The onus of education.

24 10 2012

So Jeremy Adelman has discovered my now long series of posts about his MOOC. I am heartened that his response has been incredibly gracious and I compliment him on his willingness to accept constructive criticism, which he gives as good as he gets. This is from the comments of my last post:

Jonathan: but you describe the course and the students in such a condescending way. (1) It’s hard to see how anyone would get anything out of it in your narrative. And yet, thousands are. (2) This course never claimed to replace traditional college courses; it’s one part of an existing college course that has the added benefits of creating accessible points for the rest of the world. One problem with the rhetoric around MOOC’s is that they are overburdened with expectations — and now fears. They are only one piece of a larger puzzle. If we can’t think of higher education in complex ways, the system is doomed.

I responded to that comment in those comments, but since they’re more than worthy of a post of their own I’m going to take them here in reverse order.

2) I believe that Jeremy has no intention of replacing his Princeton course with his MOOC. However, lots of people like the Wall Street Journal and the Board of Visitors of the University of Virginia obviously have other ideas. I don’t blame any super-professor for trying to teach the best MOOC they can. However, anyone who ignores the current state of labor relations in higher education as they try to bring education to that masses is going to hurt a lot of innocent professors and Ph.D. students in the course of achieving that goal.

1) With respect to the course itself, I never said that I wasn’t getting anything out of it. In fact, I’m certain Jeremy’s right that lots of people are learning lots of the same interesting World History facts that I am. But that’s not college. And as long as there are institutions of higher learning willing to give course credit for MOOC completion (and there are already), then I think that’s the only point of comparison that should matter.

Am I being too harsh here? If people get something out watching the lectures, but not doing the assignments is that good enough to call the MOOC experiment a success?

Irrespective of my interests and the interests of a lot of us other non-super-professors, treating this kind of higher education simulation as if it’s a higher education is a huge change in the basic assumptions behind education in general. Although they don’t mention online education specifically (but do cover for-profits), Aaron Bady and Mike Konczai have a really helpful article in Dissent which explains the death of California’s higher education Master Plan:

What has succeeded the Master Plan is no plan; instead of committing to make room for all students, the state now educates only those it has room for. When supply of a good or service is capped, economists expect first to see price increases and then to see rationing. And although the skyrocketing price of higher education has been most widely felt, the rationing of classes that teach necessary skills may prove to be just as much of a challenge.

“We’re not really cutting off access to the humanities,” the plutocrats will tell us soon. “Interested students can always take a MOOC.” The onus of education is on them then. They have to take time out of their busy schedules to listen to video lectures. If they have questions, they can ask their classmates in the online forum rather than ask their professor during office hours. Nobody will make them read the textbook. They have to be self-motivated.

I don’t think it’s condescending to point out that most people are not self-motivated. As my hero Nick Carr explains in the NYT, we can flash more information in front of people’s eyes, but that not’s the same as real learning:

It’s a fallacy to believe that dispensing more information more quickly will, in itself, raise the general level of public awareness. To be informed, a person has to want to be informed, and the percentage of Americans demonstrating such motivation seems to have remained pretty stable, and pretty abysmal, throughout our vaunted information age.

When people (like me) who want to be informed butt up against the structural limitations inherent in MOOCs, they’re going to get really, really frustrated. The best possible MOOC would try harder to overcome those limitations and inspire people to work harder, not accept those limitations as the new normal. This doesn’t mean that I think all MOOCs must die. My position is not to cut off this option, but rather to make sure that’s it’s not most people’s only option.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m behind on watching this week’s lectures.




7 responses

25 10 2012
Anne Corner

I am glad to see Professor Adelman responding to this blog. I felt a little like the comments were “behind his back” as it were. As far as MOOC’s go, you have to understand the audience. No matter what Coursera or other MOOC’s paln, this will not soon replace University education. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t fill a real need. I am 67 years old and graduated long ago with Honors in History and have a Masters in History also but my career took me to the computer world where I worked for over 40 years. Now I am retired and living in Austria for reasons I won’t go into. I never got that PhD and I love history. Do I need credit? No. Can I afford to pay for courses? No. Do I have a local option? No. I see also a lot of people in foreign countries who need to improve their English or just want to see what American education is like or any of hundreds of other reasons. Hopefully we will not cost any professors their jobs but those of us who can benefit from a MOOC think it is very worthwhile.

25 10 2012
Jonathan Rees


I wouldn’t be so certain about the future of an on campus university education. We all know MOOCs shouldn’t replace it, but that doesn’t mean they won’t for most students.

