“You’ve all got to work it out for yourselves!”

3 07 2013

So last night Aaron Bady (better known as @zunguzungu to his legions of Twitter followers) tweeted a link to an excerpt from an e-mail that a disgruntled MOOC student forwarded him. That e-mail had come from a Coursera superprofessor, and it read:

“First, I know that some of you want answers to the assignments. This is a seemingly reasonable request but very difficult to accommodate. Creating questions for the videos and the assignments has been the most challenging part of this new endeavor. Four people, including me, worked several months to create these. We believe our assignments are well thought out and reflect a good balance of conceptual and applied stuff. Creating the assignments online and then testing each one multiple times takes additional time. Due to copyright issues, we cannot simply give you questions from existing books, and I would not want to do that anyway. If this were a one-time class, we would have considered posting answers. It will however be very difficult for us to offer this class again if we have to keep preparing new sets of questions with multiple versions to allow you to attempt each one more than once. Handing out answers will force us to do that.”

Follow the conversation in that first link and you’ll see that much merriment ensued.

When I saw this, I begged Aaron to source it so that I could feel comfortable discussing it on this blog. On Twitter again, he explained that the e-mail came from Gautam Kaul’s Coursera Intro to Finance MOOC out of the University of Michigan. Aaron was then kind enough to send me and IHE‘s Ry Rivard a copy of the full e-mail, with the student’s name removed.

I’m guessing that the IHE story on this will proceed as soon as Rivard can confirm the legitimacy of that e-mail. That’s certainly the right thing for any journalist to do. I, though, am not a journalist. However, don’t get your hopes up that I’m about to pound Professor Kaul anyway. Assuming that the e-mail is completely legit, I don’t think he has done anything wrong except perhaps be too honest about the true nature of MOOCs for Coursera’s comfort. So I just want to use this unconfirmed e-mail to make two points about MOOCs in general:

1) MOOCs are designed to be frozen in amber.

Do you remember those professors in college who lectured off the same sheets of yellowed (not yellow – yellowed, as in used to be white) note paper for twenty years? MOOCs are like that, only moreso. If it takes twenty people and $250,000 to create a MOOC, you don’t have a lot of incentive to bring the gang back together to make necessary changes, like writing new multiple-choice questions.

What if the scholarship changes? What if you decide something doesn’t work as well as it should? What if the students change? Tough luck. They get what they pay for.

2) MOOCs cannot teach students to learn how to learn.

Here’s a little more of that e-mail I got from Aaron:

I believe that learning from each other, with a little push from the faculty/coach, is the way to go. So I encourage you to participate on the forums and learn from each other. Elizabeth has created subfolders within the assignments forum to help organize questions. Post your questions in the proper assignment subforum, and hopefully that will make it easier for all of us to find relevant discussions as well. Needless to say, do not post answers. It is not the answers that matter, but how you think and approach a problem that does.

I agree with every bit of pedagogical philosophy in that statement. The problem is, you can’t necessarily get students to do any of these things working inside a MOOC. If you’re not self-motivated and creative already, you will quickly become another face in the crowd. Hence, the high dropout rate for MOOCs of all kinds.

Like so many things in life, this story reminds me of something from Monty Python. Do you remember when Brian adresses his followers from the window and tells them, “You’ve all got to work it out for yourselves!”? The response from the crowd, in unison, is “YES, WE’VE GOT TO WORK IT OUT FOR OURSELVES!!!” I think that joke about the nature of religion has many parallels to higher education.

Plenty of already college-educated people taking that MOOC or others will, indeed, be able to work it out for themselves because they’ve already learned how to learn. The vast majority of the rest of them will just keep blindly following one superprofessor messiah after another, thinking that they’re learning something important about life when in fact what they’re really doing is helping the enemies of higher education keep more people from ever becoming enlightened at all.

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17 responses

3 07 2013
Norm Matloff

Before my Bloomberg op-ed on MOOCs was shortened, I had a paragraph on the point that the worst problems with MOOCs would come from logistical issues arising from the M in “MOOCs.” A consequence, I wrote, would be that MOOCs professors would end up taking the path of least resistance, to minimize problems, with the overall quality of instruction being the victim. That tweet is a great example.

