Reinventing the wheel.

27 03 2014

What’s old is new again in edtech land. While that’s always been true to some extent, what’s new now is that this constant effort at reinvention has begun to take MOOCs as the status quo to be contrasted against rather than what they once were, namely the bright, shiny new thing that will save us all.

You say you want evidence for this trend? The folks who produce one particular online program tweeted this at me last week, presumably because the author used my Slate article as a jumping off point:

As a social phenomenon, access to education in this way – that is available for everyone, for free – is unprecedented and changing the way we live, work and learn. No one wants to move away from that or undo the huge steps forward we have made. But, as we have seen, it is not a perfect system. Something needs to change to utilise this power to its best advantage, to take what we have learned and move it a step further. Students need interaction with their teachers and fellow students. They need support. What we have seen so far is that MOOCs fail to address the need for communication as a learning tool.

Their solution? “[A] combination of online learning and personal interaction.” Don’t get me wrong: That’s certainly an improvement over MOOCs, but something like that’s been available for about twenty years now. They’re called online classes. You know…the non-massive ones. Certainly online classes are not all the same, particularly since the more student/teacher interaction they foster the better. However, to claim that personal attention is somehow an exclusive selling point of this one provider requires a rather selective reading of edtech history.

Nevertheless, others have actually invented their own new acronym for doing what some people have been doing for ages now. My much-valued commenter and online friend Contingent Cassandra sent me this link:

Small Private Online Courses (SPOCs) on the other hand, are purposely focusing on class size as a sort of opposite of the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC). A University Business article emphasizes that this isn’t a new model, but one that may be finding a broader audience as school and corporate partners offer specialized curricula to small groups of (17-20) learners. These numbers mean that the kinds of support often missing in MOOCs and other large classes – such as personalized feedback and coaching, and opportunities for real-world experience – are more readily available.

That sound you hear is a whole slew of dedicated online instructors hitting their heads against their desks over and over again. Certainly offering online students this kind of personal attention beats what they’d get in MOOCs, but when you get right down to it that’s not a very high standard, is it? The other important question is how long can these Small Private Online Courses can stay small. When will the profit motive that even public universities now express regularly get the best of any instructor’s best intentions?

Leaving the substantial minority of people who do really innovative teaching online aside, the question then becomes how should we judge online education as a whole. What does online education get right that we can’t do in face-to-face classes? What does it get wrong? More importantly, why does it get what it gets wrong wrong? New UC Chancellor Janet Napalitano (of all people) may have hit the nail on the head here:

“There’s a developing consensus that online learning is a tool for the toolbox, but it’s harder than it looks and if you do it right, it doesn’t save all that much money,” Napolitano told about 500 policy and education experts at a speaker series sponsored by the Public Policy Institute of California….

Online courses may indeed prove to be useful, she said, but more as a way to augment upper-division work for students who are already deeply engaged in their subject matter.

Let the people who have already learned how to learn learn online. Give all the students who don’t know how to learn yet the attention they deserve. More importantly, let them get all the attention that they can get in a classroom setting before you give them the option of entering the brave old world of online education. When online education at all levels of instruction becomes the only option for the vast majority of students, higher education will have failed us all.

Reinventing the wheel here is hardly a pedagogical imperative. It’s not even a financial imperative, since (as Napolitano points out) online education doesn’t really save universities all that much money. Just because you can teach students online doesn’t mean you should teach students online, especially in massive open online courses that offer no individual attention at all unless students win a lottery or beg for it.

When all is said and done it’s not the teacher/student relationship that’s broken. What’s broken is the political economy of higher education that has convinced some people to consider even the worst forms of online education an imperative in the first place.

“You never give me your money.”

25 03 2014

When is a business not a business? When it’s in the edtech business! How do I know? This quote from the new Coursera CEO, former Yale President Richard Levin talking to the Chronicle is typical of a whole genre of similar sentiments:

The company has disbursed some payments to its university partners from revenue generated by its Signature Track program, which offers “verified” certificates to MOOC students in exchange for fees. But so far, the returns for Coursera’s partners have been largely intangible.

Mr. Levin said he was not too worried about that. “Intangible returns are, in fact, the kinds of returns that we, at universities, are in the business to provide,” he told The Chronicle.

