World History MOOC Report 14: In which I am disappointed in Jeremy Adelman.

3 12 2012

While I had planned to spend most of last Monday not paying much attention to Jeremy Adelman, things didn’t quite work out that way. It wasn’t that he was too compelling to ignore. Instead, I couldn’t concentrate on writing my faculty development grant with a World History lecture going on in the background. Therefore, I spent almost all of Thursday with him listening to two weeks’ worth of lectures instead. Even though I did a few other minimally important things (like cleaning up my office) at the same time, I’m proud to say that I aced every single one of the multiple choice test questions after each lecture segment.

Some of that success may come from the fact that the MOOC has moved into the twentieth century now so I knew much of the material already. However, I really enjoyed listening to very familiar stories from new angles: World War I as a series of local civil wars, World War II from the standpoint of comparative global supply chains, etc. [Come to think of it, I need to go back and copy that global munitions production chart for my own use.] Honestly, I’ve enjoyed the content of the class a great deal ever since the MOOC has moved into the centuries for which I have a decent frame of reference, namely everything after 1700 or so.

Instead it’s the administrative decisions that have really bothered me. Some of this is Coursera’s fault, but our last class e-mail from Saturday clearly demonstrated to me that some of my problems stem from decisions that Jeremy has made himself.

Vim., who’s at least reading the e-mails even if she’s hopelessly behind on the lectures, made me laugh out loud with this tweet about that same message:

That part of the news didn’t surprise me at all. Jeremy has shown a great interest in global dialogues, both in other e-mails and here at this blog so this seems like a natural extension of that principle. Nonetheless, the end of that tweet does suggest what students in our class aren’t getting.

Jeremy also announced that he’ll be re-taping some of his early lectures for next time because he didn’t like his performance. I, for one, have always thought his performance has been fine, but I still wish he’d re-tape them all anyway.

I was holding out hope that Jeremy might teach his next MOOC roughly synchronously with the dates that it’s open so that he could respond to the students’ collective concerns. After all, he has shown such an interest in direct interaction with as much of the class that’s looked for him. Why cut that avenue of communication off completely?

But Jeremy also announced in that e-mail that our MOOC has added about 10,000 people since it started. That left me truly shocked as it made me wonder why I’ve bothered to do my assignments on time. If this class is supposed to be interactive, who will the students going back to week one have to interact with? Will the TAs be covering the entire course spectrum at once in order to help those new ten thousand? I kind of doubt it.

More importantly, I figured Jeremy would re-tape all of his lectures because the maps he’s been using since the beginning of the class are ABSOLUTELY IMPOSSIBLE TO READ. Jeremy will periodically talk about some important geographical aspect of world history and all I can see on his map slide are some colored arrows and the names of countries. The city names and features on the maps are totally illegible. If that isn’t worth fixing, what is?

Coincidentally, also on Saturday I saw an epic post by Kelli Marshall about student use of laptops in the classroom. This is a subject that’s near and dear to my heart, which I also think applies here because if you think it’s bad when the professor is in the same room, think how many people are tuning out Jeremy in the privacy of their own homes? What really got me though was Marshall’s use of this quote from Patrick Allitt about how he handles his (face-to-face) classroom:

Whatever you do beyond the classroom is your own business, but so long as you are here, I am going to assume that you came here with the intention of learning. I am the teacher, and I am doing everything I can to put you in a position conducive to learning.

No matter how much work Jeremy puts into this MOOC, he is not creating an environment that’s conducive to learning because nobody is there for them the same way that Allitt is there for his students. Sure, everyone is welcome to join this global community, but nobody is going to do anything to help them understand what’s going on once they get there unless they seek help themselves, and most students will never do that. Obviously Jeremy wants to run the best MOOC possible, but in the end his ultimate goal is still to have the MOOC machine run itself.

Perhaps this sounds a little old-fashioned, but I think every student, no matter how casual they may be, deserves a caring, trained educator who will track their progress and work to ensure that they’re actually learning. I’m singling out Jeremy here because I’m taking his course, but he is by no means alone on this. Perhaps you run a cMOOC or a plain old MOOC in which you help students teach themselves or maybe even each other. Where does that leave the students who actually need instruction? What if you want to learn more than what your fellow students know?

