The magic rubric.

25 02 2013

I spoke on Wednesday with Daphne Koller, one of the founders of Coursera, the Stanford spinoff that is one of the big players in the for-profit MOOC world. She vigorously disputed the notion that the MOOC model was less appropriate for humanities education than for the hard sciences. Koller believes that with the right grading “rubric” students can grade each other’s papers even on issues of critical reasoning and grammar, thus solving seemingly daunting logistics problems.

[emphasis added]

Andrew Leonard, “Conservatives Declare War on College,” Salon, February 22, 2013.

After spending the weekend reflecting on that quote, I think I’m simply going to note that Daphne Koller knows as much about teaching history or English as I know about teaching computer science. Nonetheless, I do think that examining the impossibility of Koller’s magic rubric is worth the effort because the future of the humanities depends upon our ability to explain what we do all day to the various constituencies that control our fate.  

1) A rubric long enough to explain all the rules of grammar would be a book.  [As a matter of fact, I think it is.] Getting any student to read that book is another matter entirely.  Even if they read it, will they know how to apply all the rules?  I read all the time, but can’t barely remember any of those rules anymore let alone explain them. However, what I do know is what a good sentence looks like, which is what I explain on papers when I’m grading them. If you didn’t know anything about something, explaining that concept to others who no equally little would be completely impossible.

2) Defining critical thinking always raises memories of Justice Stewart discussing pornography, which explains why measuring it with a rubric is so ridiculous  What matters most to me here though is that even if students could judge critical thinking in their peers, the best kinds of critical thinking come out during classroom discussions, not during grading.  Yves Smith recently wrote at Naked Capitalism:

I’m gobsmacked that no one is talking about how online education offers no socialization.

The classroom setting is both a model and and a catalyst to critical thinking, whatever it happens to be.  Evaluating critical thinking with a rubric not only destroys the necessary spontaneity that promotes it, it practically defeats the whole purpose of the exercise in the first place.

Does Koller actually believe that the magic rubric exists or is she fooling herself because that serves her narrow self-interest?  I don’t know.  However, I do know that every English or history professor at every Coursera partner school who has any teaching experience at all knows in their heart of hearts that the magic rubric is a complete fantasy.  They also know that turning the grading function entirely over to computers or students is a wholesale abandonment of their pedagogical responsibilities. Karen Head is an assistant professor putting a composition MOOC together at Georgia Tech, so I think she deserves a little slack here:

Discussion and peer assessment are central to our traditional instructional approach, but may not be possible in the ways they currently use them.

Their search for the magic rubric is obviously ongoing.  They won’t find it.

The question for any humanities superprofessor then becomes what to do next.  Do they decide that an inferior education is the new normal or do they walk away?  Last time I heard from Jeremy Adelman, he was willing to acknowledge these problems but wanted to keep experimenting with his world history MOOC because of the value of teaching World History as part of a global dialogue. Historian Philip Zelikow has bypassed this problem by foregoing writing altogether, except for his on-campus class. This, however, will not stop anyone else from giving students credit for completing his MOOC, particularly as the University of Virginia could probably use the revenue.

So far, these guys are only participating in the experimental phase of MOOCmania, but the institutional phase of the experiment is coming up on us very quickly.  Not only are more schools building their own MOOCs, more and more are offering MOOCs for credit whether Jeremy likes it or not.  When the choice for actual college students becomes watching a MOOC or attending class, enough of them will inevitably choose the former that many of us who still do things the old-fashioned way will be in deep trouble through no fault of our own, particularly when MOOC credit is actually cheaper.

The longer we act as if the magic rubric actualy exists, the more damage MOOCs will inflict on the education of our most vulnerable college students and the livelihoods of our most vulnerable faculty colleagues. What I don’t understand is why more superprofessors can’t reach this conclusion before their MOOCs even get off the ground. After all, the non-existence of the magic rubric, like so many other things about online education, is actually bloody obvious.




2 responses

25 02 2013

“The question for any humanities superprofessor then becomes what to do next. Do they decide that an inferior education is the new normal or do they walk away?”

This is the question we all face, non-superprofessors and superprofessors alike. (Thanks for the link.)

25 02 2013
Jonathan Rees


Not sure I entirely agree with that. Those of us who do teach in person can probably eek out more than a few years of doing so before we are given the inevitable online teaching ultimatum. The superprofessors are headed for the exits long before the fire gets out of control.

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