[Emphasis added]

Yet if you read all the business-oriented coverage of Levin’s hiring, you’d see them discuss very little else besides the possibility of Coursera’s tangible returns. Here’s Anya Kamenetz (of all people) hassling them because students never give them their money:

The money problem is a big one. Coursera’s growth so far has been funded by investment. They have been experimenting with different ways to attract revenue. Advertising, the most obvious choice, would likely be off-putting to students and university partners. At the end of 2012, Coursera announced a recruitment service, where employers would pay for access to users. But this didn’t get much traction.

A little over a year ago, they introduced a ”Signature Track,” which provides learners verification of their identity and course completion for a fee. Nine months later they announced $1 million in revenue from Signature Track. But that compares to $85 million in investment that the company has already taken on, from venture capitalists who expect large returns. It also translates into a 4/10 of one percent adoption rate, with just 25,000 of 7 million users opting to pay. Successful “freemium” companies, which offer some services for free and others for pay, typically have 2 to 4 percent paying users–five to ten times more than Coursera is reporting. In order to be sustainable, Coursera needs a lot more paying customers.

But wait!!! I thought Coursera’s mission was to bring education to the people who couldn’t afford it? Remember all those geniuses in lesser-developed countries? That argument is for TED talks and the New York Times. Can you imagine if Coursera’s VCs complained that the company never gave them its money and Richard Levin told them that they should be satisfied with “intangible returns?” Since the Chronicle told us that he’s being compensated with an ownership stake in the company, I think that scenario is by definition impossible.

Then there’s the question of paying students in developed countries. Here’s Ray Schroeder in the WSJ talking about other potential revenue streams:

“Coursera has huge potential,” Mr. Schroeder said. “The roadblock has always been accreditation.”

He estimates that with accreditation the company could charge in the neighborhood of $300 for a course and still undercut the cost of most other accredited courses by several hundred or even several thousand dollars.

I hate to point out the obvious, but charge $300 a course and Coursera’s initial sign up numbers are going to plummet. Their MOOCs would also cease to be actual MOOCs. Take out the massive and take out the open and you’re left with online courses, or OCs. If they’re automated, they won’t be particularly good online courses either.

While I’ve been picking on the stupidity of the phrase “intangible returns,” I should also note how stupid it is to suggest that universities are simply in the business of providing them too. It’s the determination of the modern university administrator to run their institutions like businesses that have already made so many online courses unrelentingly awful. In other words, Levin isn’t just fibbing on behalf of his new company. He’s fibbing on behalf of his new company’s clients too.

When all is said and done then, ed tech businesses are in fact businesses. It’s just that edtech businesses are less honest about it than those in other industries.


18 03 2014

I’ve been writing about stories lately. Certainly, MOOCs have stories, but so does online education in general. One of the virtues of reading the higher education coverage in Forbes is that you can read the stories that entrepreneurs tell each other rather than just cover stories that they tell the general public. I find this one particularly horrifying:

Academic Partnerships helps colleges move some of their degree programs–usually those with a professional or vocational slant–online. The company spends an average of $2 million per school (it currently has 40 U.S. campuses and 17 international ones) to acquire online students, digitize lessons, set up back-end administrative and technical support, and tutor professors in the ABCs of the virtual classroom.

In return it takes a 50% cut of the tuition, which at some schools can be as costly as a traditional degree. The company says it has so far recruited 82,000 students, with an 85% retention rate. When they graduate, those students are granted transcripts and diplomas that are indistinguishable from ones earned the old-fashioned way.

Faced with biting criticism from a professor at Arkansas State (one of the schools that outsourced its masters degree programs), Academic Partnerships Founder and CEO has a storyline for public consumption:

“The whole idea of exclusiveness, as if it’s some kind of virtue to turn down large numbers of students, seems like a moral dilemma for a public institution, doesn’t it?” he asks, eyebrows arched. “They do consider it a virtue. But turning students away, historically, was based on a limited number of seats. You wanted the best students for those seats. Today, thanks to the Internet, you have unlimited seats. Exclusiveness is going to lead some universities to extinction. Inclusiveness is the future.”

High volume. Low quality. While this may be a virtue for selling manufactured products, education is not a manufactured product. Writing for the Chronicle, David M. Perry of Dominican University explains why an education is different from ordinary consumer exchanges very well:

Tell faculty members that they are obligated to treat students like customers, and the instructors will either eschew rigor in favor of making satisfaction guaranteed or work defensively lest they be harangued by the irate customer. Tell students that they are consumers, and they will act like consumers but ultimately learn less and perhaps not even receive the credential that they think they are buying.

