MOOCs and the promise of universal higher education.

29 05 2014

I’ve been writing about MOOCs for so long now, that I’ve grown terribly afraid that I might repeat myself. On second thought, I shouldn’t worry too much because at least some members of the MOOC Messiah Squad are still partying like it’s 2012. This piece in IHE is fairly innocuous propaganda in the great scheme of things, but there’s a reason it really bothers me (and it’s not just that the class in question is a history MOOC). [Dedicated MOOC obsessives like myself should now go read the link, guess what I’m talking about here and come back.]

Here it goes: In all those numbers, did you see a denominator anywhere? In other words, we know in great detail now how many students in History 229X did what, but how many of them didn’t do what they were supposed to do? How many of them failed (voluntarily or otherwise)? There’s a hint in the piece:

Some critics of MOOCs have pointed to the fact that only a small percentage of those who register for MOOCs routinely “finish” classes. Students in MOOCs can engage in such courses in a variety of ways, but it is true that about 6% of the students who registered for my class completed the final exam.

Thanks to Mark Cheathem, who did the math for me, I know that means about 19,500 students started in the class, which means an “astonishing” 18,000+ students did not complete the course! If my classes had dropout rates like that I’d never have gotten tenure.

Of course, those of us who even bother to read the MOOC literature anymore have seen this kind of dispute pop up countless times. The superprofessor who authored this piece, Guy M. Rogers of Wellesley, is therefore well prepared for my line of argument:

But the total of 1162 students taking the final exam in this one course is more students than I have taught at Wellesley College over the past ten years. Even more incredibly 554 got perfect scores on the final. Overall, 1039 earned a passing grade in the course and received a certificate. Out of those, 760 finished with 90 points or above on all the exams and exercises and thus became members of our course Honor Roll.

OK, I’ll admit it: MOOCs can teach smart, self-motivated people with an internet connection and lost of time on their hands (like retired physics professors, for example) lots of content knowledge, but how are they going to reach everybody else?

That question takes me back to the infamous Daphne Koller TED talk. This part is from the very beginning (so even you folks who couldn’t stomach it all the way to the end might remember it):

In some parts of the world, for example, South Africa, education is just not readily accessible. In South Africa, the educational system was constructed in the days of apartheid for the white minority. And as a consequence, today there is just not enough spots for the many more people who want and deserve a high quality education. That scarcity led to a crisis in January of this year at the University of Johannesburg. There were a handful of positions left open from the standard admissions process, and the night before they were supposed to open that for registration, thousands of people lined up outside the gate in a line a mile long, hoping to be first in line to get one of those positions. When the gates opened, there was a stampede, and 20 people were injured and one woman died. She was a mother who gave her life trying to get her son a chance at a better life.

I happen to find that story offensive. Of course, this was the whole point of that Campaign for the Future of Higher Education video: Coursera is not really trying to save anybody’s life. They’re trying to make money. Bringing higher education to the developing world is just an accident of Coursera’s nonexistent business plan.

But don’t miss what else is going on here. Koller, and by extension the rest of the MOOC Messiah Squad, are performing a huge intellectual switcheroo by making arguments like this one. They’re replacing the promise of universal higher education with the promise of universal ACCESS to higher education. We’ll let you listen to our superprofessors for free, she is essentially saying, but you have to do the hard work of obtaining an actual education all by yourself.

It doesn’t take a practicing teacher to tell you that most people in the world aren’t as gifted as Benjamin Franklin was. Most students need dedicated, trained instructors to help them learn the skills that higher education can provide, and when they don’t get that help they drop out of their MOOCs in droves. For all the bragging superprofessors like Guy M. Rogers offer up about the sheer numbers of students that pass, they are always leaving far more people behind, thereby making a sick joke out of the promise of universal education. In fact, it’s we supposed Luddites who care much more about making higher education effective than the MOOC Messiah Squad does, who’d rather just focus on the people they educated who probably have an education already.

Shouldn’t the alleged liberals amongst the superprofessoriate be able see this instantly or have their egos blinded them to reality? The whole theoretical framework behind this kind of argument is just so…so…so…Republican that it makes me want to cry.

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9 responses

29 05 2014
Anonymous

Wesleyan is offering MOOCs (who isn’t?) but this guy is Wellesley, not Wesleyan.

29 05 2014
Jonathan Rees

Oops. Now fixed. Thanks.

29 05 2014
Sporch Ezza

I bet Guy Rogers *is* a Republican; he certainly spent some of his earlier academic career as an early ’90’s culture warrior. His scholarly work on the worship of Artemis at Ephesus is great, but it would not scale up to the glittering-generality level of a MOOC; also, a macho general has much more marquee value than a girl god.

30 05 2014
An xMOOC measure I’d like to see – $/student #MOOC | Rebecca J. Hogue

[…] Jonathan Rees’ latest rant about MOOCs “MOOCs and the promise of higher education“, a new measure of effectiveness occurred to me. I totally disagree with Jonathan’s […]

30 05 2014
Mark R. Cheathem

In case no one noticed, almost half of those who took Rogers’ final exam made perfect scores. Almost HALF.

30 05 2014
pcgates

What I considered to be the main problem with that whole article is that it gives almost no detail on actual course content. We hear about how students keep passing the exams with high grades, but too little content is given for readers to be able to figure out test quality. Are the students smart or the tests easy? Considering what little information was given about the remaining assignments, I tend to think the latter. Only the quizzes, exams, and surveys are mandatory, everything else (including the source critical writing assignment) is “voluntary.” I took online courses at a budget community college, and even those had beefier content and assignments. This entire MOOC seems unreliable to me, since we only see quantitative and not qualitative results (a simple grade does not count as a measure of quality, especially when it is quoted without context). Perhaps I am jumping to conclusions. The fact that some sort of knowledge reached 1162 people is kind of neat. However, the quality issues still bug me. I worry about this mode of learning being praised when its results are kept so vague.

31 05 2014
Maha Bali

Hi Jonathan, I wonder if the real problem in Koller’s talk is the assumption that sending the global North “education” via video is less problematic or colonial or divisive than white apartheid education. And of course what you point out indirectly: that it is more a consolation prize while other more privileged people get a “real” education.
But I think there is one assumption you make, which is that everyone who drops out of MOOCs do so because they *couldn’t* finish it (e.g. Not independent learners, etc.) whereas I know you know (but it’s not clear from this post) that many never intend to finish (are just dipping in) or leave because the quality of the MOOC is actually POOR! Or they’re just busy or whatever. I have finished some mediocre MOOCs, and once even finished a MOOC unintentionally by doing nothing but taking the final exam (had not realized it was the only assessment, but it was the reason i signed up for the MOOC, to see the exam!) Have i “completed” it? I did not even see the syllabus or do a single reading or watch a video or join any discussions.
MOOCs (both xMOOCs and cMOOCs) need to stop with the rhetoric and recognize what they really are and what they can do, and stop pretending to be something they’re not

7 06 2014
Weekend Reading | Backslash Scott Thoughts

[…] MOOCs and the Promise of Universal Higher Education. […]

1 07 2014
Peter Onuf on MOOCs |

[…] revenue, all to the detriment of the vast majority of faculty. For all of their rhetoric about democratizing education and saving the world, venture capitalists are interested in making money and/or exercising power, […]

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