Well, you can always pay to attend Princeton. I’ll bet you anything that Jeremy is easy to find there, and really helpful too. What I don’t understand is why students who can’t afford the tuition at Coursera’s expensive partner institutions shouldn’t get the same kind of attention from living, breathing professors of their own.



17 responses

3 12 2012
David Mazel

“Perhaps this sounds a little old-fashioned, but I think every student … deserves a caring, trained educator….”

What’s becoming increasingly “old-fashioned” is the notion that this ideal is worth public subsidy. MOOC mania is emerging as part of a perfect storm of techno-utopianism (Web 2.0 can universalize education! And drive its cost to zero!) and neoliberalism (education is an individual, private good rather than a communal, public good; education can be perfected by the magic of the market, etc.) and Gradgrindism (as in the currently popular “argument” that higher education is preparation for making money; Mark Zuckerberg made money after dropping out of college; ergo college is worthless).

Of course, it’s unfair to blame Jeremy for every regressive use to which MOOCs might wind up being put. MOOCs might prove valuable in all sorts of progressive ways (just as public lending libraries did). But they’re not college courses and shouldn’t be thought of as adequate substitutes for college courses. In fact they should be called by a name that doesn’t mislead people into thinking they’re something they’re not. My suggested name is Massive Open Online Talks (MOOTs), perhaps coupled with Massive Open Online Discussions (MOODs).

The danger is that MOOCs will accelerate American higher ed’s retreat from its “old-fashioned” egalitarian ideals and devolve into a system offering F2F(expensive, personalized) for the best and MOOCs (cheap and automated) for the rest. When I think about how faculty might prevent this, I find myself thinking about how I might come to love a couple of educratic acronyms I’ve learned to hate: SLO and CPL. But more on that later–I gotta go to a meeting.

3 12 2012
Jonathan Rees

I agree that Jeremy is hardly the center of the problem here and I don’t hold him responsible for any more than his own MOOC. Our discussions here have nonetheless really helped me get a handle on the nature of the problem. “Interactive” is a word that sounds great to most ears, but anyone who wants to use interaction as a substitute for actual teachers really needs to think long and hard about all of the ramifications of that decision.

7 12 2012

OK, Jeremy, here. Sorry I have been remiss on your blog lately, Jonathan. I’ve spent the last couple of weeks trying to figure out ways to become more interactive — to respond, creatively, if unsustainably, to your important critique. (Unsustainable because the time devoted to this threatens to swamp out the things I am actually paid to do; the fact is, I am not paid to teach this course online… Some have thought we do this for the money; wrong).

Jonathan, on the maps. You are correct. They are a disaster. That’s because I used the Norton maps from our text, and blown up for large screens they turn into visual mush. We are going to have to take proper slides of all the maps, scan them at high resolution and insert them into the lectures. That doesn’t require actually re-taping lecture, though.

The gist of your critique is that the course is not a course because it’s not not interactive; or rather, interactivity between faceless and anonymous students online is not the same as face-to-face contact with faculty and fellow students. Of course they aren’t the same thing. Only dogmatists claim they are. But warning: face-to-face isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, and don’t kid yourself about the durable appeal of the old tweedy professor. Andrew Delbanco’s latest book is an eye-opener.

One thing I have never quite understood about your critique is why you don’t think the dialogues on the forum discussions aren’t worth attention. Some are very remarkable, and nowhere could you get engaged learners from Russia, India, and Princeton talking to each other about the siege of Leningrad. This seems to be a blindspot in this debate.

So, I responded to your critique about lack of interactivity. We held a global seminar within the course. A handful of Princeton students talking with a handful of Coursera students from around the world. True, we tended to talk more about how amazing it was that we were talking. But it broke things open. And we’ll try one more next week. Again, these are not replacements for F2F, but they are interactive. And I will continue to try to innovate.

I think it would help to get beyond thinking of MOOCs as unitary, uniform things. There is in fact a wide range of “products” (I can hear you screaming at me! rightly so…. but it’s not going to be long before Andrew and Daphne refer to our teaching this way!). You and others keep insisting I have no control over what happens to my course. I don’t know why, since you are wrong. I have total control. The course is my property and I share rights with my employer over it. I have no intention of letting anyone use for credit to replace a course they’d take “at home.” If they did, they and their institution would face an instant lawsuit.