Of course he’s right, but we can tell this story until we’re blue in the face and the people who control university budgets will just pat us all on the head, say “That’s a nice story,” and then continue to outsource the classes we all teach to outfits like Academic Partnerships anyway. We need to have a better story than that in order for the vast majority of us to keep our jobs.

Cathy Davidson has a story. Having just finished her MOOC about higher education, and argues:

We at Hastac wanted to see if the 18,000-plus participants who ended up registering for the course could help galvanize a movement on behalf of educational changes that any professor, department, or school could begin to carry out today. The short answer (surprise, surprise!) is that it takes infrastructure, planning, and human labor to make real change. I believe parts of this could be replicated by anyone wishing to create a real-world movement from a MOOC.

The idea of a mass movement to change higher education is also a nice story. While I agree that such a thing is possible, what’s going to prevent the people who control university budgets from simply patting us all on the head, saying “That’s a nice story,” and then continue to outsource the classes we all teach to outfits like Academic Partnerships anyway? If everyone in search of change in higher ed is all telling a different story, it will be easier for the people in power to ignore us all.

While I have yet to develop the sublime version of a professor-centered, technologically-enhanced higher education system of the future, I know it involves some combination of professorial craft knowledge, faculty organization and student/faculty coalitions. Their story involves disruption. My story involves using technology to preserve the human interaction that’s essential for real learning while eliminating the threat of automation that will only benefit the edu-preneurs of the world while doing nothing for our students.

Groundhog Day.

7 03 2014

I think I know how Phil Connors felt. Or maybe it’s how Audrey Watters feels every day. The longer I keep reading stuff about MOOCs, the more I feel like I’m caught in some kind of bizarre time warp. For example, something about this article just drives me crazy:

Imagine the potential of MOOCs! they claimed—universally obtainable college classes taught to millions of learners by cream-of-the-crop professors for free or very low cost. The democratization of elite education! Some even predicted that MOOCs—now boasting more than 10 million students and thousands of classes—would do nothing less than revolutionize higher education, making residential colleges obsolete in the process.

But all that rises soon must fall.

Negative critiques began mounting—from longtime educators, faculty unions and watch guards of traditional pedagogy. Many said the MOOC phenomenon was, at its core, a threat to brick-and-mortar colleges and an affront to the traditional purveyors of higher education. After early data showed that some 90 percent of MOOC students drop out before completing courses, critics declared proof of failure. Just a few months ago, critics almost cheered when a study by the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education found that MOOC student engagement falls off an even steeper cliff shortly after each class begins, with course-completion rates averaging more like 4 percent. Meanwhile, it was also becoming clear that most of those who completed MOOCs were already highly educated, decidedly motivated. Slate published a blistering critique, NPR aired a negative take, and other headlines across the country took up a new pessimistic chant with: “Are MOOCs already over?” (The Washington Post), “Are MOOCS Really A Failure?” (Forbes), “All Hail MOOCs! Just Don’t Ask if They Actually Work” (Time).

Don’t get me wrong here: “MOOCs are up, MOOCs are down” is a lot better than “MOOCs are about to take over the world.” And certainly, I agree with everything Mark Brown (the designated anti-MOOC spokesperson for this article) says in the parts that I haven’t excerpted (and whose blog is the reason I saw it in the first place). I think my problem is that people have been doing these “Introduction to MOOCs” articles for at least two years! Can we pleez haz sum analysis now?

Therefore, in the spirit of helping reporters everywhere get over the learning curve and to prevent me from developing a need to rob a bank, commit suicide or punch Ned Ryerson in the face, I have developed the following six rules for anyone writing about MOOCs, whether they’re doing so for the first time or whether it’s their daily beat:

1. MOOCs and online learning are not the same thing. If you can’t tell the difference between a MOOC and a regular online class, you should go back to reworking Chamber of Commerce press releases for the local free paper distributed at the shopping center. Stop reading now. Do not pass go. Do not collect $200. I don’t even want to talk to you, let alone try to explain stuff this obvious.

2. There is more than one kind of MOOC. Of course I’m referring to the difference between xMOOCs and cMOOCs, but really there’s even so many more kinds than that. There are corporate MOOCs and non-corporate MOOCs. There are MOOCs that last fourteen weeks and MOOCs that last six days. There are MOOCs that take themselves seriously and MOOCs (like that “Walking Dead” MOOC) that don’t. Writing as if all MOOCs are the same does a tremendous disservice to the different kinds of innovations that have been taken up under the term that all those nice Canadians coined originally to mean a very specific kind of class. I try very hard on this blog to be very specific about what kinds of MOOCs I’m criticizing (and very occasionally) what kind of MOOC I’m praising. Reporters should too.

