MOOCs are to reading as Kryptonite is to Superman.

4 03 2013

I went to a meeting last week with a room full of scientists.  At one point, the guy at the front of the room lamented the fact that nobody wants to read anymore.  “You have no idea,” I said reflexively to no one in particular.  On second thought, I realized that they did have some idea as they’re probably trying to coax their students into reading boring textbooks.  I can at least pick interesting monographs.

Either way, we’re all at least on the same team.  So is Philip Zelikow (sort of).  From the WP article I cited on Friday:

“For about 80 U-Va. students, there are required reading, quizzes, written assignments, a midterm and a final exam.  That is all fairly standard.”

Indeed it is.  Zelikow also runs sections with his students, which is why that article is all about his flipped classroom.  Zelikow’s MOOC students, on the other hand, are required to do none of these things, which is a shame as Zelikow has an excellent reading list. Those books are only recommended for his MOOC students (as was Jeremy Adelman’s textbook) because they have no incentive to actually do the reading since they’re only being tested on the MOOC lectures.  University of Virginia students read books and watch lectures because they’re getting real credit from a real college for doing so, but only the most committed MOOCer would ever do all of that. Requiring everybody to handle a UVa workload would make Zelikow’s MOOC a lot less massive.

I’ve seen plenty of people claim that MOOCs are just like textbooks.  In fact, they’re not like textbooks at all.  They may perform the same function of conveying information, but watching videos requires a lot less effort on the part of students and therefore results in a lot less reward.  As a guy from the Gates Foundation told the Chronicle back in November:

“In that way, Mr. Jarrett said, MOOC’s may turn out to be a high-tech replacement for a textbook.

“We think in the short term the blended, flip-the-classroom model is going to be the one that’s most effective for the first generation, low-income students, the kind of students that we work for,” he said.”

[emphasis added]

Let me get this straight:  First generation college students get to earn degrees without reading, while kids whose parents know better get sent to real schools with required book lists?  What kind of education is an education without reading?  A lousy one, of course, but Coursera’s future profits depend upon a steady stream of eyeballs, not on whether the brains behind those eyeballs actually learn anything.  Therefore, the “customer” (who isn’t actually paying anything) is always right.  It’s this give-the-people-what-they-want mentality behind MOOCs that make them death to textbooks.

Honestly, I wouldn’t mind one bit if MOOCs only killed textbooks.  Textbooks are boring and almost nobody reads them – including the professors who assign them.  However, if MOOCs ever manage to killing reading in its entirety, I’m going to pack it in and find another line of work.  After all, how can you teach college history without monographs or English without novels?  In fact, how can you teach anything above an introductory course in any humanity without assigning required reading?

Of course you can’t, but maybe that’s precisely the point.



6 responses

4 03 2013
Vim, Ph.D. (@Exhaust_Fumes)

I’m not sure all textbooks can be painted with the same brush. I use textbooks all the time in English courses–anthologies are essential for surveys that cover 1000 years of lit. And not all Shakespeare editions (or novels) are equally good for the classroom, but when a play has been edited specifically for undergraduates, then it is effectively also a textbook, with textbook upcharges. I think they are too expensive, and I think students often don’t do the reading in them. I have a feeling, though, it’s not because the books are boring. In fact, my students often admit they found something too hard after I press them on what they found “boring.” Boring is actually a catch-all word that quite often stand in for other things: “I was lazy. I only like things I already think I know, and the words were bigger than I’m used to and I wasn’t going to look them up.”

I gave an exam over reading in the textbook in my shakespeare class and was impressed by how well most students did on it. If a MOOC could ensure that students actually did the reading in any book, textbook or not, (as my exam did, since I didn’t teach the material beyond answering some specific questions about it), it would be vastly superior to what they do now. We can’t always force students to complete the reading in the “traditional” classroom, so MOOCs aren’t the cause of the problem, but as you suggest, they pretty much ensure it will only get worse.

The thing is, reading is itself an exercise. It’s not just a great way to learn–it requires learning to do well. I think the worst thing here is that the problem has been framed as one of access to higher education, but we all have students that we know aren’t ready to be in college. They’ve been given the access, but they don’t have the reading and writing skills–neither of which can be taught without the other or without having a real live person to talk to, and a whole lot of effort/time. MOOC advocates pretend that these things irrelevant, or at least less relevant than they are.

4 03 2013

Having just Stayed up until 4 AM writing my paper for a MOOC, I think you’re very wrong about the reading and the amount of effort involved in one of these courses. Yes, it would be very easy to just watch the video but anyone who’s really interested in education will do the reading and will write the papers. I for one am deeply appreciative of the MOOCs. This is an opportunity for me to extend my education in my retirement, reading books I might never have read, getting exposed to new ideas, and engaging, even if only on line, with professors and students at a college level.

4 03 2013
Jonathan Rees


I’m delighted that you’re participating as much as you are. However, I can guarantee you that you are in the minority. Most MOOCs have a dropout rate of over 90%. Furthermore, you should understand that there is a difference between giving motivating students the opportunity to learn more facts and giving out college credit for profit. I don’t want your opportunity to do the first to mean that students who need the guidance and supervision of the professor will not have that opportunity too.

4 03 2013

I like the overall take, but disagree with the Kryptonite metaphor. Couldn’t (or shouldn’t) we understand Moocs as symptomatic of the larger trends that have been well-documented in different cognitive engagement between ‘reading’ culture and the current information age culture?

As someone who came of age before the full expansion of the internet and who started teaching in its early days, I can say that the main difference I have seen is that students are so thoroughly distracted that they cannot read with sustained focus. This in turn prevents them from absorbing material and from thinking or writing about it critically.

So the question for me is whether or not MOOCs and other information-age educational innovations answer or exacerbate this wider problem. in addition, what are we as teachers to do? Scream and point at books until the younglings pick them up?

4 03 2013
Jonathan Rees

Elder J,

I feel your pain. Nonetheless, my cure is to spend more time with the books themselves, walking students through key passages and even giving reading tips (like “Turn off the TV.”) when necessary. This works as long as you pick good books.

I don’t know your discipline, but have you seen the latest American Historical Review? William Cronon’s presidential address along these lines will just break your heart. After being told by my department chair that I can never assign _Nature’s Metropolis_ to anyone ever, I just ran grad students through it for the first time (albeit over a three week period) and got more out of it than any of the other three times I read the book.

4 03 2013

Reblogged this on Notanda.

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