Stephen Greenblatt will not take questions.

22 05 2013

Continuing in John Henry mode, imagine a contest between a living, breathing professor and a MOOC. The professor is teaching a classroom full of students. The other students are watching the superprofessor on video alone in their rooms, wherever in the world they happen to be. Who’s going to win?

Well, I can tell you right now that any history professor who did nothing but lecture in 15 minute chunks, following up on each chunk with a single multiple-choice question, during a job interview would never be hired at any university I’ve ever encountered. Good teaching always involves a give and take between the instructor and the student. When they don’t understand what you mean, you explain it to them a different way. You don’t repeat the same words over and over again (which is all Daphne Koller wants students to hear). That’s just one of many reasons why the live professor would beat the MOOC coming and going. It wouldn’t even be close.

What the MOOC does have is reach, but that’s the product of the medium by which it’s delivered, not the quality of education that MOOCs provide. Do we really want to sacrifice quality for access? If we educate the entire world and do nothing to solve systematic unemployment, the inferior education students get will not be worth whatever the MOOC providers try to charge for it.

That’s why the Harvard MOOC crew is trying to convince themselves of their own humanitarianism instead of just admitting that they’re in it for the money. This is from that Harvard graduate college alumni magazine article I cited the other day but which still isn’t online yet:

“The information glut has killed the Socratic method,” [Robert Lue, Faculty Director of HarvardX] says. “We have too much stuff to tell students, so we don’t have time to talk to students. Online learning will give us the opportunity to return to the primacy of human interaction.”

Problem 1: Socratic method? Really? What are students going to do, interrogate each other? Doesn’t there have to be an actual teacher involved in the conversation for the Socratic method to even apply?

Problem 2: Cutting down what you have to tell students so that they remember the important parts is the most important part of teaching! Indeed, I’ve been struggling with teaching history in a Googlized world for years now. As a result, I teach fewer facts and more skills because you really can look up just about every fact there is on the Internet. If MOOCs really are just jazzed-up textbooks, teaching complicated skills would be the most difficult thing possible to do with them.

With so many good justifications to oppose MOOCs available, perhaps the funniest thing about this Harvard grad college article is that even opponents there oppose MOOCs for elitist reasons:

“I’m afraid that this is going to destroy grad students,” one professor told me. “Not because of what it will do to elite universities, but other places. Why should a community college hire a new PhD when they can pipe in Stephen Greenblatt?”

Because Stephen Greenblatt will not be around to take questions.*

Yes, I appreciate some concern for the welfare of grad students, but nonetheless take a moment and think about the arrogance on display here. This anonymous denizen of Harvard Yard is assuming that Harvard professors are so much better than everyone else that merely their taped presence can improve upon the teaching of a living, breathing human trained anywhere else** – that someone who’s as accessible as the pope or Thomas Pynchon can teach you more than someone you can talk to during every class for the entire semester (and in office hours if that’s not enough). The Western Governors University experience suggests otherwise:

“In reviews of the school, one complaint is repeated ad nauseum, the lack of interaction with an actual professor. Students of Western Governors University often feel as if they are paying to teach themselves. There are “mentors” assigned to each student to help them get acclimated to online classes and assist them in any way they need, but the time between questions and answers is reported to be less than stellar.”

With MOOCs you don’t even get a mentor. How they expect to get anyone to pay for this kind of shoddy treatment someday is completely beyond me.

This is why I’ve decided to go completely over to the position long held by my friend and future debate partner, Historiann. MOOCs are a bubble. They’re like tulips, Florida real estate and Pets.com all rolled into one. It reminds me of the time I bought 100 shares of stock in the restaurant chain Boston Market. “They’re always packed,” I said to myself. Little did I realize that the company was losing money on every customer. I eventually lost everything I had paid for the shares.

Unfortunately, much of the money MOOCs will make will come from already cash-strapped universities, probably from funds that currently pay most of our salaries. Therefore, we non-superprofessors still need to work hard to end MOOC madness before it ends us, despite this new technology’s many obvious flaws.

* I feel bad for picking on Stephen Greenblatt because 1) To my knowledge he isn’t even teaching a MOOC and 2) I liked The Swerve (although I also enjoy Dan Brown novels so take my recs with a grain of salt). Still, having found such a softball question like that one, how could I not swing for the fences?

** Come to think of it, this also applies to professors trained at Harvard. After all, I got this article from a Harvard alum. It must have pissed him off too.

