MOOC-surfing.

6 02 2014

All of the papers from our MOOC forum at the American Historical Association about a month ago are now online at AHA Perspectives. Mine is here. This seems like a good place to thank David Mazel, Ian Petrie and especially Perspectives Editor Allen Mikaelian for helping make that essay the best it could be. However, it is no different than the version you may have already heard by playing the tape of the session.

The same thing is not true of Jeremy Adelman’s paper. You may remember, Jeremy got caught in Amtrak hell during an East Coast snowstorm and didn’t arrive at the room until very late in the program. Since he didn’t have time to deliver a full paper, this is the first place I’ve seen his written remarks.

Most of the essay explains the changes he made between the first version (the one I took) and the second version of his World History MOOC. Some things went better. Some things went worse. What I find extraordinary, however, is his theory as to why one important aspect of his MOOC got worse in version 2.0:

There are now 108 partners and almost 600 courses. There is a tendency to study (if you can use that word) extensively, not intensively.

This has changed the learning ecology because students online are less engaged in the active learning components than they once were when there were fewer courses. The online forum discussions, where Russians spoke with Brazilians, Americans with Indians, were once a vibrant and exciting component, but they’ve lost their energy. Whereas I once feared the forums would be Babelian, with many different voices talking past each other, my fear now is silence. Version 2.0 was, as far as student interactivity is concerned, a shadow of version 1.0.

[Emphasis added]

Honestly, I didn’t think Version 1.0 was all that interactive in the first place, but that’s not why I find this theory so interesting.

Jeremy is reminding us that no MOOC is really free. Students pay with their time (and, trust me, Jeremy’s class takes an enormous amount of time to even complete in a half-assed manner). With MOOCs of all kinds competing for the attention of the mostly white, male retired physics professors of the world, anybody expecting to rack up tens of thousands of eyeballs can’t ask too much of their students. Nobody wants to feel like a shirker, so thousands of students will undoubtedly rather enroll in the easy MOOC with no reading or writing requirements that they know they can complete than the hard MOOC that they’ll just surf through occasionally on the way to greener pastures.

Of course, since students pay for MOOCs with their time, they have to be the kind of students who have time to give. If Daphne Koller had her way, we’d all imagine the typical MOOC student as some impoverished under-schooled 18-year old with no access to schooling. In fact, those are precisely the kinds of people who would be least likely to afford the time, let alone the Internet connection to watch superprofessors do their thing. That’s why the typical active MOOC student is highly-educated and career-oriented. They have the time and especially the incentive to take advantage of everything that MOOCs have to offer. Lack these incentives and you’ll either a) Never watch a lecture to begin with or b) Give the next MOOC over a shot at keeping your attention.

I think Ann Little’s point about the problem of teaching controversial subjects in MOOCs also plays into this overall argument. While I covered it in my initial notes from the session, here’s the explanation in her prepared text:

The demands of the MOOC—particularly its massiveness—work against introducing students to the latest, cutting-­edge research and conversations happening in our profession because MOOC professors will be asked to offer only the broadest and most inoffensive courses out of fear that courses on certain subjects—­slavery or genocide; gender and sexual minorities; nonwhite people in general—won’t sell.

These are also the kinds of courses that are the most difficult to teach, even on a face-­to-­face scale, because of the various political views and life experiences of our students. As someone who teaches courses on women’s history, gender, and the history of sexuality, I have serious doubts about how much breadth and complexity MOOC history courses can offer.

Sexism? Too depressing. Change the channel. Racism? Too depressing. Change the channel. Genocide? Are you kidding me? I only want to take happy MOOCs! After all, life’s too short to spend the whole time bummed-out by history. Of course, the happy/sad dichotomy will more likely work itself out as a slow slide into banality as pressure from providers or university administrators to attract more possibly monetizable eyeballs leads superprofessors into injecting more and more of the MOOC equivalent of T&A into their classes.

Come to think of it, how long will it be until MOOC providers begin to inject actual T&A into their MOOCs? After all, if we’ve learned one sure lesson here in the early history of the Internet, the only way anyone can be certain to make money in this new medium is to sell pornography. Hopefully most of the superprofessors of today will quit long before that moment arrives. Unfortunately, I strongly suspect a few of them will go off and start their own edtech companies.

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6 responses

6 02 2014
historiann

Thanks for the shout-out, Jonathan!

6 02 2014
Jonathan Rees

Thanks for paying all that money to go to DC and registering for AHA. I hope the _Perspectives_ article is at least something valuable in return.

6 02 2014
Anne Corner

I was very interested in Adelman’s comment and have applied it to my own approach to MOOC’s. His was the second course I took and I devoted a lot of time to it as it was the only course I was taking at the time. Lately I have succombed to the smorgasbord and am taking 2 or even 3 classes at a time. While good for my broad knowledge it does not allow me to get deeply into anything. My most recent courses are paleobiology and I find that the forums are as busy as ever but I am not contributing as much. The truly fasinating thing about MOOC’s is that it is all still evolving – both the offerings and the students – so it is probably still too early to say where this is all going.

7 02 2014
cchung90

Thanks, great points…perhaps an exception that proves the rule, but I’m taking the ‘History of the Slave South’ (i.e. U.S. South until the Civil War), and find it to be rich.

And it covered some interesting historical methods, such as efforts to collect comprehensive data on slave trade numbers via ship records.

8 02 2014
Jeanne Pickering

Being one of those “highly educated, career oriented” folks, I believe you’ve all missed something here. Yes, indeed, we are the ones with “the time and especially the incentive to take advantage of everything that MOOCs have to offer.” Why do you think we want banality? Why do you think it will take soft-porn to keep us coming?

Isn’t it more likely that we are the ones who are looking to experience again what we felt when we were students – the “click” of having our minds opened up, the joy of learning something new, the satisfaction of knowing something in depth? The ones for whom History Channel programs, PBS specials and David McCullough’s latest are just not even close to what we want?

Who are these “thousands of students will undoubtedly rather enroll in the easy MOOC with no reading or writing requirements that they know they can complete than the hard MOOC that they’ll just surf through occasionally on the way to greener pastures.” Frankly, they sound more like the 18 year old Freshman than the “white, male retired physics professors of the world”.

I wonder if, because most college professors teach 18 – 22 year olds, the MOOC professors and administrators simply can not see what is in front of their noses. Well-educated people are well-educated because they love learning. They like intellectual challenges, they crave the sense of growth that comes from depth. They are also least likely, being “career” people to have the time or the opportunity to enroll in courses they will have to attend in person. They are the unfilled demand – not the young, uneducated.

Perhaps the lesson to be learned from the MOOCs is that there is a market out there for education for mature, educated adults if you can provide it in a form that accommodates the limitations in their lives.

9 02 2014
Mazel

Jeanne, of course “there is a market out there for education for mature, educated adults.” I think most of us here in More or Less Bunkland would agree that MOOCs can serve that market. But the main question is whether MOOCs can adequately serve the far more lucrative market of 18-22 year olds eligible for state and federal financial aid. That’s where the money is, and that’s where profit-oriented MOOCs will try to go. The fear (my fear, at least) is that Coursera will turn out to be the 21st century version of Everest College, hoovering up financial aid $$$ for delivering an inferior education. My fear is that MOOCs will turn out to be worse for those students than traditional face-to-face education, but will take over anyway simply because they’re cheaper. Do we want a world in which F2F is only for the elite and the masses have to settle for MOOCs? If this is the question, then the suitability of MOOCs for the already educated is irrelevant.

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