“We’re moving into a world where knowledge, base content, is a commodity, which allows anyone who is smart and motivated and passionate to make something of themselves and open doors to opportunity. But at the same time, the much deeper cognitive skills that are taught in the face-to-face interaction—they’re still going to be a differentiator. The best place to acquire those is by coming and getting an education at the best universities.”
– Daphne Koller of Coursera, WSJ, November 24, 2013.
“Coursera founder speaks the truth,” is the way that Gianpiero Petriglieri described that quote on Twitter this morning, and of course that’s right. You can only get those deeper cognitive skills through face-to-face interaction, which means (by implication) you can’t get those skills through a MOOC. So why then is yet another MOOC maven acknowledging the inadequacy of their product?
To borrow a phrase from the Bush years, I think it’s the soft bigotry of low expectations. While that particular piece of education reform sloganeering arose as a racial argument, I use here to refer to class bias. All the worthy hard-working MOOC students who can’t afford real college can make a name for themselves in Coursera’s numerous lotteries of opportunities in search of a golden ticket. The rest of them will at least get to watch some interesting lectures as they go about their humdrum lives of quiet desperation.
To be fair, Koller isn’t the only person practicing this kind of class discrimination. It’s been part of the DNA of the MOOC Messiah Squad from the very beginning. The title of this post actually popped into my head last week when I read some poor MOOC-ophile argue in the Atlantic last week that MOOC pass rates are actually a lot better than the tiny fractions that even bother to participate at all in the easiest of MOOCs. He sees lots of other denominators with which we could judge success or failure of that particular educational spectacle.
But would any face-to-face or even online class associated with any university campus get to be judged by simpler standards like “took any quiz” or “watched any lecture?” Of course not. The implicit assumption is that MOOCs are so special that they deserve to judged by different criteria so that they can be allowed to innovate their way into acceptability.
Unfortunately, giving MOOCs a pass on retention rates is absolutely the worst thing that higher education could possibly do. As Christian and Calvin Exoo explained in Salon last month:
The crisis in U.S. higher education is not a crisis of access — it’s one of retention. More U.S. students than ever before are starting college. The problem is that our students aren’t finishing college. Six-year graduation rates vary from 51 percent at private institutions, all the way down to 21 percent at state schools. This is the real crisis, and it is one that MOOCs are singularly ill-equipped to address.
Want to know how ill-equipped MOOCs are to solve the crisis of retention? They’re so watered-down that course on great ideas of the Twentieth Century can be devoid of required reading and a Coursera class in World History can have no writing assignments or required reading, yet the completion rates of MOOCs like these remain anemic across the board.
Nevertheless, we are still talking about MOOCs because MOOC providers and the academic neoliberals running elite institutions of higher learning that keep them afloat are willing to deny working class students the professorial attention they deserve in the name of extending their university’s brands. MIT is at least willing to put its money where its mouth is and give its own students the same experience they’re marketing to others. Since MIT students smart and probably self-motivated, that school will undoubtedly survive this ill-advised fad. But what happens to college students outside of MIT who are drug along for the edX experiment? MIT doesn’t care.
Coursera has no such pretensions towards intellectual consistency. Today it appears that Daphne Koller knows what real education actually is, yet she’s still willing to provide a cheap and inadequate substitute to people who can’t afford the real thing. This is worse than tilting at windmills because it will make it much harder for real reformers to convince Americans to provide everyone the education they deserve at an affordable price.
So pardon me if I’m less than impressed by Koller’s new-found defense of face-to-face interaction between professors and students. Say what you will about Sebastian Thrun. At least his company will soon only be shortchanging customers who won’t be wiped out by the experience.