Now, there are entities out there that DO plan to do this, and some in Coursera are moving forward on the accreditation process. But to lump everyone into this by saying that all online open course teaching will destroy the professoriate means to you lose allies among the professoriate who want to innovate because they want to be better teachers.

7 12 2012
Jonathan Rees

Welcome back Jeremy,

Good thing I have a two-hour layover in Denver because this comment is going to take a while. I’ll try going paragraph by paragraph:

1. I always thought about asking about salary, but I figured it would be rather rude. I’m not surprised that you’re doing it voluntarily, but it does raise an interesting question: What kind of worker other than a college professor would take on so much work without any direct monetary reward? [I don’t mean to direct that towards you per se. It’s just rhetorical.]

2. I’m delighted to hear about the maps. Of all the sniping about this course, that’s the only thing that’s really made me angry as I really like geography and it’s just been so frustrating. Make sure you also retape those two segments where your shirt tails were sticking out. Since you corrected it eventually I’m sure you remember which ones those were. [See, I really have been watching!]

3. There’s so much to write about this one. First, let’s separate MOOCs from this class in general. Like you write below, all MOOCs are different and it’s obvious that you’re trying to run the best MOOC you can. While this post suggests that I might have made some of these administrative calls differently if I were a superprofessor, the truth is that I would never become a superprofessor in the first place.

I agree that my original critique of MOOCs in general was that they’re not interactive. While I do need to visit the forums again before all this is over, I’ll posit for the sake of argument that that is interaction. The question is, who are students interacting with? Since you have a day job and I suspect research projects of your own the answer isn’t going to be you. Instead it’s each other. How much can students learn from each other? Certainly some things, but I’ll bet you anything that your students on campus who get to interact with you directly will learn a lot more.

Yes, I agree that 600-person course warehouses are also bad. When my daughter bought her Clicker for her Psychology Class for her first semester in Fort Collins a few months ago, my heart just sank. Nevertheless, 92,000-person classes hardly strike me as the antidote for 600-person classes.

4. My account of my first visit to the forums is here That critique rests on two strands: 1 A bad interface and 2. The Wild west nature of all the discussions. No matter how much I can learn from people in Russia, I’d learn more if the conversations were structured by trained historians and your grad students have even more to do with their time than you do.

5. Wow, is the global forum a response to my critique of interactivity? I really am humbled and I do promise to watch. I’m far less hostile to the notion than Vim seemed to be in that Tweet, but ultimately I think a “real class” requires interactivity all the way through. I’m going to stand by this from above:

I think every student, no matter how casual they may be, deserves a caring, trained educator who will track their progress and work to ensure that they’re actually learning.

That’s the nub of my MOOC critique and perhaps that’s the point where we will have to permanently agree to disagree.

6 and 7. The total control critique is Mazel’s, but I think I understand it. If somebody goes to Adams State with a MOOC completion certificate and says, “Give me credit,” how can you or Coursera ever stop Adams State from doing so? How will you even know?

With respect to the structure of the course, let me ask you a few specific questions: Does every Coursera humanities course that uses peer grading have five students grade each essay? Did you write the plagiarism statement or did Coursera? I’m guessing you picked the word length? On a slightly different subject, was it your decision to make the textbook recommended rather than required or was it Coursera’s? I actually have a feeler out to do an essay devoted entirely to the problems of peer grading so I want to get this right.

8. Even if open online courses are different (and I agree that they are), the effect they’ll have on the labor market for professors will be the same if they ever become acceptable as a replacement for face-to-face instruction. You can’t repeal the law of supply and demand.

9 12 2012
Jonathan Rees

Another question, Jeremy:

Coursera is at least paying your graduate students, right?

7 12 2012
Hey everybody! Jeremy’s back… « More or Less Bunk

[…] as usual the MOOC discussion is intense and extremely informative. If you want to join in go here and/or […]

7 12 2012

I understand (and appreciate) Jeremy’s effort to legally prevent his MOOC from subbing for a real course. But I don’t think it’ll work. In fact, much as I dislike the idea of MOOCs displacing real courses, I’m not sure I would even want this particular legalistic approach to succeed.

