World History MOOC Report 10: In which I look on the bright side (sort of).

2 11 2012

If you haven’t checked out the comments to this post in which I discuss MOOC pedagogy with Jeremy Adelman, you really should. If nothing else, he’s given me an enormous amount of material for a week with no lectures. Like this:

I think you are giving a partial representation of a more complex story that would involve the multiple tiers of students, some auditing, some doing the full-bore (as it were). The submission levels are low compared to what? Compared to all enrolled? Or compared to other MOOC’s? What we know about MOOCs is that they all have very high attrition rates and uneven participation rates. My main concern is that people understand the principle of reciprocity so that peer support and assessment doesn’t run into free-riding; which is not the same as more passive forms of using the course, like watching the lectures no more.

This came in response to my second mention of the poor response rate from my fellow students on the first writing assignment. Jeremy (and some new commentators on this blog) have been suggesting that there are multiple levels of engagement in a MOOC and that we should celebrate that for increasing engagement with the humanities, and world history in particular. That works for me. Despite my carping, I’ve come to enjoy my MOOC experience more the closer it gets to my period of expertise. I particularly enjoyed Adelman’s discussion of building national identities around the world during the Nineteenth Century and his brief history of the American West in global perspective.

The problem with this kind of cheeriness, however, is that even as some parts of American higher education reach for a broader audience, those parts are nonetheless doing their best to eat the lunches of those of us left in the vast MOOC-less wasteland. Mills Kelly described this process quite succinctly a few days ago:

Why are we in trouble? The answer is both simple and very complicated. The simple answer is that institutions with much better brands than ours have thrown themselves head first into the MOOC swamp and already we are seeing signs that in the coming year or two many, if not most (or even all) of these institutions will find ways to offer academic credit for what are now free courses. Once that happens, our students are going to vote with their feet (or fingers on keyboards) and will start taking increasing numbers of courses from these institutions–both because these courses are convenient, and because they are from institutions with better brands.

When that happens, we can expect that more and more of our students will be presenting us with transcripts from Stanford, Penn, Michigan, the University of Virginia, and other similarly better known competitors, and demanding that we accept these courses toward our degrees.

Actual enrollment in an actual MOOC has made me more optimistic than that for two reasons. 1) If actual professors review the course structures of these MOOCs for which they are supposed to award credit, they’ll see that they differ greatly from the brand images of the institutions that hosted them. [“So you took a history course from Princeton, but there was no required reading?”] and 2) I don’t think most college students will pick this kind of education if given a real choice because it is impersonal, superficial (since drilling down in history requires reading and real time responses), but still incredibly time consuming.

Professor Adelman is doing the best he can to create a worthwhile experience, but the format in which he’s operating has made it very difficult for me to see any of the pedagogy which he tells us he’s considered. As Alan Levine put it in a post I read yesterday:

…I have the question of how video lectures of people reading content is really going to play in parts of the the world where connectivity is not what it is in Palo Alto.

And is this really the best learning we can give the world? Lectures, machine grading, and multiple guess? Really? Check the century on your digital watch, Socrates.

In short, it’s not the MOOCs that I’m afraid of – it’s the people who insist on making their declarations that MOOCs are the future a self-fulfilling prophecy. Some of them actually have the power to make that happen.




12 responses

2 11 2012

I’d like to ask Professor Adelman, would Princeton be willing to do what Antioch is doing? More specifically, would you and your history colleagues at Princeton be willing to award Princeton credit (on the model like that announced by Antioch and Coursera) to Princeton undergrads who completed your MOOC instead of taking your course F2F?

If the answer is “no,” I would naturally like to know why not. Is it because doing so would cheapen the Princeton brand? Is it because students or their parents might object? (“WTF? I’m not paying $54,780 a year for my kid to take the same online courses as the riff-raff!” It’s bad enough that Antioch will be transcripting MOOCs while still charging $22,000, which is four times the tuition at my school and at Jonathan’s.) Is it because the F2F course really does afford some kinds of non-scalable educational benefits that the MOOC does not, something beyond the raw transmission of information?

