“Please remember that your professors are human and it’s hard work to stand in front of a hundred pairs of eyes and talk for an hour. In the last decade, students seem more and more to regard us as if we’re behind a screen, and seem to think they can talk, read, sleep, or just stare at us glassy-eyed without it having any effect on our performance. This is a shared enterprise. It’s hard to lecture to an apparently disinterested sea of eyes. If you don’t think a lecture hall is intimidating, take a minute after class some day to stand behind the podium and look at all those seats. Then imagine holding the attention of everyone in those seats for an hour, two days a week. Wouldn’t it be easier if the people there seemed interested? You don’t have to act like you’re watching U2, but do try to make it clear your heart hasn’t actually stopped beating.”
- Heather Cox Richardson, University of Massachusetts, from “Richardson’s Rules of Order.”
I like that quote well enough that I use it on my U.S. survey syllabus (with attribution). I’ve spent far too much time freaking out about the effect of technology that I don’t control on my classroom, so my general solution is to meet students half way.* Put on a good show, and I can hopefully command their attention. As a result, students should learn much more than if they spend fifty minutes a week playing with their phones while I drone on in the background.
Superprofessors can put on a good show too, but they have no way of knowing whether their show is being well-received. Apart from the labor implications, I think what bothers me most about MOOCs is the general tendency from Coursera and elsewhere not to care how their courses are being received? You’re dropout rate is 95%? “Don’t worry,” they tell us. “It’s just a MOOC.” Perhaps that’s because one of the most appealing things about MOOCs from a financial standpoint is that once you’ve got the superprofessor on tape, you don’t have to change the lectures at all. The whole machine can run itself. Any impetus to make contact with the instructor has to come from students or no contact will occur at all.
Much to his credit, Jeremy Adelman is doing his best to overcome this structural defect for his world history MOOC. If you want to reach him, you can find him in the forums fielding questions. If you want to send him tiny parachutes of pedagogical wisdom (just like in “The Hunger Games”), you can find him on this very blog.
Which is why I’m writing about my decision to violate my favorite of Richardson’s Rules of Order with some trepidation. You see, I didn’t do anything at all on the MOOC last week. First I had to finish proofing my book manuscript; then, like a third of the population of the state of Colorado, I got the stomach flu. Then I spent Thanksgiving weekend with my in-laws on the top of a mountain outside of Boulder. Now I’m looking at four plus hours of lectures to get through even though I have a faculty development grant due today as well as other forms of non-teaching related bureaucracy.
My solution is that as soon as I finish typing this post I’m going to treat Jeremy like a podcast. He’ll be talking away on my office computer while I type away at something else on my laptop. I know Jeremy doesn’t mind – What’s he going to do, fail me? – but I’m still bothered by the whole thing because I believe in the bond between professor and student. I’m going to break that bond because I have to and because I can.
How is this different from the problems that Richardson confronts in her rules for face-to-face classes? Even in an ordinary online class, the professor is tracking the progress of all the students in the class. They might not read every comment on the discussion forum, but they at least know how many times each student has logged into the LMS. Despite Jeremy’s efforts, he can’t be everywhere at once. He’s a superprofessor, not Superman.
It’s not just that you’re on your own kid in a MOOC. It’s that the powers that be don’t really care whether you finish the course or not. That strikes me as a monumental change in the assumptions behind higher education about which I have seen absolutely no comment. It reminds me of the Clinton/Republican position on welfare reform. Education is now a “hand up” if you’re willing and able to take it rather than an obligation upon society to help you. Why any so-called “liberal” academic would accept this paradigm shift is completely beyond me.
Perhaps they’re all “well-meaning liberals” in the Mario Savio sense of that phrase. We all know how Clark Kerr’s university-as-firm vision has worked out, don’t we? Why on earth would we want that firm to get even more impersonal?
* That’s also my solution to the student reading problem, as I explain today in a new post at the blog of the Historical Society.