People who need people.

15 11 2013

Since my initial reaction to Sebastian Thrun’s already-infamous MOOC pivot was quick, and not entirely serious, I’ve had the advantage of both hindsight and a lot of other people’s opinions when composing this slightly more serious version of the same thing. Out of all the essays I’ve read in the last 24 hours or so, I think my favorite is Martin Weller’s contribution:

Anyway, where does this leave us? Does it mean MOOCs are dead? Not really. It just means they aren’t the massive world revolution none of us thought they were anyway. And it also suggests that universities, far from being swept away by MOOCs, are in fact the home of MOOCs. You see, MOOCs make sense as an adjunct to university business, they don’t really make sense as a stand alone offering.

Indeed, I’d actually take that one step further and argue that Thrun has done the working professoriate a huge favor by demonstrating the value of what most of us do every day. Sebastian Thrun has proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that real higher education can’t be automated.

Why do I think that? Let’s go back to the paragraph in Thrun’s non-mea culpa that sent so most people (rightfully) into a rage:

The San Jose State pilot offered the answer. “These were students from difficult neighborhoods, without good access to computers, and with all kinds of challenges in their lives,” he says. “It’s a group for which this medium is not a good fit.”

Yeah, we could have told him that months (if not years) ago. And certainly Audrey Watters is right that it’s sad that Thrun is moving on to vocational training for corporations, where he will likely fail again.

But who’s left to teach all those less-than-ideal students at San Jose State? Living, breathing professors. Any administration that’s seriously thinking about signing a license with a MOOC provider to automate the teaching of those students who need living, breathing professors the most will have to think about Thrun’s pivot before it lets the robots take over. If they have their own self interest at heart (let alone the interests of those students), they won’t do it. I think that is something to celebrate.

It’s also worth noting the incredible irony here. MOOCs were supposed to be the device that would bring higher education to the masses. However, the masses at San Jose State don’t appear to be ready for the commodified, impersonal higher education that MOOCs offer without the guidance that living, breathing professors provide to people negotiating its rocky shores for the first time. People need people.

That means that the only way to open higher education to the masses is to hire more people to teach, either in person or online. Accept no austerity-inspired technological substitutes because bringing quality higher education to the world won’t be easy and it won’t be cheap, but it will be good for the world in the long run.

If that turns out to be the lesson of this long year of hysteria and delusion, then maybe the MOOC Messiah Squad has actually done the rest of us a favor.

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10 responses

17 11 2013
All the Sunday Night Links | Gerry Canavan

[…] * MOOCs were supposed to be the device that would bring higher education to the masses. However, the masses at San Jose State don’t appear to be ready for the commodified, impersonal higher education that MOOCs offer without the guidance that living, breathing professors provide to people negotiating its rocky shores for the first time. People need people. […]

18 11 2013
An automated education is a contradiction in terms. | More or Less Bunk

[…] I’m going to write about Sebastian Thrun’s pivot again. Why? Because every time I look at that story, I find something else worth writing about in it. In […]

18 11 2013
20 11 2013
Martin Weller (@mweller)

Ta for the link – and yes I think you may be right about Thrun doing us a favour. On the other hand though he could have set us (in the open ed movement) back – I can see journalists/senior managers saying “you lot promised us MOOCs were going to change the world and that didn’t happen”. Our cries of “no, we didn’t say that” will be ignored.

20 11 2013
questionable quality of some online educational programs | Bibliographic Wilderness

[…] serve. “MOOCs were supposed to be the device that would bring higher education to the masses,” Jonathan Rees noted. “However, the masses at San Jose State don’t appear to be ready for the commodified, […]

21 11 2013
Survey: Most MOOC Users Already Have A College Degree | StateImpact Florida

[…] serve. “MOOCs were supposed to be the device that would bring higher education to the masses,” Jonathan Rees noted. “However, the masses at San Jose State don’t appear to be ready for the commodified, […]

27 11 2013
Academics to Udacity Founder: Told Ya – Wired Campus - Blogs - The Chronicle of Higher Education

[…] Jonathan Rees, a professor of history at Colorado State University at Pueblo, framed Mr. Thrun’s retreat from the trenches as good news for professors. “Who’s left to teach all those less-than-ideal students at San Jose State? Living, breathing professors,” wrote Mr. Rees on his blog. […]

2 12 2013
Academics to Udacity Founder: Told Ya | Virtual Fashion Technology

[…] Jonathan Rees, a professor of history at Colorado State University at Pueblo, framed Mr. Thrun’s retreat from the trenches as good news for professors. “Who’s left to teach all those less-than-ideal students at San Jose State? Living, breathing professors,” wrote Mr. Rees onhis blog. […]

2 12 2013
“People hate people!” | More or Less Bunk

[…] of us in the “People Need People” camp are obviously in the “relationship” camp, while the “People Hate […]

3 04 2014
Sebastian Thrun & MOOC’s | nshmushkin

[…] system. “MOOCs were supposed to be the device that would bring higher education to the masses,” Jonathan Rees said in referring to poor people taking Udacity courses. These courses failed for the lower class, […]

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