MOOCs and Hype in the New York Times

A month and a half after Sebastian Thrun announced that he was taking the pilot Massive Open Online Course (or MOOC) he co-taught through Stanford University last year to the Udacity platform as a for-profit venture, the New York Times has caught up with an article on MOOCs.  The title of the article, “Instruction for Masses Knocks Down Campus Walls,” signals the tone, as do paragraphs like this:

Welcome to the brave new world of Massive Open Online Courses — known as MOOCs — a tool for democratizing higher education. While the vast potential of free online courses has excited theoretical interest for decades, in the past few months hundreds of thousands of motivated students around the world who lack access to elite universities have been embracing them as a path toward sophisticated skills and high-paying jobs, without paying tuition or collecting a college degree. And in what some see as a threat to traditional institutions, several of these courses now come with an informal credential (though that, in most cases, will not be free).

Under the circumstances, I feel justified in unleashing my inner curmudgeon.  While I certainly wish MOOCs and their students the best, there’s no reason to think they’ll do much displacing of more traditional models, for good or ill.  Why is that?

1. MOOCs are an incremental development in distance education, not a revolution; no matter what their proponents claim.  The Internet may have made distance education faster and more convenient, but even the MOOC isn’t changing a basic format that’s been around since paper correspondence courses, and on broadcast media since at least 1971 – when Open University broadcast its first on BBC TV.  As Audrey Watters explains over at Hack (Higher) Ed we’ve been promised that computers would revolutionize how we teach for more than 40 years.  Now that the revolution has arrived apparently it involves talking heads, PowerPoint slides, and problem sets, delivered at a pace … that’s basically the same as before. In fact,

1a. MOOCs are just scaling up one of the least effective learning models we have.  One thing you’ll never city in the advertising for a MOOC is the slogan “Just like a first-year lecture, but much much bigger.”  There’s a lot of talk about “virtual office hours” and online discussion forums, but that too is just mimicking the usual lecture format.  In pimping the format, Thrun says:

“In a classroom, when you ask a question, one student answers and the others don’t get a chance,” Mr. Thrun said. “Online, with embedded quizzes, everyone has to try to answer the questions. And if they don’t understand, they can go back and listen over and over until they do.”

If that’s the peak of pedagogy, we’re in serious trouble here.  Lots of lecture classes do quizzes – graded, un-graded, diagnostic, for attendance, etc. I have a hard time seeing how “try, try again on your own” is such an improvement that Thrun feels like “I’ve taken the red pill, and I’ve seen Wonderland.”  Heck,

1b. MOOCs lose many of the fringe advantages of physical lectures.  Yes, you never need to ask your neighbor to borrow their notes because you missed the last lecture, but you also never get to ask your neighbor for anything else, or study with them, or learn about what they’re doing.  Yes, attendance rates in large lectures are dismal, but only 1 in 8 students completed Thrun’s pilot course.  Obviously, paid attendees are more likely to keep up with work than those who signed up for a a free course on a lark, but no one has really addressed the issue of  online absenteeism.

Of course, these disadvantages may be outweighed by the increased reach of the MOOC, but they pale in comparison to the wider issue of how broadly the Stanford MOOC model can be applied.

2. MOOCs will be almost impossible to provide for courses that aren’t entry-level in the pure or applied sciences.  While too many humanities and social science courses adopt the large lecture format out of necessity, they also include both small section tutorials and writing assignments.  Both of those are instructor-intensive and almost impossible to scale to 100,000+ students.  The first-year courses I took only a decade ago had me writing at least a ten-page paper each term for each class.  Even in classes where substantial essays are not pedagogically necessary, there’s likely to be enough writing to overwhelm any non-automated system.  Even computer scientists need to write in their daily work, and no MOOC is likely to be able to handle that task.  Furthermore, once you get beyond classes where a single textbook is sufficient, you have to get your students access to resources that aren’t freely available.  Even Ignoring how much isn’t online, the scholarly literature is locked behind jealously-guarded paywalls that are unlikely to just come tumbling down without a great deal of hard work.

Finally, of course, there’s the issue of what exactly one gets from a MOOC, apart from what any lecture course can provide.

3. No MOOC will go far without a prestigious brand, and no university or corporation is likely to risk their brand on such a risky venture, especially since they aren’t in the business of selling what a MOOC is selling.  The combination Google-Stanford imprimatur that got Thrun’s first course so much attention was a fluke, especially since neither organization is in the business of licensing out its name for this sort of thing.  Nor, frankly, is an elite university likely to get tied up in one again; they are committed to creating not just knowledge but also exclusivity.  MOOCs dilute the brand because they aren’t limited to the “best and brightest,” and because they can’t create the interchange between students that is also an advantage of those schools.  Nor do they match the intensive on-campus experience.   Ironically enough, considering the frequency of calls for universities to ditch research and focus on better undergraduate teaching, nowhere in the Times article is there any comment on the quality of instruction.  No rave reviews, no student evaluation scores; if we are really looking to bring good education to everyone, shouldn’t there be a little bit of interest in whether that education is good or not?  I doubt that any of the pilot MOOCs weren’t well taught, but it’s a sign of just how much coverage is relying on that Google-Stanford brand as a presumption of quality.  And without that elite brand, a MOOC is more like Open University – a new option, but not a revolution.

If all of this seems a little harsh, it’s because a lot of the hype about MOOCs seems devoted to providing a techno-savior that can override the basic truth that quality in education costs money (does it cost $40,000 a year?  probably not, but that’s nothing but a notional sticker price; for a family with an income of $130,000, Harvard costs $17,000 a year).  MOOCs point out the disadvantages of the pure large lecture format, but that’s always been a format of last resort rather than a pedagogical goal.  If MOOCs really are knocking down campus walls, we need to make sure they’re putting up something in their place that can carry the educational load.

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