Tthe “frozen in amber” point is certainly ironic, given that MOOCs are supposed to represent progress and innovation!

3 07 2013
Neil Schlager

That is the finance course that I took and crashed out of, as you may remember, precisely for the reason that the other disgruntled student did: without seeing answers to the assignments (and with communication with the professor or even grad students closed off), I had no way to learn from my (numerous) mistakes. Pedagogical mistake on top of pedagogical mistake.

The point you make about “frozen in amber” is also a critical one. An advantage of “online learning” systems should be that they are able to constantly evolve and improve, but the way that MOOCs (at least current varieties) have been designed obliterates that advantage.

3 07 2013
Jonathan Rees

Which makes this course the origin of my use of the phrase “access to the professor,” of which apparently there is none. Like I keep saying, there is no way that enough students will ever pay enough for this kind of treatment to keep MOOC providers afloat.

3 07 2013
Weekend Reading: No Answers Edition - ProfHacker - The Chronicle of Higher Education

[…] might as well go into the long weekend with a bit of comedy, and so I’ll point here to the Coursera professor email that Aaron Bady released on Twitter last night. Jonathan Rees has worked out the exact right take […]

3 07 2013
lissajuliana

Couldn’t agree more. As you point out, people who already know how to learn can take great advantage of MOOCs. But most people who need a college education don’t already know how to do that and what I never never get about MOOCS is the idea that one size fits all. This is also implicit in the supposedly big attraction of many MOOCS: that they’re taught by super professors from Ivy League schools. The implication seems to be that the only obstacle to attending an Ivy for most people is the number of seats available and the cost. While there is no doubt at all that more students are qualified to attend highly selective universities than are able to, it’s still the case that not all potential students have the preparation required to do well in courses taught at that level. This is of course only one of the many “one size does not fit all” issues.

5 07 2013
The MOOC Reality - Lawyers, Guns & Money : Lawyers, Guns & Money

[…] Here is the full e-mail from the scab professor: […]

5 07 2013
Hack Education Weekly News: Updates to COPPA, Cengage’s Bankruptcy, and More

[…] to allow you to attempt each one more than once.” Inside Higher Ed’s Ry Rivard and Colorado State University professor Jonathan Rees also weigh […]

6 07 2013
Unexpected idea in the packing area | Paraffinalia

[…] that it is clear that moocs are to be frozen in amber, the last great possibility of surprise has been removed. There is a story of Joseph Brodsky […]

6 07 2013
Contingent Cassandra

I clicked over here while taking a break from monitoring my current online class, which is about to reach its first biweekly deadline — the first one where really substantive work is due (the first one called for some reading, review of basic concepts like citation, and an introductory post that provided the information necessary for me to put students in groups). My students have detailed, step-by-step instructions for what they’re supposed to do. But inevitably, they don’t follow (or, apparently, read) all of those instructions. And if the first person to post in a group does something wrong, the others tend to follow. So I’m sitting here playing sheepdog (or perhaps lemming-herder), for the most part letting them figure it out for themselves (because I, too, believe very strongly in that), but also nudging them back in the right direction when they’ve wandered too far afield.

I couldn’t do that in a MOOC (the first time or the 20th time), and, for that reason, I couldn’t allow the students the degree of freedom I have, which is considerably more than answering a set of problem sets (admittedly, different subject — they’re writing a substantial paper, drafts of which I will personally read and critique, and i will their ideas for a topic and possible sources, and several other stages, after their peers have finished trying their best to do the same, with those occasional nudges from me. Yes, I want them to go through, and learn from, that process, but, as I said above, I also have to make sure they don’t lead each other badly astray). It’s real work, and it takes regular, if not constant, vigilance.

It’s also an approach that works, but it can’t be massively scaled. Instead, you’ve got somewhere between 40 and 50 students (numbers are still fluctuating, and will undoubtedly eventually land at or just below the end of that range), officially in two sections but really being taught together, and one Ph.D. with about 20 years’ teaching experience, all at a cost (for the professor at least) of c. $9,000. Of course I’d prefer that cost were a bit higher (if this were during the school year, it would be — c. $11,000, plus retirement and health benefits), but even if it were, it strikes me as a pretty good bargain, for the school and for the students.