3. Teaching computer science is not the same thing as teaching literature. Geez, this should go without saying, but it clearly doesn’t. Just because you flipped your pharmacy class successfully with MOOC lectures doesn’t mean that my history class can do the same thing. Indeed, just because you flipped your pharmacy class doesn’t mean that all pharmacy professors can achieve the goals that they want their students to meet by using MOOCs. I’m sick and tired of superprofessors getting up on their high horse and declaring that they’ve solved every educational problem for all time when the best they could possibly hope to achieve is to find an educational format that works for the unique circumstances facing them and their students.

4. Faculty attitudes towards MOOCs are best expressed by a spectrum, not by two warring factions. Do I hate MOOCs? No. As I’ve written elsewhere, “I’m not actually against everything.” Do I hate top down administrative control of technology and pedagogy? Yes. Do you know what I really love? Faculty autonomy. Really, we all just want the right and the resources to do our own thing. Let a professor make his own MOOC and implement it on his or her terms and you won’t hear a peep out of me (as long as you doing your own thing doesn’t impinge on others doing their own thing too).

5. Your historical analogies are bullshit. Higher ed is like the newspaper industry! Higher ed is like the early film industry! Higher ed is like the record industry! These are not objective musings that come as a result of historical research, but, as I wrote a long time ago now, these analogies are really just heavy-handed attempts to shut down discussions about the effects of technological change so that a select group of people can profit from it. This particular kind of technological determinism requires ignoring the very subjective ways that politics, power and culture shape changes in technology over time. In a way, I guess the point of all my MOOC blogging has been to do precisely the opposite in an edtech context because you aren’t ever going to read Clayton Christensen, Clay Shirky or Daphne Koller do anything of the sort.

6. The revolution will not be televised. The revolution will not be Chronicle-d. It will not be Inside Higher Education-ed. It will not be Techcrunch-ed. It will not be Pando Daily-ed. In fact, most technological revolutions happen at such slow speeds that nobody ever notices them.

Consider this bullshit historical analogy of my own: The electric household refrigerator first appeared in American homes during the early 1920s. A majority of American homes had a refrigerator in them sometime during WWII. Yet, while working on my book, plenty of people told me that their houses had iceboxes or that their houses had ice delivery men come to their door during the late-1950s and early-1960s. How could this be? Refrigerators were cheap, and so convenient! The answer is simple really: Markets are not perfectly efficient and plenty of people resist change for a wide variety of reasons, including ones that have nothing to do with money. In other words, my bullshit historical analogy demonstrates why all historical analogies are bullshit, at least in a technological context.

If you can think of another rule that I’ve forgotten, please leave it in the comments below.

“I walk the line.”

4 03 2014

Here’s a little-known fact about me: I used to be a Walmart blogger. That blog is still updated occasionally by my friend Jeff in Cleveland, but a few years back I came to the decision that I could do more to help my own profession through blogging than I could the Walmart workers of the world (although they all still have my general support). Yet that experience was hardly a total bust. For one thing, it explains why I’m a vegetarian. It also explains why I once talked on the phone with the British journalist Simon Head.

I don’t remember exactly why he contacted me. I think I had written something about Walmart that implied that I knew more than I really did. What he ended up doing is schooling me on the evils of Walmart’s computerized scheduling system. The long and short of it is that Walmart schedules its workers on the basis of when its computer system predicts that customers will be in the store. If there aren’t enough people there to justify paying you, then you stay home. To make matters worse, Walmart demands that its employees be on call for work at any shift, any time, thereby making other jobs (or even going to school) that much more difficult. Since Head first wrote about that system, it’s become absolutely commonplace in workplaces of all kinds. It’s one very important reason why so many cheap employers today can employ all part-time workers and not be understaffed.