Suppose some local kid does spectacular work in the MOOC and then submits printouts of his essays and online discussions to my humble institution as part of a “Credit for Prior Learning” application. Suppose it’s all just stellar stuff, and the kid also passes an in-house final exam, etc. What should I do then? Should I tell her, “Sorry kid, you’re going to have to pay us $500 and sit through the same course here on campus, because if we give you credit for what you’ve demonstrably learned through the MOOC we’ll get sued?”

What if I looked into the kid’s tearful, pleading eyes and went ahead and approved the credit anyway? Would Jeremy or Princeton really take this poor kid or me or my humble institution to court? Suppose that in addition to having tearful, pleading, and (let us say) extremely telegenic eyes the kid is a latter-day Horatio Alger, the hard-working, boot-strapping child of (say) poor Honduran immigrant parents who pick lettuce all day to pay for her bus fare to the local library where she can use the computer that they can’t afford at home, and the candles that allow her to read Silas Marner in the little unwired shack she shares with her seven undernourished siblings? Does Princeton (or Jeremy) really want to be known as the one who went to court to stand in her way?

7 12 2012
Music for Deckchairs

Hi Jeremy

I’m a long time follower of Jonathan’s campaign against online education, and I respect his views and skills, although I’m still exploring online education by choice. I’m also a much less diligent MOOC student than he has been, and like him I’ve been grateful for the willingness of the Coursera prof I ran into who was willing to join a blog conversation about the complexity of the whole proposition.

I have to agree with Mazel that I can’t see how any business-aware institution with a reputation to protect would sanction lawsuits against potentially thousands of course participants if the conditions for accepting MOOC completion certificates change in the future, particularly when the strong evidence is that the first to blink won’t be other educational institutions, but employers.

If that happens on a large scale, the first institutions to go down won’t be those whose professsors are able to make the time to work online for free, to the extent that the first generation of Coursera superprofessors have been able to. I work at an institution that is already talking about how best to substitute some of the courses being offered from the US into the curriculum we develop here in Australia; this message is coming right from the top, as government ministers rush to assure us that “the best professors in the world” can be beamed right into our lecture halls.

I think none of us are yet sure how this will turn out.

7 12 2012
Jonathan Rees


While I appreciate the support, I think I have to object to your characterization of my longtime campaign. I’m not against online education per se. I’m against the use of online education to beat faculty into submission while destroying education. Besides, MOOCs are making me pine for the days when the future of education was merely online. Ahhh, the good old days (aka 2011).

7 12 2012
Music for Deckchairs


Interesting that the rise and rise of MOOCs has softened you up. Beware the slippery slope, mon brave.

In all seriousness, though, I think we two have come the long way round to a similar conclusion: that whatever it is we’re looking at here, it’s isn’t innovation in a good way. So the question is, what can it become?

Two steps forward that I can see.

First, we can argue for the resurgence of the small, open online class as a hallmark of a quality experience, just as we have in other retail and cultural histories. Open, online, international and available to underserved students can all be achieved more interactively at smaller scale, as Jeremy’s global seminar experiment demonstrated. Of course, there won’t be the dazzling cost-efficiencies, the mass branding opportunity, or the fantastical arc of the supercareer. And pulling together students online, and enabling them to share ideas, resources and experiences in a meaningful way isn’t new — it’s just that now we have a few new ideas and platforms to experiment with. Possibly a good byproduct of all this?

Second, micropayments. Everyone keeps harping on about Napster, but what came after Napster, in all sorts of ways, was the discovery that people were prepared to make micropayments, even tiny ones, for useful things/content/services that they wanted to keep and use.

Once we really open the market for educational services, we might see a specialist barter system emerge to unsettle the current industrial structure that sees the careers of the few perched on the shoulders of the precariat. It’s a long shot, but probably better than the long con we’re currently in.


11 12 2012
Digital sharecropping, Coursera’s business plan and the future of higher ed. « More or Less Bunk

[…] serve as teaching assistants. What I didn’t realize until last week, was that in at least one case, the superprofessor wasn’t making any extra money for doing this […]

11 12 2012

Coursera’s not paying the TAs, Princeton is.

12 12 2012

Ok, there’s a lot of ground to cover here — important issues all. I’ll do my best and then turn on the TV when my brain is really mush.

