The MOOC don’t work ’cause the vandals took the handles.

11 02 2014

“If you look at sub-Saharan Africa, the place where education is hardest to achieve – in the Western world, 70 percent of the students of college age are enrolled in either a two-year or a four-year program and the average years of education you can expect if you were born today in the United States is 16 years. If you were born in sub-Saharan Africa, then less than 10 percent of the kids go to any kind of college [or] any kind of post-high school, and your average years of education are eight. So there’s something I think to add to the rest of the world…And that’s a good thing for Stanford to do, it’s a good thing to do for the rest of the world, and then we can do it with relatively little cost associated with us at the end.”

- Stanford President John Hennessey, Stanford Daily, October 30, 2012.

But skeptics say the virtues of MOOCs also are emerging as vices.

“Two words are wrong in ‘MOOC’: massive and open,” Stanford President John Hennessy said in a widely noted interview with the Financial Times.

- Meghan Drake, “Old School rules! Wisdom of massive open online courses now in doubt,” Washington Times, February 9, 2014.

What’s gotten into John Hennessey? Doesn’t he want to educate the people of sub-Saharan Africa anymore? More importantly, how does the leader of the school mostly responsible for pushing MOOC mania on all of us get off being depicted in any major publication as a MOOC skeptic?

You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows and the wind has not been blowing in the direction of MOOCs for some months now. Anti-MOOC really is the new black. That’s why all the alleged “MOOC skeptics” that the Washington Times has interviewed want to mend MOOCs not end them. The MOOC don’t work ’cause the vandals took the handles, they’re essentially telling us. When we put the handles back on, everything will be right with the tsunami again.

Of course, putting the handles back on will take more time and more money. To get both, the MOOC Messiah Squad had to adopt a new tone. While it was once hip to claim that the world of higher education was about to change forever, it’s now hip to claim the exact opposite. Consider Dartmouth:

Dartmouth College recently announced a partnership with edX. Joshua Kim, director of digital learning initiatives at the Dartmouth Center for the Advancement of Learning, said the college is starting to add MOOC courses slowly because it “very consciously did not want to jump on the bandwagon.”

Dartmouth will add four MOOCs in the next couple of semesters, Mr. Kim said, but they will not be substitutes for and will not change regular Dartmouth courses.

“The promise of MOOCs has been overpromised,” he said.

MOOCs have been overhyped. Therefore, Kim tells us, Dartmouth’s MOOCs will be hyped just right:

“Lifelong learners will be able to take part in a Dartmouth course, but they will not receive a Dartmouth education,” he said.

Don’t call it a Dartmouth education, then nobody will get confused and everything will be OK.

You can see the same futile obsession with superficial labeling issues in Coursera’s History and Future of Higher Ed MOOC, which I’m not taking, but have been following in blogland. Here’s Tamson Pietsch and Melonie Fullick describing the assumptions behind that course:

In the framing of the course higher education is cast as something whose features ‘were designed specifically to prepare workers and leaders of the Industrial Age’ – the Fordist era of the Model T. But since public access to the internet was made available in 1993 (on April 22 to be precise) everything – so we learn – about ‘our lives, our work, our occupations, our culture and our entertainments’ has changed. Our education, it is suggested, needs to catch up.

They beat that assumption senseless in the next few paragraphs, but I couldn’t even get that far. Before I ever got there I couldn’t help but wonder how a course devoted to ending educational Fordism could assume the most educationally Fordist structure possible; namely, an xMOOC. Teach one thing. Do another. Perhaps Cathy Davidson wants higher education to evolve beyond MOOCs someday. Sadly, if you carry the hierarchical, every-student-for-themselves assumptions inherent in an xMOOC into the future you will never escape the reasons why so many caring educators oppose MOOCs in the first place.

Let’s try to make this perfectly clear to the people who are sick of the MOOC bandwagon and want to hop on the anti-MOOC bandwagon instead: The problem with MOOCs isn’t the name. Its not even the components of that acronym. The problem with MOOCs is that they’re being designed to create low-quality, hierarchical courses that can be championed by unscrupulous administrators to fire caring professors and leave unsuspecting students to fend entirely for themselves. In short, it’s not the quantity (of students), it’s the quality that’s the problem.

Cosmetic changes will not solve these problems. Only re-thinking the entire xMOOC experience from the ground up will have even the slightest chance of creating something worthwhile. Unfortunately for the get-rich-quick edtech entrepreneur crowd out there, this is unlikely to be all that revolutionary or all that profitable. This, unfortunately, will do nothing to stop them from trying to disrupt the rest of us anyway.

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6 responses

11 02 2014
Mazel

Sigh…. I did the click thingie and noticed that the “History and Future of (Mostly) Higher Education” MOOC has three suggested readings:

— Now You See It: How Technology and the Brain Science of Attention Will Change the Way We Live, Work and Learn.

— The 21st Century Collective, Field Notes for 21st Century Literacies: A Guide to New Theories, Methods, and Practices for Open Peer Teaching and Learning.

— Future of Thinking: Learning Institutions in a Digital Age.

So, these are “suggested,” and they’re all three about the future (and maybe, with #2, a little bit about the present). No history in sight.

I next spent about 20 seconds on Google and found several syllabi for courses in the history of higher ed. At the top of the list is “Foundations of Higher Education” (Adrianna Kezar, U of Southern California). Here’s the reading list:

Dewey, John (1944). Democracy and education.
Friere, Paulo (1999). Pedagogy of the oppressed.
Kerr, Clark. (2001). The uses of the university.
Lucas, C. (1994). American higher education: A history.
Newman, John Henry. (1986). The idea of a university.
Palmer, P. (1993). To know as we are known: education as a spiritual journey.
Noddings, Nel. (1998). Philosophy of education.

