21 11 2012

This is going to make two more posts than I originally planned to write this week, but the quality of the comments has been so good lately that I thought I’d try to do a little summing up before we all likely ditch blogs and blogging for the holidays.

Like V.I.M., I have labor-related political problems with all MOOC-related activities.  However, as an educator, I’m willing to work against my own self-interest for education’s sake.  As a result, I understand Jeremy’s wishes to create the best MOOC possible.  The problem with that, as Mazel pointed out deep in the comments of my last MOOC report post, is that once you unleash a MOOC in the world, you have no idea how it’s ultimately going to be used.  The process of delivering education over the Internet allows it to be commodified and when education becomes commodified then quality inevitably takes a backseat to profit.

You’ve heard the joke about herding cats?  College presidents tell that as a kind of back-handed insult, but I think it’s one of the best things about academia.  Students will get different perspectives on the same discipline, different perspectives on teaching across disciplines and different perspectives on the world (including conservative ones from their econ proffies) if they take a wide range of courses. I think MOOCs threaten that.  In the name of educating everybody, we might actually just educate everybody badly. 

Perhaps you can create an interactive experience that mimics what I keep calling “real learning.”  But how much can you really learn from just your peers?  Sure, you can learn some things from your fellow students, but to say you can learn everything you need to know from them is to say that a graduate school education is completely useless. While that may be true in a commercial sense for most humanities Ph.D.s, I think that to say that from the standpoint of knowledge makes you the worst kind of philistine.



6 responses

21 11 2012

There’s a good example of learning from one’s peers in Life of Brian where one auditor glosses “Blessed are the Cheesemakers.” as not to be taken so specifically but to be applied to all manufacturers of dairy products.

The problem with MOOCs is the M: most of the techniques we have for teaching don’t scale. Once you get above, say, 200 students in a class pretty much all you can do is talk at them. You get to provide individual feedback to the handful of students who succeed in obtruding themselves on your attention. Above 500, it starts to get difficult to coordinate the TAs. I suppose that a MOOC with a set of (necessarily) uncoordinated TAs wouldn’t be much worse than a 500 student traditional lecture class with a set of barely coordinated TAs. But there’s few courses, even in R1s, we’re willing to teach as 500 student classes.

21 11 2012

And, of course, if you’re paying good tuition money to be in a class of even 200, you’re getting snookered. Why pay thousands of $ to be in a class where at best you get to talk to some overworked grad student?

21 11 2012

And another thing I want to get off my chest since it’s been bugging the sh*t outta me. What’s the deal with Sebastian Thrun? Awhile back in the Chronicle of Higher Ed I read this:

“Thrun said he gave up tenure at Stanford because he believed traditional
higher education was unable to meet the need for low-cost, universal
access to higher education.”

Well, maybe his perceptions were a little skewed. Consider:

Stanford tuition: $41,250
Adams State University tuition: $3,816

Sure, ASU is a step or two above open access, so we’re not quite providing “universal access,” but still, if the goal is to provide “low-cost, universal access to higher education,” then we’re coming reasonably close. We’re offering real, face-to-face courses (average student-to-faculty ratio of 17:1) instead of low-quality digital knockoffs. Many of those courses are quite lively and innovative and use active learning, project-based learning, etc. Students here are building robots, editing Wikipedia pages up to “featured article” status, you name it. It really pisses me off when people like Thrun say that traditional models cannot provide low-cost higher education. I think he says such things because, when it comes to the big wide world of higher education, at least beyond the elite precincts in which he’s been operating, he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. The fact that he teaches computer science at Stanford doesn’t make him an expert in higher education. It just makes him someone who will be listened to by thoughtless journalists and starry-eyed ed-tech investors, no matter what kind of nonsense he says.

More from Thrun (again via the CHE):

“Having done this [taught a MOOC], I can’t teach at Stanford again…. I feel like there’s a red pill and a blue pill, and you can take the blue pill and go back to your classroom and lecture your 20 students. But I’ve taken the red pill, and I’ve seen Wonderland.”

So, he had a class of 20 students–20 extremely smart students paying a godawful amount of tuition–and he’s effing LECTURING them? Is that what you get at Stanford for your $41,000? Jesus.

21 11 2012

Hi folks — watch out for over-simplification and hype, like Thrun’s. But watch out for the opposite! By now, Jonathan is getting sick of my plea to let up on certainty and embrace complexity.

1. We need more nuance on “costs”. For Mazel, I would not fixate so much on Thrun because advocates, especially in retail, have to simplify to sell. But be careful about how you measure costs and value. Here’s a thoughtful piece on the subject:

2. Scale. Consider data. Since I am, like Jonathan, a resident of a reality-based world, I check against what we know. It’s well worth reading Bill Bowen’s recent Tanner Lectures (Oct 2012). Scalability depends on what you are trying to optimize! You might find helpful, Jim:

27 11 2012
Bill Bowen’s blind spot. « More or Less Bunk

[…] week, Jeremy linked to two lectures that former Princeton President Bill Bowen gave at Stanford last month. I know Bill […]

29 11 2012
The professoriate is the worst guild ever. « More or Less Bunk

[…] In a class of 82,000+ students, it is no wonder that Jeremy Adelman has both fans and detractors. If you think I’m hard on him, read James Atherton or even Carol Geary Schneider, president of the Association of the American Colleges and Universities. If you think I’m tough on Daphne Koller of Coursera, read Mazel on Sebastian Thrun of Udacity in the comments here. […]

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