before MOOCs, there were MOTVCs

Massively open online courses (MOOCs) are a hot topic in higher ed. I was surprised to learn that massively open courses are not a recent trend. Over the holiday break, I learned about my family’s participation in the precursor to MOOCs: massively open TV courses (MOTVCs).

First, a little back story. Both of my grandparents met during college, where they were both economics majors at different universities. My grandfather is a member of the greatest generation: he took a break from college to serve in the Navy during World War II, and he and my grandmother married soon thereafter. My great-grandfather’s blessing on their marriage was conditional on my grandmother graduating from college. He wanted her to receive her B.S. degree and not just an M.R.S degree.

My grandparents had seven children, an amazing feat in itself. As a stay-at-home mother, my grandmother got the bug to go back to college and to eventually start a career. Going back to college was not an option at the time.

Starting in 1956, the (now) local PBS affiliate WTTW experimented with TV college courses for credit [Link]. My grandmother took part in the new form of education. She watched lectures on TV and took tests at a local university:

Working in conjunction with Chicago’s Board of Education in 1956, WTTW became the first station in the country to televise college courses for credit via its TV College. Chicago-area students were now able to enroll at one of the participating junior colleges and attend classes at home in front of their television sets. Having access to a full junior-college curriculum, within five years approximately 15,000 students had enrolled for credit. A decade later, TV College’s yearly report noted that 80,000 people had enrolled for credit with an overall viewership estimated at 10,000 per broadcast.

I found some differing information on another web site, that claims that the courses started in 1951 and “served” 200,000 students. My grandparents didn’t have a TV until 1952, so the 1956 date rings true. But perhaps there were precursors to the 1956 WTTW courses.

Eventually, my grandmother went back to college to finish her degree (in psychology, I think) in a traditional classroom setting. She became a grade school teacher.

MOOCs and MOTVCs were similar in that the courses were free and available to all, and they were sponsored by existing universities and junior colleges. MOTVCs could yield college credit, and MOOCs seem to be moving in that direction (although there is some debate about that). Currently, MOOCs give a certificate of completion, not college credit. I could not find out about how much taking an exam for a MOTVC cost, but it was likely the rate for a regular junior college course (cheap in 1956).

There are a few other differences. MOTVCs had a smaller course catalog (there were only so many stations in 1956, the pre-cable era), so it was not possible to earn an entire degree via TV. It may have been possible to get something like an Associates degree on TV over the course of a few years. Degrees may be possible in the future with MOOCs, although I think it is unlikely (different universities offer different courses, and they probably could not be cobbled together to yield a degree). And MOTVCs served only those in the Chicagoland area who were free during the day time (not high school students and others who worked during the day), so they did not scale in the same way as MOOCs and did not serve as diverse of an student body.

I haven’t seen anything on the lessons that MOTVCs could give us about how to price and “count” completed MOOC courses, but it seems like there are some important lessons there.

Do you know anyone who took a MOTVC?


6 responses to “before MOOCs, there were MOTVCs

  • Dan Black

    In the UK the Open University broadcast academic “lectures” for many years late at night so people could record them for their studies. Most British people over the age of 30 will reminisce about occasionally watching these programs, which all seemed to be made in the 1970’s, when up at an odd hour (usually after coming home from the pub).

  • Daniel Lemire

    I’ve been repeatedly telling people that we have lots of experience with distance learning that should taken into account. One data point is that peopke who go through learning distance programs are better, not worse, the people who attend lectures. Simply put: they are much better at figuring out things on their own.

    We know also that about 20% of all students can’t succeed without live interaction… and we know that presence on campus helps people complete their degrees faster and more reliably.

    A very significant difference with the recent online courses is cost. The time alone required to put together a conventional distance learning course is prohibitive for most professors. And they can’t be updated: you make the course once and milk it for years. Moreover, in a conventional distance learning course, grading is all done by hand… so they aren’t really cheaper. Finally, conventional distance learning have to be self-contained… we can now assume that the web is available (e.g., wikipedia provides a basic reference). This reduces the need to produce very thorough (and expensive) courses.

  • Roger Bohn

    Daniel Lemire’s points are good ones. But I still worry that the history of education in American is littered with 1) fads of all kinds, and specifically 2) claims that XYZ new communication technology would revolutionize higher education.
    Yes, technology has helped education, certainly. (Does anyone know a source for the explanation, by a school board, of why paper and pencils were unnecessary expenses, given that a chalkboard was perfectly adequate for teaching writing? I read about this many years ago.) But true revolutions are rare. An example of a computer-revolution-that-hasn’t-happened: discussion conferences where discussions continue after class. These are technically straightforward, and the infrastructure exists and is used (e.g. Blackboard and others). But so far, I have seen approximately zero examples of massive changes created by such discussions, for all their promise.

    So I take the lack of impact from MOTVCs as yet another bad sign for MOOCs.

  • Will MOOCs revolutionize education. History says the odds are against it. | Art and Science in Technology - Roger Bohn's Blog

    […] A recent post on another blog about the Open TV course movement reminded me that TV was once receiving similar game-changing forecasts. I’m sure it accomplished a little, but it never got much traction and came nowhere close to its hype. The post was on Punk Rock OR, and it gives some history that I didn’t know about education by TV. […]

  • Roger Bohn

    OK, I was inspired to make a post on my own blog on this. Your history reminds me that previous attempts to replace classrooms have ALL failed. See

  • Laura McLay

    Thanks, Roger! I enjoyed your post.

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