The “outer limits” of online education.

24 01 2014

“Sitting in on part of Wednesday’s meeting, [California Governor Jerry] Brown challenged regents to develop classes that require no “human intervention” and might expand the system’s reach beyond its student body.

“If this university can probe into” black holes, he said, “can’t somebody create a course — Spanish, calculus, whatever — totally online? That seems to me less complicated than that telescope you were talking about,” referring to an earlier agenda item.

After receiving pushback from UC provost Aimée Dorr, who delivered the presentation, that students are “less happy and less engaged” without human interaction, Brown said those measurements were too soft and he wanted empirical results.”

“Jerry Brown pushes UC to find ‘outer limits’ of online education,” Sacramento Bee, January 23, 2014.

Let me summarize the last two and a half years or so of this blog: 1) I get concerned about the quality of online education. 2) Lots of people (mostly Kate) convince me that online education can be done well if it’s done by caring people for the right reasons. 3) I grow concerned that the administrators leading these efforts don’t care whether online education is done well or not. 4) “The Year of the MOOC” only deepens those fears. 5) Lots of those same online instructors concerned about quality (including Kate) begin to share those fears.

Obviously, Jerry Brown calling for online courses that are totally automated only justifies this fear even more. At almost the same time that Daphne Koller is re-iterating her claim that she doesn’t want to replace real higher education with MOOCs, Brown is saying exactly the opposite. While I shouldn’t have to go through all the reasons why pushing the outer limits of online education is a bad idea, it feels like it’s been a long time since I’ve done any MOOC blogging so I’m going to do it just for fun:

1) Students will never know whether their answers are right or not unless the answer is always “11.” Essays, in other words, are dead out. Yes, computers can grade for grammar and for sentence structure, but (as I’ve explained before) they can’t do anything with respect to ideas let alone the moral judgments that come with complex topics in history or literature. So we might as well write off the humanities in Jerry Brown’s world. Of course, that might actually be the point.

2) Students will be learning alone in their rooms, entirely by themselves. But what about forums, you ask? Surely students can form online groups and learn together, right? Did you see this article from IHE yesterday?:

A professor’s plan to let students in his Coursera massive open online course moderate themselves went awry over the holidays as the conversation, in his words, “very quickly disintegrated into a snakepit of personal venom, religious bigotry and thinly disguised calls for violence.”

In other words, large groups of people can’t be left to their own devices. They need authority figures, i.e. teachers, to steer the discussion, or else anarchy will break out quickly. If they don’t interact with each other, it’s not teaching. It’s broadcasting. You might as well go back to the “College of the Airwaves” then and skip MOOCs entirely. The whole notion of MOOCs without group interaction defeats the entire reason that all those nice Canadian people came up with MOOCs in the first place!!! Do you really want to make George Siemens cry?

3) The wrong motives. Did you notice the part in that above quote where Jerry Brown was getting pushback from a provost? A PROVOST!!!??? You know you’ve gone too far if something like that’s happening.

For all my carping about administrators not caring about the quality of education, at least they’re almost all willing to still pay lip service to that idea. Heck, even Sebastian Thrun famously derided his own product on the grounds that it didn’t maintain his commitment to educational quality. There is no other reason to completely automate higher education besides the naked desire to pinch pennies. Find me one study that says that students – any students at any level – do better without teachers. Find me one educator who thinks students will learn more if they sit completely on the sidelines and not communicate with the people they’re teaching at all. They don’t exist, and if they do exist then they’ve obviously been so compromised by the potential payout of building an acceptable “teaching machine” [cue Audrey Watters] that they’re no longer worth listening to at all.

4) Treated as nothing more than a commodity, students will run for the exits. Is anybody gonna pay for an all-MOOC higher education when they can learn the same thing from reading a bunch of books or just watching a bunch of video tapes? Seriously, I thought people paid all that tuition money to avoid having to do that.

They control the vertical. They control the horizontal. However, students can still always turn off their TVs.

PS I seem to remember liking the old Jerry Brown much better than this one.

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3 responses

24 01 2014
sophylou

I was kind of wondering if Brown’s naked statement about avoiding “human intervention” (AND the pushback from a *provost*, yet, which, wow!) would just show the ridiculousness of his position. Could it be ANY more clear?

24 01 2014
ljwaks

A few brief comments. 1) The idea that a Jesuit like Gov Brown wants to do away with the humanities is pretty much a non-starter. before throwing astones, it is worthwhile to do a bit of background checking.

2) The subjects the Gov mentioned depend mostly on conceptual definition, drill and repetition, Many universities add a grad assistant who doesn’t speak English. Calculus is not among the humanities, and basic Spanish is learned much the same way.

3) A Provost’s stake in this conversation is at first cut about power – maintaining funding for the university. 40% of public and private universities have experienced recent drop offs in enrollment – and in organizations funded by tuition dollars this is death. The Provost’s call for human intervention in basic instruction can be translated into English as follows: give us the money!

4) The Gov has his eye on the right question: what is a cost effective way of providing instruction on basic skill subjects for those who have been priced out of college – and who would never be able to repay debt incurred from exponentially rising tuition.

3 03 2014
Doug didier

I thought the professor from UVA gave excellent presentation at the OAH meeting in DC last jan. Can be used by the university and lifelong Learners .. Win win.

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