Head has a new book out now, Mindless: Why Smarter Machines Are Making Humans Dumber. You may have seen an excerpt from it about Amazon in Salon last month. I’ve read the whole thing now, and I can tell you it’s almost certainly going to be the most important book I’ll read all year. In essence, it is an update on Head’s earlier work on Walmart. Rather than just use the computer to dictate when your employer needs you to work, technology is now powerful enough for management to use it to dictate exactly how workers do their jobs. For example, here’s a bit from that excerpt about what Amazon warehouse workers do all day:

Amazon’s system of employee monitoring is the most oppressive I have ever come across and combines state-of-the-art surveillance technology with the system of “functional foreman,” introduced by Taylor in the workshops of the Pennsylvania machine-tool industry in the 1890s. In a fine piece of investigative reporting for the London Financial Times, economics correspondent Sarah O’Connor describes how, at Amazon’s center at Rugeley, England, Amazon tags its employees with personal sat-nav (satellite navigation) computers that tell them the route they must travel to shelve consignments of goods, but also set target times for their warehouse journeys and then measure whether targets are met.

All this information is available to management in real time, and if an employee is behind schedule she will receive a text message pointing this out and telling her to reach her targets or suffer the consequences. At Amazon’s depot in Allentown, Pennsylvania (of which more later), Kate Salasky worked shifts of up to eleven hours a day, mostly spent walking the length and breadth of the warehouse. In March 2011 she received a warning message from her manager, saying that she had been found unproductive during several minutes of her shift, and she was eventually fired. This employee tagging is now in operation at Amazon centers worldwide.

If you read Head’s entire book, you’ll see that these same principles are now being applied to white-collar jobs of all kinds. Work with a computer, you may be subject to this kind of Taylorism no matter what your particular income level happens to be.

In the book, Head notes the effect of this kind of management system on British universities. Unfortunately, he does not go the extra step of reporting (or even just predicting) the effect that these kinds of programs might have upon teachers involved in online education. Nevertheless, the implications should be obvious. Teach online and your every interaction – heck your every keystroke – is subject to scrutiny if you use a system that your employer controls. I’m not saying this is happening now everywhere, but it is easy to imagine that this will be happening somewhere soon. Even the best online educators will be subject to this kind of scrutiny if their employers care more about efficiency than they do about education.

Can this really happen? Well, look at MOOCs. Here’s Jim Groom, reviewing some recent history in that area:

MOOCs, as Siemens and Downes imagined them, are one of the few sources of true innovation you can point to in educational technology in recent history, and it was born from a higher ed/government relationship. Yet, within a couple of years the MOOC movement had become increasingly denatured and over-run by corporate boosterism that was redirecting the logic of experimentation and possibility to a rhetoric of how broken higher education is, and how Silicon Valley (poaching superstar faculty from Stanford with the allure of million of dollars) has come to its rescue. What was remarkable to me as I watched the MOOC experiment transform into a corporate takeover was how quickly and completely the alien pods took over the experimentation before it could breath. before it could even develop it was already a fully formed disruptive solution to a moribund institution. Innovation lost.

As I know I once read Marc Bousquet write somewhere, many universities admire the for-profit online approach and have rushed into it not to improve education, but to improve their own bottom lines. You may be convinced your online class is the best online class that can be given online (and it might very well be better than a lot of in-person lecture-only classes at giant state universities), but how long will your employer let you keep teaching it in the inefficient way that you’re teaching it now? I’m not saying this disaster is going to befall every online instructor, but it will certainly befall some of them as budgets grow tighter in higher education worldwide. The question then becomes, “Where will the line between the lucky and the unlucky get drawn?”

I’ve started to feel as if I walk that line every day. Our recent troubles here with our research downloads has reminded me that nothing lasts forever. This is particularly true for those of us who work at universities with administrations that do not value what skilled faculty bring to the educational table. If I am not swept up in a wave of digitization that will allow my job to be Taylorized, the CSU-System could still simply invest its resources in creating new campuses where a surveillance state can be constructed at birth.

As longtime readers know, I keep a close watch on this job of mine. I keep my eyes wide open all the time. But what happens if this kind of vigilance makes no difference?

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.

Freak out in a MOOC-age daydream.

16 12 2013

“We have this strong belief that you can only learn when you do something yourself and that you can’t really learn by watching somebody else talking at you.”

- Sebastian Thrun of Udacity, interviewed in Forbes, December 9, 2013.

He’s right, you know. Long-lasting, hard-thinking, critical reasoning-infused higher education is a lot of work and hard to do. Why then do each of the major MOOC providers’ platforms feature talking heads lecturing? Do they think they can somehow change the way that learning works if they do things their way frequently enough? This, I would argue, is the MOOC-age daydream: Automated learning can somehow become better than learning from another human being if we study it enough. I have news for you folks: It won’t because it can’t.

