Do most MOOCs have required reading? I’ve been conversing with the proprietor of the blog Capitalist Imperialist Pig about that question in the comments here. They challenged me to look at all the excellent readings in two MOOCs, Gregory Nagy’s Ancient Greek Hero and Dan Ariely’s Coursera MOOC from Duke, so I did.*
Here’s the “Suggested Reading” statement for Ariely’s MOOC:
I will cover some of the material that is in my 3 books Predictably Irrational, Revised and Expanded Edition: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions (2008), The Upside of Irrationality: The Unexpected Benefits of Defying Logic at Work and at Home (2010), and The Honest Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone—Especially Ourselves (2012).
In other words, there’s no required reading, and one writing assignment which is (of course) peer-graded.
The Nagy course is better on reading. There’s a lot of free downloadable translations of Greek texts that you clearly need to read in order to pass the typical mulltiple choice lecture quizzes. But here’s the assessment and evaluation portion:
Students will be evaluated on assessment performance and participation. Assessments will be conducted each “hour” of the course. These will consist of quizzes on the reading (names, places, who is speaking to whom, etc.), as well as the application of principles and concepts central to the course.
Class participation, multiple choice quizzes and no writing at all.
Do you see a trend yet? Then consider this:
Yes, that’s right. You can learn all about great 20th Century ideas at the University of Texas without having to read about any of them. And don’t forget about Harvard lite (law school edition)!
The trend should be clear 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 the quality of the product…a lot.
I’m sorry if this bursts anyone’s bubble, but watching videos on the Internet and maybe writing a few very short essays that the professor never sees isn’t college. Real college classes have writing assignments and required reading. Real college classes require access to the professor. To say MOOCs like these can somehow replace an actual college education is tantamount to fraud.
But that fraud isn’t just going to hurt students left with no access to college but for MOOCs. It’s going to hurt society in general too. This is from UW-Madison History Professor (Go Badgers!) Bill Cronon’s presidential address to the last American Historical Association convention (no subscription needed). [Warning: this story will make any real English or History teacher (and probably more than a few others) cry.]:
Still more poignant and worrisome was the young man who came up to me after a lecture I had just given at another university introducing the major themes of the very long book about Portage, Wisconsin, on which I have been working for longer than I care to admit. I sometimes describe that book as “Michener-length,” though that is a reference few students born in the past thirty years would recognize. So I usually add that I expect the final book to be at least five or six hundred pages long, covering as it does the history of this small Midwestern town from the glacier to now. The illustrated talk I give about Portage is intended to be a crowd-pleaser, with lots of engaging images and stories, and at the end of this particular lecture, a shy young man came up to say how much he had enjoyed it. I thanked him for his praise, but was then mystified when he added that he was very sorry he would never be able to read the book on which my talk was based. I sheepishly told him that although I was taking a long time to finish it, it would eventually be published, and he would certainly be able to read it then. He shook his head and said that was not what he meant. He reminded me that I had described the book as being more than five hundred pages long. Then, with a sad and embarrassed look on his face, he said he was simply incapable of reading such a book, that he had never in his life read anything so long. I was taken aback, but I am quite certain he was speaking in earnest, and that his regret was quite real.
Educating the masses without fixing the problem which that story represents isn’t really educating the masses, no matter what the MOOC maniacs tell you. At least we can blame the delusions of the venture capitalists on self interest. What’s the excuse of everyone in academia who should actually know better?
* These MOOC syllabus links require accounts from the MOOC providers in question. And yes, if you’re wondering, I did get an edX account in order to write this post. [The things I do for this blog!]
Update: A reliable source tells me that I screwed up in my quick read of Professor Ariely’s syllabus. Apparently, there is a substantial list of regular readings scattered around the Internet that I didn’t see. That would make his class more like Professor Nagy’s, a MOOC with a higher workload than most. My apologies to both Professor Ariely and CIP. In defense of my overall point though, I’ll note that the two Coursera world history courses that I’ve been directly involved with have no required reading at all.
Late Update: Since this post is getting a lot of late attention from people who are likely new visitors here, they might also want to read my follow up post on this subject, Some MOOCs are more inferior than others.