These are obviously rather pointed questions — expressions of my own skepticism — but they might also prove useful to everyone concerned as we try to figure out what MOOCs are and what they’re not.

BTW, is there some variant of Godwin’s Law that says, “As an online discussion of MOOCs grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Ned Ludd approaches 1”?

2 11 2012

I think you’re quite right on the last point, Jonathan. The University of Phoenixes have never really worried me as competitors or as potentially endangering the time-tested model of university higher education. What the UVA situation illustrated is that the danger to higher education actually comes from within. Administrators and trustees cheapen the value of education by adopting the profit motive, chipping away at the foundations of the enterprise, until it may actually fail to offer any advantage over the for-profit versions.

3 11 2012
Contingent Cassandra

@Mazel: that’s the right question, I think. I’m not sure financial considerations are as significant as you suggest (the majority of Princeton students/parents don’t pay full freight; in fact, for most lower- and middle-class families, if the student can get in — the big “if” — the cost of Princeton is comparable to that of a state school), but protecting brand/reputation is. If it were really a Princeton course, they’d give credit. If not, then it’s outreach, enrichment, community service, etc. — worthy goals, and ones Adelman seems to be embracing by endorsing varying levels of engagement — rather than a full-fledged course.

7 11 2012

There are a number of things going on here in this thread.

The first is a variation of a collective action problem: that what is good for one institution or one superprofessor is bad for the common good. More students pushed through, fewer professors doing it because MOOC’s give the illusion of finally solving the Baumol problem of the absence of scale economies in higher education. There are two sides to this. One argues that this will reduce costs and therefore enhance access (and tackle the high attrition rates by giving students more on-ramps back into higher education). The other, and this is Jonathan’s concern, is that this kind of mass production does to higher education what previous technical changes did to other production processes. Of course, what one side sees as pathological the other sees as a miracle solution. But they agree on the logic. The difference is not in the evidence or the formula; it’s what the norm should be.

Second, the question of brand-dilution. If Princeton gives out credits, will that dilute the brand? Who knows? But that’s not why Princeton doesn’t give out certificates. In fact, there is nothing magical about my employer’s rationale. The reason why Princeton does not give out credits and certificates as others do is because how could we possibly know that students had satisfactorily completed the requirements for a course without the kinds of assessments we apply to our in-house students (which is not scalable, I might add)? To do that would require investing resources into clarifying learning objectives, grading standards, and assessing work accordingly and in the spirit and with the same standards we use at Princeton. Doing anything less is called a simulacrum. Why bother?

Third, it may help to distinguish between universities’ commitment to professional knowledge or expertise vs universities’ commitment to social knowledge. Some MOOC’s aim at the former; some (like mine) at the latter. It would be a shame for us to over-generalize and slam down the potential of the latter in an effort to control the former. Rather than be anti-MOOC, I’d like to see us think more carefully about their social functions.

Finally, just a bit on my personal motivation for doing the course. It was not because I fantasized about massive numbers of students. What we know — and I have said this before here — that with massive enrollments come massive attrition. Many students enroll in a course and don’t realize that a university course is not the same as a series of TED talks. This is one of Jonathan’s points. So, anyone with celebrity fantasies should not profess. Rather, my motivation as a world historian was to experiment with a model of teaching that brought the world into the subject itself; to have Princeton students engage in conversations about the multi-perspectival nature of their subject. There is no single narrative of world history — and what better way to hear the polyphony than to have the world talk about what’s being taught. And if students in the rest of the world get something from the experience, if I can socialize some of the knowledge I work with with my Princeton students, that’s great — in my view.

Hope this helps elevate the debate!

8 11 2012
Jonathan Rees


I’m glad you’re back. Thanks again for listening to me and the rest of us in the peanut gallery here. I realize you have a lot to do with your time already.