Much to their credit, a lot of superprofessors understand the limitations of their new medium. As Duke’s Dan Ariely explained to the PBS NewsHour:

Every week, students would pose some questions and I would go online and try to answer some of those, but it’s not the same.

Even some administrators now realize the contradiction of quality at the heart of any Massive Open Online Course. This, unbelievably enough, is the Chancellor of the California State University system, Timothy White:

White went further, calling a recent San Jose State experiment with the online startup Udacity — in which fewer than half of the students passed online courses — a failure.

“For those who say, ‘Well, Tim, you’ll save a lot of money if … you do more things online,’ that’s not correct,” he said.

That’s almost enough for me to forgive him for his 2011 appearance on “Undercover Boss” (which I called “appalling” at that time).

So why then are we still talking about MOOCs after all this time? Probably because money talks – or to put it another way, the predators need to find prey. Here’s my last new link for a post that’s turned out to be a gigantic link dump for everything I read since I started grading my final exams in the middle of last week, from Wired Campus this morning:

edX has created “a revenue-generating solutions division,” according to one slide. The organization has begun developing a range of fee-based services for different kinds of clients—not just colleges, but also government agencies and private companies. Those services include hosting and providing technical support for institutions that use edX’s open-source platform, OpenEdX.

How much revenue can that division generate for a product that can’t provide the same quality interactive instruction that a living, breathing professor can? Not much, as long as living, breathing professors are still a viable option for most students. Therefore, expect MOOC providers to just keep on freakin’ out until the money runs out (which might be rather soon).

Hopefully, the living breathing professors of the world can outlast them.

Teaching vs. broadcasting.

16 10 2013

I could have an entire category of posts in this blog entitled “Stupid Stuff the Founders of Coursera have said.” This is not one of those instances, but it’s kind of the exception that proves the rule as I think it tells you more about Daphne Koller’s attitude’s towards learning than any of her more obvious forehead-slappers. The context is an announcement that Coursera is pairing with the World Bank to launch MOOCs specifically designed for lesser-developed countries. This is from the Coursera blog, written by someone with PR skills:

Today we’re excited to share the news that we have partnered with The World Bank to offer a selection of their courses on development and poverty alleviation. This partnership, which is part of The World Bank’s new Open Learning Campus initiative, aims to give policymakers, on-the-ground practitioners and other interested parties access to valuable, practical knowledge on development strategies and challenges.

[Emphasis added]

Now here’s Daphne Koller from the World Bank’s press release:

“Since its launch, Coursera has experienced remarkable growth and momentum toward its mission to expand quality learning opportunities around the world for free. Among other areas of growth, Coursera continues to expand its capacity to deliver the best online learning centered on practical skills. An area of focus will be on social and economic development, and the partnership with the World Bank will be instrumental in this regard[.]”

[Emphasis added]

Did you notice that how “access to valuable, practical knowledge” in the first quote and “learning opportunities” at the beginning of Koller’s quote here evolves into the delivery of online learning by the end? I know I’m parsing, but for a very good reason. Online learning is not a commodity. Coursera can “deliver” all the knowledge in the world if it’s so-inclined, but that’s no guarantee that anybody is actually learning anything on the other end of that supply chain.

People who have a real interest in improving the quality of MOOCs have been debating precisely this issue ad nauseam for over a year now. The key feedback venue in MOOCs for learning from peers is the discussion forum and, as Robert McGuire recently explained, most of these aren’t exactly works of pedagogical genius:

Ironically, the biggest obstacle preventing MOOC students from forming relationships is the feature most relied on to encourage them. Discussion forums are the number one complaint by readers and contributors of MOOC News and Reviews, an online publication devoted to critiquing individual MOOC courses and the evolving MOOC landscape. Most MOOC discussion forums have dozens of indistinguishable threads and offer no way to link between related topics or to other discussions outside the platform. Often, they can’t easily be sorted by topic, keyword, or author. As a result, conversations have little chance of picking up steam, and community is more often stifled than encouraged.

As Phil Hill (where I got that link) noted after using that same quote:

There are several studies that appear to show that MOOC discussion forums have few students participating and that the forums are dominated by a small number of students.