1. Salary. Coursera only contributes the platform. No small part because there’s a lot of on-going engineering work happening behind the scenes. Most of the Princeton contribution is using existing capacity (film crew, my time, library team to get legal right to the images etc); the only person paid extra by the hour was Valeria. Totally unsustainable and exploitative. Universities are going to have to generate income to keep this going. Especially if there is to be interactivity.

2. Interactivity — it takes work. That’s where we all agree here. I think we’d all agree that any way you do the math, the degree of interaction is a 1:90k ration can’t compete with 1:100 (my average survey enrollment). But I am not choosing either-or. What I am offering here is something for the 100: access to outer-world discussions among the 90k, so that students get access to debates outside their bubble. What I am trying to experiment with is a different model of global learning. If that means the course offers something to 90k that they would not otherwise have access to (and I think that’s the case based on the Coursera students I have gotten to know), all the better. This is mfd’s point, and I gather from the feedback on the forums it’s the sense out in the world.

I have to say, in the spirit of self critique, where the course is really falling short is fostering the dialoge between the 100 and the 90k. JR is right, there are no cost efficiencies in this — and that’s because it’s not my motive.

The tough part of the general critique here from you all is what is the quality of the learning among the 90k with such shallow interaction? You are right, peer learning is far from infallible. But I would add that it has much more power than you all realize; perhaps not in the relatively crude way I have assembled here (first-time ever, and Jonathan, I did write the essays, the rubrics, the plagiarism statement, 5 peer reviews is more or less what we figured would be sustainable given the lengths that I chose….remember, I — we — was doing this with no precedent in the humanities). Clickers, multi-tasking students shopping on their laptops while the sage prattles on the stage, 50% attendance, rapidly diminishing retention after 7 minutes into a lecture, scabrous reviews from students if you don’t hand out easy A’s….I could go on. Let’s not get all nostalgic here about the “real” classroom since it’s in trouble with or without MOOCs. I have a nephew studying economics at McGill — not a bad institution at all. A rising number of courses have flipped classrooms, online labs, and no contact with a human — TA, librarian, faculty…. These are not MOOCs. And this is McGill.

I think the rub is what is expected of a MOOC? Is it a cognate for a credit course? (Mine is not) If so, how to ensure levels of interactivity that would simulate some basic threshold? THIS is where a focus of the debate on standards should be.

3. Control. Jonathan and Mazel are right about 2 things, one in my control and one not. How do I/Princeton enforce our exclusive property rights over credits? I have to think that institutions that truck other institutions’ courses as their own are taking big risks with their brand in a very competitive market. Do I really think the market has built in an enforcement mechanism? Not sure. But I don’t have a better answer to J and M right now.

And what do I say to the student from institution X that wants credit so he can graduate, and one credit is all he needs? No. Sorry, I can’t do it, because I can’t assess his work and have no input on those who do. This is my line, and more than a few students from the X’s of the world wrote me early on about whether I would give credit. This was in the days before Princeton’s official policy was so prominent. I was consistent. What I can’t vouch for is other people out there doing MOOCs working for institutions that do allow the issuance of credentials. Once you are down that slope, why not let student from X get credit and avoid feeling lousy for being strict?

I should say Jonathan, Mazel and others — thinking about these issues helps me think more clearly and critically about what this is all about.

Time for some TV….

13 12 2012
World History MOOC Report 15: In which I watch “a global conversation about global history.” « More or Less Bunk

[…] who’s going to teach this stuff to the people who are merely average or below? I guess I keep coming back to this because it’s my primary pedagogical takeaway from my MOOC experience: I think every student […]

21 01 2013
By the Numbers: Course Planning For the Rest of Us | Exhaust Fumes

[…] to stress that both have been really open to criticism from others and have responded graciously.  My MOOC professor was kind of enough to talk with a few the members of our class in response to th…. (And if you’re not reading Dr. Rees’s blog in your quest for more words about MOOCs […]

26 04 2013
The MOOC monster will never be satisfied. | More or Less Bunk

[…] MOOC after taking it, she found that it hadn’t really changed at all. The moment when I got closest to trolling Jeremy Adelman rather than critiquing his MOOC occurred when he explained to the class that he was […]

1 09 2013
Dear Superprofessors: Your labor has value. | More or Less Bunk

[…] but I know that Princeton’s Jeremy Adelman told readers of this blog (see the comments here) that he wasn’t getting any extra money to teach his Coursera World History MOOC. […]

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