“I’ve got a golden ticket.”

6 12 2012

Continuing their long search for an actual business plan, Coursera has come up with a new idea. It’s not a lottery, but it’s kind of close:

Providers of free online courses are officially in the headhunting business, bringing in revenue by selling to employers information about high-performing students who might be a good fit for open jobs.

On Tuesday, Coursera, which works with high-profile colleges to provide massive open online courses, or MOOC’s, announced its employee-matching service, called Coursera Career Services.

Of course, you have to be really high-performing to distinguish yourself from tens of thousands of other students. Still, this lottery is certainly better than the run-of-the-mill state-run tax on the math impaired because it doesn’t cost anything to buy a ticket. Keith Devlin captures the general effect of the technologically-oriented MOOCs upon the winners well:

At the level of the individual student, MOOCs are, quite frankly, not that great, and not at all as good as a traditional university education. This is reflected (in part) in those huge dropout rates and the low level of performance of the majority that stick it out. But in every MOOC, a relatively small percentage of students manage to make the course work to their advantage, and do well. And when that initial letter M refers not to tens of thousands but to “millions,” those successes become a lot of talented individuals.

Somebody should warn the winners of this life-or-death struggle to stay away from the snozberries and the Fizzy Lifting Drinks.

The great irony here is that a technological innovation that was supposed to provide an education for everyone doesn’t actually do that well at providing an education for most people who sign up for it and the ones who do sign up for it risk a market saturated by students in their own classes. MOOCs are self-education for the worthy and nothing for the people who can’t help themselves. As Devlin explains it:

Make no mistake about it, MOOC education is survival of the fittest. Every student is just one insignificant datapoint while the course is running. Do well, do poorly, struggle, drop out – no one notices…

For those of us in education, MOOC education requires a major adjustment in attitude. Most of us go into the profession because we care about the individual. We love to interact with our students. Moreover, universities have all kinds of structures in place to catch and help struggling students. But in a MOOC, all of that goes out the window.

In a just world, MOOCs would be like the WPA for college professors. As all these students flood into these gigantic courses, hundreds if not thousands of jobs would open up for trained Ph.Ds to help them understand what their superprofessors are lecturing about every week. That’s the implication of that often-repeated line about MOOCs freeing up professors to go back to getting their hands dirty in actual classrooms doing actual teaching. But we all know that’s a lie. If the MOOC machine couldn’t run itself, no administration in America would have any interest in it.

At least the kids who bought Wonka Bars and didn’t get golden tickets still had a lovely treat they could eat. For people who take MOOCs and don’t complete them it’s no harm, no foul as long as they remain free. The same is true for people who take MOOCs and do complete them…unless that’s the only option for higher education that’s left to them.

While American higher education continues its MOOC-mania, let’s not forget what brought us into this business in the first place.



2 responses

26 02 2013
“I needed access to the professor.” | More or Less Bunk

[…] Unlike the goal of a cheap education for all, the goal of a quality education for all would be good for faculty of all kinds. As I’ve written before: […]

25 11 2013
The soft bigotry of low expectations. | More or Less Bunk

[…] make a name for themselves in Coursera’s numerous lotteries of opportunities in search of a golden ticket. The rest of them will at least get to watch some interesting lectures as they go about their […]

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