He then goes on to detail those studies. Certainly this doesn’t mean that learning isn’t happening in the privacy and isolation of somebody’s computer room, but if you except the premise that there is a difference between learning and the delivery of knowledge it does make learning much less likely.

This problem is hardly specific to MOOCs. Debbie Morrison has authored a nice chart designed to help regular online instructors overcome participation problems in their inevitably much smaller classes. The solution to each problem she lists is something that the instructor can do to facilitate more participation and/or community. Unfortunately, if your course is massive, a superprofessor is unlikely to recognize that there’s a problem even if they’re more accessible than the Pope or Thomas Pynchon because you won’t have the time to give every student the individual attention that they deserve.

This important distinction reminds me of a term that the New Yorker‘s Nathan Heller’s applied to MOOCs in his piece from last spring and I don’t think I’ve seen since: broadcasting. Here are the relevant bits:

Supporters of moocs say that they are a different and heartier species. Rather than broadcasting a professor’s lectures out into the ether, to be watched or not, moocs are designed to insure that students are keeping up, by peppering them with comprehension and discussion tasks…

For decades, élite educators were preoccupied with “faculty-to-student ratio”: the best classroom was the one where everybody knew your name. Now top schools are broadcast networks.

Yes, MOOCs have multiple choice questions, discussion forums and places to upload essays for peer-grading, but there is no way that any MOOC provider can force or even cajole students into using any of these accoutrements that make actual learning more likely unless they hire faculty of some kind for every thirty or (at most) fifty students. To do that, however, would drive costs up so far that it would ruin their non-existent business model. All that’s left to do then is to broadcast knowledge and to hope that the people in lesser-developed countries and the retired physics professors of the world who are listening appreciate the opportunity enough to pay something for the privilege of access.

Somehow that doesn’t strike me as all that disruptive or revolutionary – as long we all agree on what the definition of learning is. However, if Daphne Koller’s definition of online learning wins the day, I fear for the future.

The MOOC hype cycle is older than you think.

19 09 2013

“A critic of technological development is no more ‘anti-technology’ than a movie critic is ‘anti-movie.’”

- David Noble, Digital Diploma Mills: The Automation of Higher Education (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2001), p. xii.

As you may have noticed, I’ve been going through a David Noble phase lately. You see, last week I was writing an article for a publication that is very close to my heart (which you should be reading after the first of the year) and I thought I’d go back to David Noble’s famous “Digital Diploma Mills” articles for a little historical perspective. While I had glanced at them back in the day and looked at them again recently because they came up on Twitter in some context, it suddenly hit me that I had never read his entire book. Therefore, I ordered it ILL and started reading it as soon as it arrived.

It became apparent almost instantly that while David Noble may be dead, his ideas in that book are more relevant than ever. This part of the first paragraph in Chapter Four (p. 50) actually gave me chills:

“Promoters of instructional technology and ‘distance learning’ advanced with ideological bravado as well as institutional power, the momentum of human progress allegedly behind them. They had merely to proclaim ‘it’s the future’ to throw skeptics on the defensive and convince seasoned educators that they belonged in the dustbin of history. The monotonal mantras about our inevitable wired destiny, the prepackaged palaver of silicon snake-oil salesmen, echoed through the halls of academe, replete with sophomoric allusions to historical precedent (the invention of writing and the printing press) and sound bites about the imminent demise of the ‘sage on the stage’ and ‘bricks and mortar institutions.’”

My first thought? David Noble = Nostradamus. Seriously, before reading that I would have bet money that Cathy Davidson had coined the term “sage on the stage.” What was once old is new again.

But then I got to the last line of that paragraph:

“Only a year or two later, however, the wind was out of their sails, their momentum broken, their confidence shaken.”

We now know that that didn’t last. Online education is now a major part of higher education. It is also a permanent part of higher education. What David Noble failed to foresee is that online education when done right can be very, very good. Indeed, as I’ve learned over the course of my posts on that subject on this blog, wonderful things can be done online that simply can’t be done in the face-to-face classroom. The real problem is not the act of taking education online, it’s the force of austerity and corporatization that turn something that can be wonderful into fodder for digital diploma mills.

So where does that leave MOOCs? Can we suppose that MOOCs will improve over time, just as online education has, and turn into something worthwhile? The new argument from the MOOC Messiah Squad seems to be, “Well, maybe we won’t change the world overnight, but MOOCs will get better in the future and maybe the revolution will happen then.” That seems to be the thinking of this piece in Pando Daily (which I only saw because it linked here):

There has been a plethora of articles and commentaries suggesting that the MOOCs were all just a bad dream, and we can go back to the chalkboard with a sigh of relief.