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13 responses

22 05 2013
RAB

Today’s Chronicle (referred to by one of the not-so-stellar former presidents of the University of Bridgeport as the “university administrator’s industry newsletter”) has two puffy pieces on MOOCs. Soldiering on….

22 05 2013
tt

i did not like “the swerve” at all

22 05 2013
lissajuliana

So true. The weirdest thing about the MOOC craze is how it enshrines the idea that in education, one size fits all. It’s as if the only real problem is that Harvard doesn’t have enough physical seats for everybody in the world.

22 05 2013
Historiann

Thanks for the linkie, Jonathan! Have you seen the completion rate at WGU, BTW? It’s pathetic, and it’s not even MOOCified (yet!)

22 05 2013
argumentfromlogic

I made a response to this post on my blog. It can be found here: http://argumentfromlogic.wordpress.com/2013/05/22/john-henry-fought-the-wave-and-the-wave-won/

22 05 2013
CIP

The other side of this is that if the traditional U is to survive, it will need to emphasize those things the MOOC can’t do. From what I distantly recall, my only interaction with my college history prof was watching him from the middle of a bif auditorium with several hundred others, and getting back graded multiple choice exams a couple of weeks later.

I don’t think that you can persuade profs to forswear teaching MOOCs, or students to stop taking them unless you offer a clearly better alternative – and the best chance of that means a lot more personal and interactive teaching.

22 05 2013
Sporch Ezza

My interaction with my college history prof was asking him some clarifying questions after class, having a conversation in a cafeteria with him and a few others about his experiences as a political prisoner, and receiving detailed suggestions for improvement on a rough draft of my term paper. How’s that for personal and interactive?

23 05 2013
Andrew Hamblin (@ticviking)

That’s Great, if your professors are that accessable

24 05 2013
Friendly guy

The MOOC movement may be a bubble, but I think that it does offer a serious challenge to our profession that we should engage with: what do we provide that you can’t get online?

The answer is that we can provide face-time. And expert feedback.

And I think we have to recognise that contact with students is the value that we add. Institutions, too, must start to value this.

31 03 2014
Successful parasites never kill their hosts. | More or Less Bunk

[…] jobs and education will suffer because we professors do it better. That’s not just because Stephen Greenblatt will not take questions. It’s that we’re all right there every step of the way to monitor progress and provide […]

5 05 2014
The flipped classroom is decadent and depraved. | More or Less Bunk

[…] most class content to be transmitted that way on tape, the least interactive way possible (since Stephen Greenblatt will not take questions)? Learning from peers in small groups is, of course, another option in flipped classrooms, but if […]

23 05 2013
Historiann

Yeah, that’s why we’re history professors: we ignore as many students as possible so that we can get back to our mostly unfunded and largely uncompensated research. I assign only papers and essay exams because I don’t care at all about the writing or reasoning skills of my students–I just throw them down the stairs and let gravity do the grading for me. I teach graduate and undergraduate research seminars merely for the pleasure of mocking my students’ ignorance of historiography, Chicago-style citations, and the correct use of the apostrophe. I hold office hours to laugh in the faces of the students who bother to come to me for assistance, and I have an email address only to ignore the students who write to me with questions about their coursework. I read and write books not to keep current with my profession and to stay intellectually alive in the classroom, only to revel in my intellectual superiority and relish all of the delights of the mind I’m hiding assiduously from my students.

Your ignorance of and contempt for our work is duly noted.

23 05 2013
Andrew Hamblin (@ticviking)

So these complaints, repeated over, and over, and over again by students have no basis in their experiences?

I took intro to US history at a small community college where I was lucky to have professors like you. Who would hold extra book groups in the cafeteria. One of the math professors stopped by the dining hall twice a week to help with homework. Each class was well below Dunbar’s number and my instructors knew me(even when I wished they didn’t out of shame).

When I transfered up to the big State University and due to a fluke in credit transfers wound up having to re-take some entry-level courses. Sitting as one of 200-1000(largest section I sat in) students in a lecture hall, listening to lectures and waiting in line for office hours completely changed the dynamic.

A MOOC isn’t better than what you want to provide, and isn’t better than some of the awesome seminars I got to take. But, it is sure as hell better than what many students are getting. I would rather take a MOOC and have the option to schedule class around my time, and take those quizzes in real time, than go to Bio 1010 at 9am(latest section offered) and sit with 1000 other students with my iClicker and do get the exact same experience from my perspective.

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