So Jeremy Adelman has discovered my now long series of posts about his MOOC. I am heartened that his response has been incredibly gracious and I compliment him on his willingness to accept constructive criticism, which he gives as good as he gets. This is from the comments of my last post:
Jonathan: but you describe the course and the students in such a condescending way. (1) It’s hard to see how anyone would get anything out of it in your narrative. And yet, thousands are. (2) This course never claimed to replace traditional college courses; it’s one part of an existing college course that has the added benefits of creating accessible points for the rest of the world. One problem with the rhetoric around MOOC’s is that they are overburdened with expectations — and now fears. They are only one piece of a larger puzzle. If we can’t think of higher education in complex ways, the system is doomed.
I responded to that comment in those comments, but since they’re more than worthy of a post of their own I’m going to take them here in reverse order.
2) I believe that Jeremy has no intention of replacing his Princeton course with his MOOC. However, lots of people like the Wall Street Journal and the Board of Visitors of the University of Virginia obviously have other ideas. I don’t blame any super-professor for trying to teach the best MOOC they can. However, anyone who ignores the current state of labor relations in higher education as they try to bring education to that masses is going to hurt a lot of innocent professors and Ph.D. students in the course of achieving that goal.
1) With respect to the course itself, I never said that I wasn’t getting anything out of it. In fact, I’m certain Jeremy’s right that lots of people are learning lots of the same interesting World History facts that I am. But that’s not college. And as long as there are institutions of higher learning willing to give course credit for MOOC completion (and there are already), then I think that’s the only point of comparison that should matter.
Am I being too harsh here? If people get something out watching the lectures, but not doing the assignments is that good enough to call the MOOC experiment a success?
Irrespective of my interests and the interests of a lot of us other non-super-professors, treating this kind of higher education simulation as if it’s a higher education is a huge change in the basic assumptions behind education in general. Although they don’t mention online education specifically (but do cover for-profits), Aaron Bady and Mike Konczai have a really helpful article in Dissent which explains the death of California’s higher education Master Plan:
What has succeeded the Master Plan is no plan; instead of committing to make room for all students, the state now educates only those it has room for. When supply of a good or service is capped, economists expect first to see price increases and then to see rationing. And although the skyrocketing price of higher education has been most widely felt, the rationing of classes that teach necessary skills may prove to be just as much of a challenge.
“We’re not really cutting off access to the humanities,” the plutocrats will tell us soon. “Interested students can always take a MOOC.” The onus of education is on them then. They have to take time out of their busy schedules to listen to video lectures. If they have questions, they can ask their classmates in the online forum rather than ask their professor during office hours. Nobody will make them read the textbook. They have to be self-motivated.
I don’t think it’s condescending to point out that most people are not self-motivated. As my hero Nick Carr explains in the NYT, we can flash more information in front of people’s eyes, but that not’s the same as real learning:
It’s a fallacy to believe that dispensing more information more quickly will, in itself, raise the general level of public awareness. To be informed, a person has to want to be informed, and the percentage of Americans demonstrating such motivation seems to have remained pretty stable, and pretty abysmal, throughout our vaunted information age.
When people (like me) who want to be informed butt up against the structural limitations inherent in MOOCs, they’re going to get really, really frustrated. The best possible MOOC would try harder to overcome those limitations and inspire people to work harder, not accept those limitations as the new normal. This doesn’t mean that I think all MOOCs must die. My position is not to cut off this option, but rather to make sure that’s it’s not most people’s only option.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m behind on watching this week’s lectures.