Reminds me of Wile E. Coyote.

22 07 2013

“Fanaticism consists in redoubling your effort when you have forgotten your aim.”

- George Santayana, Life of Reason, 1905.*

The big story in the MOOC-iverse last week was undoubtedly this one, an IHE exclusive about San Jose State and Udacity putting its MOOC-ish remedial math classes on hold because so many students flunked them. Of course that sounds awful, and all the people I usually agree with pounced. Erik Loomis, for instance, wrote at LGM that this was a:

“pretty powerful piece of evidence suggesting the vast inferiority of MOOCs for students.”

Like Tenured Radical, I agree that blaming students for the failures of your course isn’t cool (particularly when the course apparently does stink), but in order to conclude what Erik concludes you’d need a representative sample of college students enrolled. The CHE coverage of the same story makes it clear that they didn’t have one.

I think an extended excerpt is in order:

“Sandra Desousa, a lecturer in math at the university**, was one of those instructors. Ms. Desousa has taught developmental math in a traditional format for seven years. This spring she and Susan McClory, another math lecturer, taught an adapted version of that course on the Udacity platform.

The instructors played to two audiences: 3,500 learners who had signed up for the course as a MOOC through Udacity, and just under 100 others who were taking the course for credit, about half of whom were enrolled at San Jose State. The two groups watched the same video demonstrations and completed the same routine assignments. The only difference was that the students taking the course for credit also were required to complete three online examinations, with monitoring by ProctorU, the online proctoring company.

Only 29 percent of the San Jose State students in the credit-bearing section passed the course, along with 12 percent of the non-matriculated students, according to Ms. Junn’s slide show.

Those rates might seem quite low, but Ms. Desousa said they were “not bad” for her developmental math course, especially given the online format. Every university-enrolled student taking the course had already failed the traditional version once, she said.”

[Emphasis added]

But why on earth did Udacity welcome students who’d already failed the course into their MOOC in the first place? Putting them in MOOCs was the functional equivalent of dropping non-swimmers into shark-infested waters 5 miles out into the Pacific and telling them to do the dog paddle back to shore.

Don’t worry, though. Next time, Udacity is going to change the “pacing” of the course. This is Udacity’s Sebatian Thrun from the Udacity blog:

For example, we are interested in innovating around the pacing of these classes. In our pilot, we stuck to a traditional, 15-week semester timeframe. While that schedule may work for full-time students on campus, we know it doesn’t for everyone. As we broaden the base of students we reach with these classes, we should broaden our perspective on what a “semester” looks like. Imagine a world where you could take these classes for credit, while setting your own pace and deadlines to fit within work schedules, within times when you have access to computers, or within high-school classes schedules.

The last line of the LA Times coverage offers a much more obvious suggestion for improvement:

Educators elsewhere have said the purely online courses aren’t a good fit for remedial students who may lack the self-discipline, motivation and even technical savvy to pass the classes. They say these students may benefit from more one-on-one attention from instructors.

Gee, ya think? Students without a college background or who failed a class already need MORE access to the professor, not less. This is so frickin’ obvious it hurts.

“We are experimenting and learning. That to me is a positive,” Thrun told AP. Sounds to me like they’re starting from an awfully low spot on the learning curve already. I’m not arguing that Thrun is stupid here. Otherwise, I would have titled this post “Sebatian Thrun: Super Genius,” in the same ironic sense that I throw the term superprofessor around. I certainly couldn’t have invented the self-driving car.

However, it appears to me that Thrun shares the same sense of fanaticism (in the way that Santayana defines it) that Wile E. Coyote or the modern Republican Party possesses. In the same way the GOP proposes tax cuts as a solution to every problem under the sun, Thrun is going to make MOOCs solve everything wrong with higher education whether they’re suited to the task or not. If I were one of his investors, I’d be scared out of my mind right now – not because MOOCs are by definition inferior to any regular college class (although I think they are), but because apparently the head of this education company knows very little about education.

* h/t to my old friend Frank Brock, who used to have a poster of Wile E. Coyote with that quote under it which I always coveted dearly.

**Since San Jose State has not been transported to Great Britain, that means she’s untenured, right? That can’t be a coincidence.

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3 responses

22 07 2013
RAB

One has to wonder what the educational experiences of Udacity’s people were, that they would make such wildly bad guesses in the first place about appropriate students and appropriate learning formats, and then such wildly obvious suggestions about how to tweak them.

22 07 2013
“There are a lot of unemployed people in this country.” | More or Less Bunk

[…] last we checked in on Sebastian Thrun (a.k.a. this morning), he was misreading the nature of the problem with the Udacity/San Jose State math MOOC experiment. […]

1 08 2013
The pro-MOOC coalition cannot hold. | More or Less Bunk

[…] MOOCs, but by doing so the MOOC providers are violating Siemens’ basic tenets. Worse yet, by rushing these efforts, the commercial MOOC providers are giving the more genuinely idealistic MOOC efforts a really bad […]

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