What problem do MOOCs solve?

5 12 2013

These are the remarks I delivered at the MOOC Research Initiative Conference here in Arlington this morning. I’ll tell you all how the discussion went after I make it back to my hotel room tonight.

At Colorado State University – Pueblo, I teach mostly undergraduates in my classes. This includes the second half of the American history survey course, which I teach literally every semester. In this class, I never have more than forty students and (thanks to the little program that prints student pictures with my attendance list) I know them all by name. Most of them are Freshman. For many of them, mine will be the only history class that they ever take.

Had you asked me what the acceptance rate at my university was just a few weeks ago, I would have guessed 80%. It turns out that it’s 98%. In other words, we are basically an open access institution, just like a MOOC. Yet our six year graduation rate is about 30%, not counting transfers from the local community college. I wish it were higher, but nonetheless we’re 20% more successful getting college students through four years worth of classes in six years than most MOOCs are at getting students through a single course.

My history survey class is a general education requirement, which means that it’s on a list of a small number of courses at the university which literally every student has to take. Some of my students are more prepared to take it than others. For the ones who aren’t prepared, I spend an enormous amount of time teaching reading, writing, note-taking and study skills. Unfortunately, I can’t make anybody show up in class. I can’t force anyone to do their homework. I certainly can’t force anybody to visit me in office hours so that I can personalize their instruction to meet their needs.

However, when students do these things, I can see the difference. Facts are retained better. Their writing becomes more clear. Their interest in history also tends to improve. This is perhaps the most rewarding part of being a history professor because I can literally see learning happen. It’s not the kind of learning that can be measured on a standardized test, but this kind of learning is a lot more valuable in the long run.

MOOCs threaten this kind of learning. Yes, I know that we professors are supposed to use MOOCs to flip our classrooms so that we can spend more time doing exactly what I’m describing, but what will other students do all class period when I’m providing personalized learning? When will they have time to do the reading I assign if they’re watching all those videos for homework? And, most importantly, how can I be sure that my administration won’t just fire me and force students to fend through a lot of taped lectures all by themselves?

Technology doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It is usually created in order to solve specific problems and I can’t for the life of me figure out what problem MOOCs are supposed to solve. They don’t improve access to college because you can’t get an all-MOOC degree. Indeed, it’s hard enough at the present time to get college credit for a single class delivered this way. If you want more students to get a college education, then fund public colleges better. If you want students to do better in class, then lower class size.

MOOCs are expensive to produce, and (at least as long as they’re given away for free) they don’t generate any revenue. Even if MOOCs are used as labor saving devices, the cost of labor is not what’s driving college costs. Otherwise, there’d be no adjuncts. If you want to introduce more technology into classrooms, then build a better mousetrap in order to create technologies that individual professors can use rather than technologies that can be employed by penny-pinching administrations in order to replace them.

I certainly agree that the idea of spreading knowledge for knowledge’s sake is a good thing. Therefore, I have carved out an exception to my anti-MOOC position for connectivist courses that remain in the control of individual professors with the best of motives. Unfortunately, this original MOOC idea has been expropriated by companies that are more concerned with attracting eyeballs that they can eventually monetize than they are with providing a quality education effectively.

Yet no matter what the motives of their producer, the most noble MOOCs in the world can easily be weaponized by those who care more about costs than they do about quality. In other words, there is no difference between replacing a local professor with a taped lecturer from Harvard and crowdsourcing that professor out of a job. The effect on the overall quality of education is the same.

In an ideal world, MOOCs would supplement modern higher education rather than replace it. We do not live in an ideal world. I’m not suggesting that people with better motives stop innovating. What I am suggesting is that they cannot innovate in a bubble. There is a political economy of MOOCs that matters just as much as their technological structure, especially for those of us who will never teach in or learn from a MOOC over the course of their academic careers.

Unlike a lot of other critics of this technology, I’ve taken a MOOC and completed it. While I remain critical of many of the pedagogical sacrifices made in that class, I enjoyed the experience. I don’t want to take anyone’s MOOCs away, but the idea of leaving any student no other option but MOOCs leaves me cold.

MOOCs, by definition, do not offer the kind of attention that a living, breathing expert professor can provide. Our job is not just to provide content, but to teach skills, to socialize students into the academic realm and and to provide inspiration for those students who want to examine that world on their own. You can’t do any of these things in a class of 30,000.

I’m not saying that our existing system of higher education is perfect. That includes my own flawed position in that system. However, I can say with certainty that if MOOCs are used to throw the baby out with the bathwater then we will all be poorer because of that decision.

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3 responses

5 12 2013
“I’m actually not against everything.” | More or Less Bunk

[…] the title of this post is a quote from me during the discussion session on our panel this morning. I’m not saying I didn’t say that (as that would require calling Bonnie Stewart a […]

6 12 2013
Historiann

Jonathan, you need to check your arithmetic. You’re probably being far too modest here: ” Yet our six year graduation rate is about 30%, not counting transfers from the local community college. I wish it were higher, but nonetheless we’re 20% more successful getting college students through four years worth of classes in six years than most MOOCs are at getting students through a single course.”

If 10% of MOOC users complete a single course but CSU-Pueblo graduates 30% of its students in 6 years, then you’re 300% more effective, not 20% more effective. (I’m just guessing here–you don’t state a clear percentage for the MOOC completion, but this seems about right to me, maybe even a little generous to the MOOCs.)

3 04 2014

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