Experienced observers of technology will recognize this as a familiar stage in a cycle. This cycle is so commonplace, it not only has a name, but its name has been trademarked by a bunch of voracious consultants who are asserting ownership of what is really a natural phenomenon in the ecology of disruptive socioeconomic change. Nonetheless, to be fair, and to avoid litigation, we will introduce it by its proper name: the Gartner Hype Cycle (TM).

The Hype Cycle is pretty straightforward. It suggests that each new technology goes through five phases: a) the Technology Trigger, b) the Peak of Inflated Expectations, c) the Trough of Disillusionment, d) the Slope of Enlightenment, and finally e) the Plateau of Productivity.

While that author was making fun of my suggestion that anti-MOOC is new black, this entire scaling down of expectations strikes me as very important. When MOOC advocates start citing the Gartner Hype Cycle as a good thing, I think we’ve reached a watershed because it means they’re already thinking post-MOOC. The question now becomes what is this thing we now call a MOOC going to look like once the bubble completely deflates? Will it look somewhat like an xMOOC? Will it look more like a cMOOC? Will any of it even be recognizable as a MOOC at all?

The online education example may be demonstrative. When administrations have given faculty members the freedom to innovate and teach how they see fit, great things have happened. Where that hasn’t happened, David Noble’s digital diploma mills persist. What separates that first scenario from the second scenario is power. If anybody wants to nominate George Siemens for “International MOOC Dictator,” I would second it. Yet even his fascinating experiments can lead to bad results if they fall victim to the same forces that Noble described so long ago now.

The economics and politics of both online education and MOOCs are intimately related. Unfortunately, from where I stand nearly everyone who’s caught up in the MOOC hype cycle spends far too much time on the first thing there and not nearly enough on the second. David Noble’s work serves as an excellent reminder that bad politics makes for bad pedagogy, no matter how enthusiastic its practitioners may be.

“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

19 08 2013

What does the word “interaction” mean? That’s actually a really important question if you want to evaluate the quality of teaching. Salman Khan of Khan Academy fame, writing in Scientific American, uses interaction (or, to be specific, the lack thereof) as the basis of his critique of modern higher education:

Today students in most classrooms sit, listen and take notes while a professor lectures. Despite there being anywhere from 20 to 300 human beings in the room, there is little to no human interaction.

Does this guy really think we professors all just read from a script and never look up? I have literally never seen anyone, not even the worst professors I’ve ever encountered, teach that way. So if I see lots of blank stares in my classroom and explain a point again on that basis, is that interaction? If I ask my students a question and one of them answers, does that constitute interaction? If that question leads to a follow-up question, is that interaction? Happens all the time in my classes of twenty.

It also happens in classes of three hundred. There’s this thing called “discussion sections” at many large universities. Perhaps Khan has heard of them. Even without those, there’s still interaction in giant lecture courses. I cried a little when my daughter told me that she had to buy a clicker for her intro to psychology class, but that’s a form of interaction too.

Unfortunately, Khan is hardly alone in making such insulting generalizations. Here’s Coursera’s Daphne Koller:

The interactivity that MOOCs offer is far superior to that offered by older forms of online education, and they have significant advantages over classroom-based education.

Interaction is a reciprocal word in the same sense that it takes two to tango. While there may be lots of interactivity in MOOCs, there is very little interactivity with the person who’s supposedly teaching the class. Remember, “slightly more accessible than the pope or Thomas Pynchon?” In other, smaller, forms of online education, there is interaction with both the professor and the student’s peers. Indeed, the smaller the class, the easier it is to make sure that all students are interacting with somebody and actually learning the material.

The second part of that Koller quote is equally deceptive. Because the beginning of that sentence is about interactivity, we are left to assume that the end part of that sentence is also about interactivity. Yet simple math is all you need to see why it is much harder to interact with anyone in a class of 30,000 than in a class of 30. With 30,000 students, how can anyone be sure students will use the discussion forums? If they do, how can you assure that their questions will be answered by other students? Perhaps most importantly, how can you assure that any answers that do come their way will even be correct?

It is inconceivable to me that these online education leaders don’t understand the actual meaning of the word “interaction.” Or perhaps that word doesn’t mean what they think it means. If you ask me, either possibility is pretty sad.


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