“I needed access to the professor.”

26 02 2013

Longtime readers may find this hard to believe, but I’ve developed a real respect for many people teaching history online. So many of them work hard – really hard – to create the best educational experience they can under difficult circumstances (and often for miserable pay). Then, the “Year of the MOOC” came along and all such efforts became totally meaningless by comparison.

If you’ve ever read Lisa Lane’s online teaching blog, you know that she’s one of these people who make the very best out of less-than-ideal circumstances. Unfortunately, she’s been getting a little bit cranky lately:

I am increasingly having trouble with the argument that “getting to know your students” is the hallmark of class quality. Instead, quality education should create an environment for the students to get to know the ideas and the discipline. The energy for learning should originate with the student, who needs to study and work hard to figure out both the system and the content. Professors are experts in their discipline, not in engendering character development. Their role is to model their scholarly engagement with their discipline, not their personal engagement with their students. This doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be good teachers, but it doesn’t define a good teacher as someone who really knows their individual students well. I will “know” a certain percentage of students, in person or online, as it happens naturally. And not knowing every student “well” doesn’t mean not contacting or following up with students who are doing poorly – that’s always appropriate. It also doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be nice – I’m an advocate of nice.

But over the past decade, I have watched my own students become increasingly unwilling to analyze collective feedback in terms of their own work. Instead they want individual feedback only, preferably in a one-on-one environment with me. At 40 students per class section, I cannot meet that expectation. But it’s a symptom of the individualized attention their sub-standard work has been given thus far. They know that the current system is focused on their “success”, and I’m supposed to make that possible rather than them. Instead of overcoming their own limitations (economic class, learning disability, living situation), they are taught that I will take those hurdles into consideration and lower my expectations. Some have internalized the learning problems and even learning styles they’ve been told they possess as individuals, and they see them as justification for lowered standards. I have students who tell me they can’t do the reading because they are visual learners. (I sometimes find myself mumbling “I’ll read it for you”, a line from Monty Python’s bookshop sketch.)

This situation would make anyone cranky. Lisa wants to do right by her students, holding them all to reasonable standards and offering individual attention when possible, but the size of the class and the low standards in other kinds of online classes make that increasingly difficult.

Now blow her dilemma up to cover tens of thousands of people at once. Here’s my friend (and boss) Neil Schlager discussing his experience as a student in a finance MOOC:

As I was banging my head against the wall trying to make my way through the assignments, and as it became clear that the explanations of my fellow students in the discussion forum were not helping, it dawned on me: I needed access to the professor, the one person who has spent decades honing his ability to describe and explain these concepts to struggling students. That, along with his years of schooling as evidenced by his PhD, is in part why he is on the faculty of a prestigious business school like Michigan.

However, in the MOOC environment, such access is not possible.

It’s almost as if the powers that be have engineered a bait and switch. First, they offer faculty the opportunity to teach new audiences online. Next, they make it impossible to actually do that teaching right. It’s like regular online education is a gateway drug to wasting higher education as a whole.

So online educators of the world, let me propose a truce: Instead of arguing about whether online education is good or bad, let us simply agree that all students, online or otherwise, deserve access to a professor. Not a teaching assistant. A professor, someone with enough knowledge and experience to help every student overcome the inevitable stumbling blocks on the road to educational enlightenment.

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:

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.

Why can’t we live in a just world? If you have to educate people online, then keep the numbers down to so that students can get the access to the professor that they all deserve. If you have to run a MOOC, then don’t settle for an “Every student for themselves!” pedagogical strategy. Hire all the faculty a class needs so that every student can get all the help they need. What’s the worse thing that can happen? Your MOOC will be a little less massive? Coursera won’t turn a profit quite as quickly?

Don’t let the MOOC machine become entirely free of living, breathing professors – even if only at the other side of a computer screen. Anything else needs to be defined as the lousy education that it is. An online education without guidance is good for nobody but the people cashing the tuition checks and the private companies that partner with them.



7 responses

27 02 2013
Anne Corner

It seems to me there is a business model here. Every industry needs adjunct industries. Cars require tires. Maybe MOOCs require internet tutors.

27 02 2013
Jonathan Rees


That’s an excellent idea if the alternative is unemployment. If you used to be college prof though it would be kind of disappointing.

27 02 2013
Anne Corner

Of course doing it yourself would be as you say disappointing. I was thinking more along the lines of starting a company complimentary to Coursera. Bet someone will do it eventually. I’d be happy to have that type of employment as I am retired and it would just be extra money for me.

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