25 10 2012
Matthew Dalton

I love watching a good Luddite at work. Go Mr Rees! Smash that loom! Defend your cottage industry!

Prof Adelman: behind that camera is a mosh pit of screaming fans. They’ve been waiting for you to come on stage for so long. Now they’re making the ‘sign of the horns’ and waving cigarette lighters in the air.

27 10 2012

Jeremy Adelman is right that “One problem with the rhetoric around MOOCs is that they are overburdened with expectations.” It would probably help if MOOC discourse didn’t use so many of the exact same terms, starting with the word “course” itself, used to describe traditional courses. MOOCs might just as accurately have been termed MOOTs, or Massive Open Online Talks. OK, they’re more than just “talks,” but they’re also less than true courses. Maybe they should be called Video Blogs with Minimally Restructured Comment Sections. In any event to call what Adelman is doing a “course” is understandably going to fuel technoutopian expectations of a free Princeton education on every laptop (not to mention feeding right-wing visions of lower taxes and an immiserated professoriate).

There’s another set of expectations involved here–the ones that drove the (now moribund?) edupunks. Instead of using the new technology to scale up and further entrench the Big Lecture Class, which in pedagogical terms is pretty much the WORST that the university has to offer, the hope was for some truly radical pedagogical innovations. Not just bigger, but better. Something more than just a scaled-up delivery of a 19th-century pedagogy. The touchstone here is Jon Beasley-Murray’s Murder, Madness, and Mayhem class. In terms of exploiting the pedagogical potential of the web, nothing else even comes close. But MM&M did not turn Beasley-Murray into a global celebrity, nor has it inflamed the hearts of neoliberal university trustees–for the simple reason that, unlike the MOOC, it doesn’t feed into the techno-utopian fantasy of automating higher education and driving its price to zero.

So at least for some of us the disappointment we feel with MOOCs is basically a sense of underused potential. It’s as if we invented the electric guitar, but then used it only to continue playing Big Band music, only, you know, with louder guitars. It’s as if we invented the Stratocaster but not rock-and-roll. What happened instead is that the electric guitar broke free of it original context and changed everything.

To Matthew Dalton I would suggest that behind Adelman’s camera there’s NOT a “mosh pit of screaming fans,” there’s just a bunch of solitary individuals staring at computer screens. The equation of that sort of socially fragmented interaction with real community is a sign of just how far we’ve lowered the bar. The sense of communally shared excitement that characterized the mosh pit is precisely what the edupunks have been seeking and the MOOC format cannot provide. The MOOC is an LP of Glenn Miller, and there’s nothing really wrong with that–but what we really want is Jimi Hendrix in concert.

28 10 2012
Matthew Dalton

Hendrix is an interesting choice of reformer given his lack of popular success.

Is there community in a mosh pit? Is there community in a lecture hall? Even if there is, I don’t feel the need to hang out with students; I have a family, and I belong to a community. Besides, I remember my years as a failing student. I remember sitting in the Quad waiting for Sarah Derbyshire to walk past. I don’t remember intellectual debates. And while my story is the anecdote of a fool, it seems to me that, given the newness of MOOCs, your own argument is really just a hypothesis, albeit an educated one.

You assume that the people taking these courses are deluding themselves into believing that their experience will equal that of those who study on campus. I have seen no evidence to support this assumption. On the contrary, many of us are green with envy when we see those young people sitting in their Princeton lecture hall. Well, green with envy, or old and jaded; either way, we wish we could go back and reorder our priorities. But we can’t.

Prof Adelman’s course is electrifying; it is buzzing with potential energy; it has given me a tantalising peek behind the curtain of history. And, like it or not, there is a global mosh pit on this side of Prof Adelman’s camera. It may be hard to feel the vibe from outside the venue, but it’s there.

Mr Rees, I have only skimmed your blog, but I admire you for taking part in the process. I think that, at the very least, something is lost when a machine performs the work of an artisan. Having said that, I ask you, are you prepared to dismantle and examine your own industry with the rigour you have applied to MOOCs?

29 10 2012
Jonathan Rees


I dismantle my own industry constantly here at my blog. For starters, try the category of posts here and here.

12 06 2013
MOOCs and the Humanities | Posthegemony

[…] in a rather successful project on the Latin American Dictator Novel. Indeed, a commenter over at a post on “More or Less Bunk” very kindly said “The touchstone here is Jon Beasley-Murray’s Murder, Madness, and Mayhem […]

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