So we’ve got “History and Future of (Mostly) Higher Education” and we’ve got “Foundations of Higher Education.” One of these courses is not like the other one. One of them is going to give you an actual working knowledge of the history of American higher education, and the other is not. One of them is going to give you a good foundation from which to extrapolate into the future, and the other is not.

But wait, you say: the REAL courses would cost me a lot of money and require me to pick and move to LA or WV, but MOOCs allow me to learn at home in my pajamas!

But if I were to go to the library or to Amazon and get even half the books on Kezar’s list, and then take the time to actually read them, I’d learn a helluva a lot more than I would in the MOOC, and still not have to get out of my pajamas.

But wait, you say: without the MOOC, I can’t discuss things with thousands of other people from around the globe!

Actually, I could do something even better. First, all genuine reading is dialogic, and reading Dewey or Freire in print is probably more instructively dialogic than engaging online with some Thomas Friedman wannabe. Second, even without a MOOC, I could hook up with other people and form an online reading group, read the books, and we could all discuss to our heart’s content (I could do this maybe here, maybe on Diane Ravitch’s blog, maybe on a social media site, maybe on a site specifically designed for this sort of thing) — with the advantage of actually having something substantial to discuss in the first place.

Imagine all the people … reading books about, and then discussing the history and future of, higher ed — and actually knowing what the hell they’re talking about. THAT would be worth some hype.

11 02 2014
tom abeles

Hi Mazel
An excellent analysis, particularly when mapped against the HASTAC “History and Future of (Mostly) Higher Education. That course, as Jonathan notes, has little to no substantive materials dealing even with the contemporary “history” of the HEI’s much less from the founding of the first HEI’s. Its overtly stated rationale is to attempt to instigate a student movement, largely focused on the issue of government (primarily US) defunding the HEI’s and denying students (particularly economically disenfranchised) the ability to, not as you suggest, learn via many vehicles, but to access degree granting institutions.

The irony, of course, is that this is being pushed by a medallion, selective admissions, institution at the very time when most universities are even denying the value of not only underpaid degreed adjuncts but also campus support workers such as in food services (as we see with the issues in Vermont). Thus academia is playing the Wal Mart equivalent, in the US, of using government to offset benefits while asking more in support of their own programs.

It might be interesting for Jonathan to show how his institution provides for its workforce from groundskeepers to president.

You and Jonathan are right. x-MOOC’s as exemplified by the HASTAC MOOC are basically large lectures going from bricks to clicks to clicks on steroids. They are equivalent in education to the auto industry adding larger tail fins to ever bloated vehicles when faced with arising alternatives as cogently pointed out by Christensen and others. MOOC’s are the canary in the coal mine.

12 02 2014
John

In general, there seems to be a clear relationship between the deployment of MOOC and MOOC-like on line instruction, built around watching videos, and the decline of reading. As J. Rees has pointed out, this is partly a practical issue: students doing X can’t be expected to do Y: there are only so many hours in a day. But I think beyond that there’s a sense in the activist wing of the technology sector that reading (deep reading first and foremost, as in multiple titles about one issue, but even reading tout court) is passe, that what we all need is a exec summary and we’re good to go. That this judgment serves the technology they have chosen — which by its nature makes deep reading hard (on the eyes, among other things) and also fragments our attention (into “the shallows”)–is a feature, not a bug, though an unacknowledged one. To acknowledge it as such would of course mean coming face to face with the idea that this progress is regress, and political rather than inevitable: both anathema to people who think they know and are the future.

12 02 2014
tom abeles

Hi John
X-MOOC’s like Coursera do exactly what they were meant to do, duplicate the large lecture, which, as Wesch has shown, is anathema. The student conversation section is actually not well designed to be convefsational. There is much better social media from the past and currently

Most conversations in these spaces is like trying to solve the crisis in Syria between periods while sitting in a sports bar “Close-reading”??!

As I have said, following the classical insights of the late Max Boisot’s Knowledge Assets, basic post secondary knowledge is asymptotically approaching zero (unless you want it hand-crafted) and fungible across geo-political boundaries. This changes the fucntion/need of the traditional academic and definitely the business model of the post secondary institution. To quote from Star Trek, “Resistance is Futile, We will Assimilate You.”

Or one might want to quote Foucault, Wordsworth, Eliot or even Christensen?

14 02 2014
Max Masnick

I think you’re wrong here — higher education desperately needs disruption.
In my experience, there are many professors who are just not good teachers. If MOOCs cost profs who are bad at teaching that portion of their salary, in favor of better online content then this will be a huge benefit to students.
(This applies most to large classes where one-on-one interaction happens with TAs, not engaged faculty. For these classes, replacing crappy lectures with good MOOC content is a win for everyone.)
This is obviously a problem for academics who aren’t good at teaching but use teaching to subsidize their research. If good researchers can’t cover their salary with research alone, this is a systemic problem that definitely needs to be addressed. But not at the expense of students.
Moving some course content online and having content that isn’t provided by the institution a student is attending doesn’t mean that the entire higher education system will be dismantled. There’s a middle ground here that would benefit everyone (except bad teachers).

20 02 2014
Is MOOCs the future of learning? | Teacher Sherrie

[…] The MOOC don’t work ’cause the vandals took the handles. […]

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