I’m going to have to digest some of what you say (perhaps for a future post), but reading your comment does make me think of one point instantly: the nature of the administrations involved really matters a lot. As a native Princetonian (Not sure I ever mentioned it on this blog before, but Daniel T. Rodgers currently lives in the house where I grew up), I really am willing to believe that the people who run Princeton University have the best of intentions when it comes to MOOCs. They can afford to be benevolent. However, it’s pretty clear from those e-mails that the student newspaper broke that the people who run the University of Virginia don’t. If MOOCs ever make they way down to the tier of schools below that, their focus on costs will likely become so overwhelming as to be virtually exclusive.

Should we faculty agree to participate in a system that is designed to produce our own destruction? Isn’t this just like the chicken agreeing to cooperate with Colonel Sanders? Try to see this whole issue from the perspective of us chickens for a moment.

8 11 2012

Hi Jonathan: small world! Dan Rodgers is in fact one of my models for how to think transnationally. It might help to distinguish between the logic of some administrators, some trustees/overseers, and some faculty. I think there are all kinds of logics out there, and thus all kinds of possibilities. It would be a shame for a few embarrassing overseers of the University of Virginia to drive this debate. In fact, my pitch would be for us to think of strategies, values, and models that offers a more compelling rationale than lowering costs by downsizing faculty. Jeremy

8 11 2012

One last thought: I don’t see you as chickens, try as I might. It’s not a helpful analogy, though I fully understand that some people do. And that’s the problem.

8 11 2012
Jonathan Rees

But Jeremy,

If you fail as a superprofessor, you can go back to your day job. As a similarly tenured professor, I probably have enough security to hold on and retire in twenty years before any transition is complete.

However, if you suceed as a superprofessor (and your continuing willingness to visit this blog convinces me that you will), you are betting other people’s livelihoods that admistrators the world over are willing to behave responsibly. That’s a huge bet to make with other people’s careers as the stakes.

I’m not saying that you should halt all MOOC activities right now, but I think you have a responsibility to your colleagues elsewhere and your colleagues yet-to-be to keep both eyes wide open.

8 11 2012

Quite right, Jonathan. I am privileged. (Let’s see if joining your blog helps me as a teacher!) But I am not betting on the sagacity or goodwill of administrators. On the contrary. Their motives are often at odds with mine. What I am exploring are countervailing logics of online education that we can deploy against those for whom scaling is the only rationale. If we can’t find alternative reasons then your fears will be self-fulfilling. My view of keeping my eyes open is to have strong alternative arguments to hand, otherwise we all lose. Did you know that publishers are now muscling into the MOOC business, converting textbooks into wrap-around courses they will vend to colleges and universities in the place of faculty? If we don’t get ahead of this with standards informed by experience, it will be a mosh pit.

8 11 2012
Jonathan Rees

Too good not to share alert: Jeremy is warning me about publisher/capitalists in blog comments while I have him on pause on another tab in the middle of describing predatory nineteenth century global capitalists.

Now back to the lectures…

9 11 2012
World History MOOC Report 11: In which I have too much time on my hands. « More or Less Bunk

[…] there at the bottom of my pop-up screen, but then I felt guilty as I kind of know Professor Adelman now (at least just a little bit). Therefore, I just listened to him talk the way that God and Coursera […]

14 12 2013
Doug didier

>>>Third, it may help to distinguish between universities’ commitment to professional knowledge or expertise vs universities’ commitment to social knowledge. Some MOOC’s aim at the former; some (like mine) at the latter.

From here in South Carolina , retired, never had access to a college level course. Gives a high level thread though the last centuries of world History with a focus on economics. The explanation of the baroque era was unique, at least to me. I have read books on the crash of 29. Now realize it’s a much bigger story, and to me now makes some sense. I view the course on an ipad. Take screen shots of the slides while taking notes. I then explore the WWW to read further on topics. So pretty enjoyable experience here..

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