Teaching in a straitjacket.

7 03 2013

The robot currently filing columns for the New York Times under the byline “Tom Friedman” is VERY EXCITED ABOUT MOOCS!!!:

We demand that plumbers and kindergarten teachers be certified to do what they do, but there is no requirement that college professors know how to teach. No more. The world of MOOCs is creating a competition that will force every professor to improve his or her pedagogy or face an online competitor.

In other words, the forces of the free market will unleash an army of truly super superprofessors who will join together to educate the world!!!

Thank goodness for Jeremy Adelman. While the Fried-bot was pontificating at a partially-off-the-record conference in Cambridge, he was publishing actual statistics from his MOOC in AHA Perspectives* that allow us to put this thesis to the test:

The gist of the course for Princeton students (weekly readings, papers, exams) did not change. For Coursera, I assigned fortnightly papers of 750 words each to be peer-reviewed. Any student who completed a paper by the due date was expected to assess five papers submitted by classmates. They had a week to write a paper and a week to assess their peers. In the end, 1,963 discrete “users” submitted over 5,000 essays and participated in almost 30,000 evaluations.

To make sense of those numbers, you also have to know that Jeremy’s course topped out at somewhere around 92,000 students. That means that the percentage of students who completed even one of the course assignments was incredibly low, way below the Mendoza Line. To accept that as a mark of success would mean accepting what the guy who lost Florida to Al Gore in 2000 once called “the soft bigotry of low expectations.”

Does this mean that Jeremy failed as a superprofessor? Absolutely not. As Phil Hill reminds us, students enter MOOCs for different reasons and therefore participate in different ways. What it does mean though is that MOOCs are not nearly as effective as actual college courses at getting students involved in every aspect of higher education. That’s why nobody I know is saying, “Kill all the MOOCs,” but they are saying don’t let MOOCs replace traditional higher education entirely because free online education isn’t there yet. I don’t think it can ever get there, at least not for humanities courses.

Jeremy is much more optimistic. However, he is also smart enough to be able to spot the existing flaws in his current course design:

For Coursera students, peer assessment needs upfront tutoring. It is not a natural skill; it cannot develop organically within the timeframe of an accelerated 12-week semester without frustration and attrition. With time, students did learn to evaluate each other, and by the end many students did feel they had gained from the exercise of writing and assessing six essays. But there was too much stumbling around in the dark as I learned along the way.

Does this mean that Jeremy believes in the magic rubric? I don’t think so. It seems more like he wants every participating student to get their own TA. If that’s true, I hope that Princeton is willing to put up the money for all that extra labor because I’m pretty sure that Coursera won’t or they’ll never be profitable.

That for-profit business model is like a straitjacket that will prevent Jeremy from doing what has to be done for the MOOC experience to measure up to what his on campus students get from him semester after semester. It’s not like he’s tightly bound and hanging upside down off the top of a building, but he’s bound nonetheless.

Perhaps Jeremy can wriggle out of his straitjacket and make his MOOC work as well as his other classes, but there was only one Houdini. To think that every superprofessor in every discipline cares as much as Jeremy and will therefore match whatever pedagogical success he achieves while working within the constraints of the MOOC format either makes you an ideologue or a fool.

I’ll let my readers decide which one of those labels best applies to the Fried-bot.

* It’s currently for subscribers only. If I remember the AHA’s system correctly it will be free access starting in April 2013.




6 responses

7 03 2013

Amazing how much nonsense Friedman can pack into so few words, as when he writes, “there is no requirement that college professors know how to teach. No more. The world of MOOCs is creating a competition that will force every professor to improve his or her pedagogy or face an online competitor.” How many ways is this wrong (not his whole column, just the quoted passage)? At least three: 1.) The appearance of MOOCs has not created any additional requirement that college professors know how to teach, at least not anything more formal than the de facto requirement that already exists. Does Friedman *really* think professors are not evaluated for retention, tenure, and promotion on their teaching? 2.) Traditional faculty have faced competition from online schools for a decade now. Friedman seems to be confusing online instruction generally with MOOCs specifically. 3.) The competition will turn mostly on price of instruction and very little on quality of pedagogy. (Even as blinkered a toadie as Clayton Christensen understands this.) 4.) There’s no reason to assume that MOOCs really will have *any* of the effects currently being prognosticated. Friedman needs to read Bob Seidensticker’s Future Hype: The Myths of Technology Change.

7 03 2013
Teaching in a straitjacket. | Notanda

[…] Teaching in a straitjacket.. […]

7 03 2013
Thomas Friedman and Bad-Faith Technological Utopianism « metropolitan history

[…] Thomas Friedman’s enthusiastic embrace of MOOC [Massive Open-Enrollment Online Courses] as a fix for the problem of higher education costs is troubling, because a Friedman endorsement generally signals both that an idea has become part of the establishment consensus and that it’s completely wrong. I’m not here to conduct an extensive critical mockery of Friedman; It can be left to the professionals or to random content generators, and I don’t have the time. Nor am I here to explore the politics of online education as the latest utopian fix for the inherent contradictions of providing a labor-intensive service on a mass scale on the cheap. That task is expertly handled by Jonathan Rees at his place. […]

8 03 2013
Is the ‘stache back? : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

[…] of all of the interest in Thomas Friedmans’ “The Mustache of Understanding” mooky MOOC-fest earlier this week.  But I’ve also been seeing them riding some young men’s lips around […]

1 04 2013
Real college classes have writing assignments and required reading. | More or Less Bunk

[…] now: MOOC providers don’t want to scare off potential students with too much work. Talk about teaching in a strait jacket! This is exactly why higher education should never be privatized in the first place. It degrades […]

6 05 2015
Is the ‘stache back? | Historiann

[…] of all of the interest in Thomas Friedmans’ “The Mustache of Understanding” mooky MOOC-fest earlier this week.  But I’ve also been seeing them riding some young men’s lips around […]

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