooling displaces our current model self-actualized learning will be valued from the outset, freeing students to explore questions THEY want to answer WHEN they want to instead of following an age-based lockstep curriculum sequence defined by academics…. in short, the Factory School will be replaced by the Network School as described in the chart below:


Factory School: One-Size-Fits-All

Network School: Personalized

Purpose of Schooling Earning credentials Becoming a self-actualized learner, independent thinker, and compassionate member of society

Student Grouping

Age cohorts By mastery cohorts, if at all
School Organization By grade levels By mastery cohorts

Rate of instruction

Mean rate of cohort Personalized: Based on Student Learning Profile (SLP) developed by parents, instructor(s), and, if applicable, case manager
Method of instruction Approach that meets the needs of majority of cohort Personalized: Based on SLP developed as above
Delivery of instruction Large Group based on common text(s) Personalized: web-based, tutorial, and small group

Motivational Theory

School-wide system of rewards and punishment Personalized: Based on SLP developed as above

Definition of Intelligence

Velocity: The rate of learning Capacity: The amount a student learns

Basis for Student Assessment

Cohort Referenced: Comparative ranking based on rate of learning of student cohorts as measured by standardized tests


Academic: All student performance measures based solely on academic performance


Criterion Referenced: Mastery of learning objectives defined in SLP developed as above


Holistic: Student SLPs would incorporate some means of measuring “self-actualization, independent thinking, and compassion”

Basis for School Assessment

Cohort Referenced:

Comparative ranking of schools based on percentage of students scoring above minimum cut score

Criterion Referenced:

Description of how groups of students are performing vs. SLPs; Description of services provided to students failing to achieve SLPs; standardized report on parent, student satisfaction

Daily Schedule

Six hours for all Customized, flexible

School calendar

Agrarian for all Customized, flexible

Provision of Social Services to Students

Fragmented – Each agency gathers student information independently, treats student in isolation Integrated – Teacher/case manager serves as single point of contact, teams with other providers to share information, provide integrated services

Stay tuned… MOOCs and Mastery testing are irresistible forces in the rebellion against spiraling tuition in colleges and standardized testing in public education. Now… I’ve GOT to get back to that book!

%d bloggers like this: