“Video killed the radio star.”

29 07 2013

As you might imagine, I’ve been reading a lot of insufferable technological determinism aimed in my direction ever since that Slate article came out. Of course, there’s been, “How dare you resist progress?” and “Don’t you understand business history?,” or, my favorite…well, let’s just say it gets even worse from there. Since I only title blog posts in order to amuse Ian Petrie now, I’ve decided to call the belief system that motivates these kinds of arguments, “The Buggles Theory of the History of Technology.”

Under this system, progress marches on from one technology to another (like video killing the radio star), always getting better. Under this system, the people who lose out need to just stand aside and accept their obsolescence without making a peep since the dead are silent. No mention of political decisions (like chronically underfunding higher education) or power structures (cough…contingent faculty…cough) or even the actual history of technology will be tolerated! And God forbid you mention the self-interest of your own profession, because that will invalidate your argument immediately since it proves that you’re biased.

Of course, MTV no longer plays any videos anymore, but that just proves their point doesn’t it? After all, if the people want “Teen Wolf” or “Buckwild” or reruns of “Jersey Shore,” then the history of MTV proves that capitalism works. After all, I can still watch any video I want on YouTube (such as “Video Killed the Radio Star”) whenever I want to see it. I can even embed it in a blog post. Therefore, the people have spoken!

That’s all well and good, but how do we know that students actually want MOOCs? Sure, tens of thousands of people will sign up to access MOOCs for free, but what evidence do we have that anybody, especially college-age students, will actually pay for them? I’ve covered potential problems with the MOOC business model in this post. What I want to do here is expand on what was point #3 there: Whether paying college students will be willing to put up with being treated like faces in the crowd.

In just the last few weeks, I’ve seen a lot more evidence that they won’t. For instance, here’s Rob Jenkins writing in the Chronicle:

It’s true that during the past decade, the number of students enrolled in online courses grew at a significant rate. But according to a recent study, that growth started leveling off in the fall of 2010, when about 31 percent of all postsecondary students were taking at least one online class. Researchers concluded that “the slower rate of growth … compared to previous years may be the first sign that the upward rise in online enrollments is approaching a plateau.”

Moreover, a survey conducted this year by the Community College Research Center at Columbia University found that students at two-year campuses, in particular, prefer face-to-face over online instruction, especially for courses they deem difficult.

So while some students want, need, and benefit from online classes, the argument that students in general are clamoring for them doesn’t exactly hold up.

This is just for online courses, the ones in which students can actually be treated as individuals. Student attitudes towards MOOCs inevitably have to be worse since they aren’t treated as individuals at all. [Don't worry, MOOC Messiah Squad, you can always just hold your hands over your ears and chant "access" until all the bad news goes away.]

Then there’s what happened in my own state. My friend, fellow cog in the CSU system machine and future debate partner Historiann reminds of this in her most recent post on MOOC Madness. Here she quotes an absolutely appalling op-ed from the Washington Post:

What about that experiment to offer dramatically reduced tuition for MOOCwork courses at Baa Ram U.? It’s even more hilarious than you can guess [Historiann's emphasis]:

Colorado State’s Global Campus advertised last year that it would give credit to enrolled students who passed a MOOC in computer science. This would cost students $89 instead of the $1,050 for a comparable course. There were no takers. Seven additional institutions are set to make similar offerings in the coming year. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, they expect only hundreds, not thousands, of takers.

But why are prospective students so reluctant to jump on the MOOC bandwagon when 10% of them stand to learn so much? Why is it only a few tenured edupreneurs at prestigious universities who are pushing MOOCs by reassuring us that they’re inevitable “for good or ill?” But why? Santy Claus, why? Why are you taking our Christmas tree? Why? Even the not-very-intelligent commenters at the Washington Post have called bull$hit on this advertorial: my favorite is the one that says “Yeah, and blow up dolls are a good substitute for a wife…”

I still think this is more an indictment of online education in general than MOOCs in particular, but students aren’t stupid. That’s why I wonder how much market research any of these schools are doing. What if “hundreds” turns out to be “a handful?” Where will that leave the Buggles Theory of the History of Technology?

Unfortunately, there’s one way that the Buggles Theory of the History of Technology can be rescued from the dustbin of horrible edtech punditry: Make sure that most students have no other option but MOOCs, and the people running the show can still make money even if many students do forego college in droves. However, that doesn’t have to happen.

It’s still early yet in the process of MOOC-ification. We can still rewind. We haven’t gone too far. Those of us who haven’t given themselves over to the Cult of MOOCs simply have to make sure that anti-MOOC remains the new black until the providers all come crashing down courtesy of their non-existent business plans. Cathy Davidson is right. If all the MOOCs went away tomorrow, higher ed would still be in a world of hurt, but at least those problems couldn’t get much, much worse much, much faster than anybody imagined before MOOC Mania began.

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9 responses

29 07 2013
Historiann

HA-ha. I love this. Thanks for the link, and the comment about the “non-existent business plans.” I don’t get why no one except a bunch of whiny blogger/history proffies doomed to irrelevance like us has noticed this.

29 07 2013
Michael Carley

Now that the term has been invented, nothing can replace the Buggles Theory, which seems to be held by people who actually worse than nothing about technology. Many of the technologies which engineers learn about literally go back as far as antiquity: we still need to know about wheels, especially toothed ones, not to mention the inclined plane, heat treatment of metals, and how to smack things into shape with lump hammers.

The technoweeny Whigs who think `technology’ means `iGadget’ have no sense of any this, and, as you point out, want to teach students that `technology’ springs fully formed from the head of Bill Gates, with no history, no development, and no social context. As far as they are concerned, all change is progress.

29 07 2013
Australian Academic

A key piece of ‘evidence’ supporting increased online teaching at my institution is that this is what ‘students want’. Where did they get this ‘evidence’? Well, they held a focus group with 11 students – yes, that’s right, not a typo – they consulted 11 students out of a student body numbering around 23,000. I have been told that there is no need to survey the rest of the student body because (depending on the day in question): the student body is so diverse that we will not get any meaningful information; students aren’t aware of what is actually possible so their feedback will not be meaningful; or the students do everything else online so why wouldn’t they also want to learn online.

Importantly, the students who were consulted did not actually say that wanted more online teaching, rather better wifi coverage, more consistency in use of Moodle for making course documents available, and access to podcasts of lectures so they could catch up if they missed class due to illness etc. (i.e. NOT as a replacement for face-to-face lectures). If they had been asked if they would prefer an increase in online teaching at the expense of face-to-face teaching, I’d hazard a guess that they would have said ‘no’ – this is certainly the feedback I have received from the students I have talked to (N>11).

Presumably, promoters of online learning and MOOCs avoid asking students what they actually want because it may be problematic – if they don’t ask, the replies can’t contradict their rhetoric or undermine their plans.

29 07 2013
dpedeva

Hello, Jonathan,

I hope you will be able to record the upcoming debate between you and Adelman on the pros and cons of MOOCs . I would love to see it, but if that is not possible I hope that you will blog about it.

30 07 2013
Jonathan Rees

Both AHA and the History News Network usually tape sessions at that convention that might be of special interest. While I have no guarantees, this would seem to be a natural one. [Indeed, our papers are all going to be printed in AHA Perspectives.] I’ll certainly post a link if that happens.

30 07 2013
Caprice

The MOOC is missing only one letter: H, for it is a mooch. It capitalizes on the cultural value of higher education, while simultaneously devaluing it. It reduces the electrifying human experience of learning to an electronic, inane transaction.

31 07 2013
Historiann

Caprice, FTW! Love your “mooch” revision.

12 08 2013
“If you gotta ask, you’ll never know.” | More or Less Bunk

[…] Where did that philosophy come from? One course in the history of higher ed while at Wharton twenty years ago. Perhaps – just perhaps – centuries of tradition is a sign of strength in higher education rather than a weakness. Unfortunately, that doesn’t square with the Buggles Theory of the History of Technology. […]

9 10 2013
Post-MOOC is the new MOOC. | More or Less Bunk

[…] more clearly by some other member of the MOOC Messiah Squad over a year ago now. Yet students still aren’t paying to take MOOCs, MOOC providers still have no business model and even college presidents hate them […]

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