7 07 2013
Christine Donaldson

So much I agree with, so much I disagree with. So I’ve completed three MOOCs and am currently enrolled for another two. I have given up on four.

So I’m not an expert but I have some experience.

First, all MOOCs are different. Some do give the answers – in fact, all of the ones that I stayed in gave me answers, so that I could learn and move on, confident that I had already grasped the basic points.

Secondly, some MOOCs do change. One that I completed was exactly the same in both the first and second interations – and I do mean EXACTLY the same – but the other two were very different. Both had been changed as a result of a) feedback and b) the prof’s desire to make the course even better.

Thirdly, I can’t speak for others, of course, but I learned a lot from my peers in the forums. Many people enrolled are already experts and more than happy to help others.

Fourthly, the MOOCs that I enjoyed the most always start easy and then get harder. They provide a load of backup materials, mostly free. They are, in my opinion, a great way to learn.

Are they as good or as comprehensive as a university course? No. They are (currently) free and open to anyone to wants to sign up. No university could do that.

Lastly, to generalise from one prof’s experience of one MOOC does not seem to be to be very accurate. A sample of one tells us little abut what else is out there.

8 07 2013
bookmarks for July 4th, 2013 through July 8th, 2013 | Morgan's Log

[…] “You’ve all got to work it out for yourselves!” | More or Less Bunk – MOOCs are already nostalgia. "1) MOOCs are designed to be frozen in amber. […]

11 07 2013
To be a superprofessor is an act of aggression. | More or Less Bunk

[…] to do this should be called out. They’re cheating their students and not doing their jobs. It really is like the those old yellowed lecture notes, only more so. Students are smart enough to know what […]

29 07 2013
Do MOOCs Spell Disaster For Adjunct Faculty? | AdjunctNation.com

[…] In MOOCs, students usually cannot ask their professors questions and sometimes cannot even receive answers, since MOOCs deliver the same recorded lessons to numerous groups of students. There is little way […]

7 08 2013
Feedback | sallyhirst

[…] to readjust so we are ‘right’ (someone else I read who was reacting to the MOOC answers story even linked to Monty Python on this) – that was my initial reaction to the BULATs mail. And can I say there is no such thing as […]

9 08 2013
No! You should not do DS106 | doublemirror

[…] Rees, J. (2013) ‘You have to do it all for yourselves’ [online]  http://moreorlessbunk.wordpress.com/2013/07/03/youve-all-got-to-work-it-out-for-yourselves/ Young (2011) Why University should experiment with massive open […]

5 07 2013
Mazel

“classes … function not only to develop skills but also to test a student’s talent and ability to solve problems on his own.”

Maybe I was misreading you, CIP, but I thought just a few days ago you were arguing that college classes were about nothing more than transferring information (“What is the purpose of college, beyond information transmittal?”). Now you seem to be acknowledging that college is about much more–about developing abilities and dispositions that (unlike mere information transmittal) are sensitive to the mode of delivery. This is real progress.

5 07 2013
Mazel

As some guy once said, the point is not to understand what the world will look like in the future but to participate in the making of that world. The future is not a given.

There might be some MOOC critics out there who simply say “MOOCs are evil” and leave it at that, but that group certainly doesn’t include Jonathan and his commenters.

Of course, you’re right that the university ten years from now will be different. Many universities are quite different now than they were ten years ago. Many of them have embraced online learning, flipped classrooms, digital humanities, and much else. To pretend otherwise is itself a “facile characterization.” Certain entrepreneurs have a vested interest in pretending that theirs have been the only technological innovations in higher ed, but that doesn’t mean we should believe them.

Certain MOOCs in certain subjects seem to work OK for certain kinds of students (e.g., exceptionally intelligent professors like you and me who are already acculturated into academia). But you and I, we’re not where the money is. We’re done with college. We’re not getting financial aid any more. The money is in the masses of underprepared students who lack all the advantages you and I have–but who also are receiving gobs of financial aid money that Sebastian Thrun would just as soon see flowing into his own wallet. The money is at places like San Jose State. The money is in selling MOOCs to students who are least likely to succeed in them. The money is in screwing the poor.

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