Does gloating make me a bad person?

19 12 2013

This article deserves the full essay treatment at a venue more popular than this blog. Besides, I’m kind of engaged in important local business right now. Nevertheless, what follows are a few quick thoughts about this quote:

But this new golden age of education has rapidly lost its lustre. Earlier this month, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania reported that the online classes it offered had failed miserably. Only about half of the students who registered ever viewed a lecture and only 4 per cent completed a course.

That’s prompted some soul searching among those who have championed this brave new world of education. The questions that urgently need answering are: what’s gone wrong and how can it be fixed?

Today, Christopher Brinton at Princeton University and a few pals offer their view. These guys have studied the behaviour in online discussion forums of over 100,000 students taking massive open online courses (or MOOCs).

And they have depressing news. They say that participation falls precipitously and continuously throughout a course and that almost half of registered students never post more than twice to the forums. What’s more, the participation of a teacher doesn’t improve matters. Indeed, they say there is some evidence that a teacher’s participation in an online discussion actually increases the rate of decline.

1. The irony of big data to demonstrate the utter failure of MOOCs to engage students is absolutely astounding to me. It actually improves my opinion of big data.

2. I can see all kinds of superprofessors pointing to this study as evidence for why they should continue to teach their grad students (when not sitting on Caribbean beaches sipping daiquiris) and watch the money role in. “See!,” they’ll say, “If I’m more accessible than the Pope or Thomas Pynchon it actually makes things worse, so stop hassling me.”

3. More importantly, I feel really bad for those superprofessors who honestly think that their efforts to be accessible have already made a difference. Teaching a MOOC really can lead to 80-hour work weeks if you let the flaws of the structure dictate your schedule and plenty of well-meaning wannabe rock stars do.

But here’s the problem: Good teaching is not a one-way street. It takes plenty of effort from the people doing the teaching, as well as plenty of effort from the people doing the learning. No matter how much work the superprofessor puts into a MOOC, they cannot make it succeed unless the students in that MOOC are equally engaged. Unfortunately, a massive, impersonal, free education offers very little incentive for students to fully engage with the material unless they’re highly motivated or already experienced learners.

4. The vast majority of professors knew this about MOOCs from the very moment we first heard of them. Unfortunately, blinded by technological utopian doubletalk, most of the professoriate did not start speaking out until recently. Well, I have good news and bad news for you, brothers and sisters in academic toil:

The good news is that there’s still time to spread the word. You can still explain to your administrators why commercial MOOCs are a lousy educational tool for most disciplines and they won’t save any money either. The bad news is that for people with power who know nothing about education, this kind of reality check may not be enough.

So yes, MOOCs are dead, but, to quote myself, “we still need to dismember the body and bury the limbs separately to make sure that its evil spawn don’t come back stronger than ever before.” Maybe we’ll get lucky and MOOCs will actually stay dead, but their corpses will fertilize the growth of something useful like a flower or a tree or food that we can distribute to the underemployed adjuncts of the world.

5. Does gloating make me a bad person? Am I headed for some kind of edtech Hell where my fellow sinners and I can only interact through Blackboard? If so, I promise to atone for my sins during the new year.

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One response

19 12 2013
VanessaVaile

whatever helps you keep your spirits and energy levels up to deal with CSU Pueblo and the Pattie Adler case at U Colorado…gloat away.  incidentally, when my FB readers are asking about the latter, I assured them real fighters of the never surrender variety were on the case. I don’t know the other signatories but do know (albeit digitally) you and Don.

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