Some MOOCs are more inferior than others.

4 04 2013

“Our consortium’s members collectively decided to add intention statements to our syllabi, stating that our courses are not equivalent to a semester-long college-composition course. The main reason for that decision is not that we believe our courses have inferior content but that there is simply no way to adequately evaluate the writing of thousands of students—something we would need to be able to do to certify their work.”

[emphasis added]

– Karen Head, Georgia State University, “Sweating the Details of a MOOC in Progress,” Wired Campus, 4/3/13.

The part of that quote in bold would make me smug for obvious reasons except for the fact that the conclusion is so incredibly obvious. The real question is what Coursera and the universities creating composition MOOCs do next. Do they leave writing-based courses to the physical campuses or do they trudge on anyway? I’ll admit my knowledge of the accreditation process is pretty limited, but my guess would definitely be the latter option. After all, MOOC students will still probably be able to take a competency test and get credit somewhere.

But let’s not forget the earlier part of that same sentence. I strongly suspect that the content they’re generating there at Georgia State and elsewhere isn’t inferior. Whether the course itself turns out to be inferior is a much harder question to answer.

I got caught in a bind earlier this week trying to judge MOOC quality on the basis of the number of assignments a course has. Yes, some MOOCs do have required reading and writing assignments. This makes them better than the two history MOOCs that I’ve dealt with that have neither in one case, and only one in the other. However, this does not make taking these harder MOOCs the equivalent to taking a similar course given by those superprofessors on their home campuses. Why? Well, for one thing, “there is simply no way to adequately evaluate the writing of thousands of students.”

Call me old-fashioned, but I tend to think that the best way to judge the quality of a college class is in the quality of the instruction, of which the number of assignments constitutes a small part. This also includes lecturing, but also a lot more. After all, 50% of my annual performance review depends upon how good a teacher I am, not on whether or not some students fall asleep during my lectures. There’s so much more to quality teaching than lecturing: course design, assignment design, grading, how you deal with students one-on-one in your office, your understanding of group dynamics…I could go on for hours along these lines.

And that’s where MOOCs – not superprofessors, MOOCs – in my admittedly biased view fall down on the job by definition. By separating content delivery from actual instruction (which might as well not even exist if the student doesn’t take advantage of all the MOOC has to offer), every single solitary MOOC ends up being inferior to a similar face-to-face class given by a competent instructor. That doesn’t mean that non-super professors are always better teachers than the “best of the best” that Coursera recruits. It simply means that people like me, or even regular online educators who operate at a human scale, offer students the whole experience. Superprofessors can’t.

This should be obvious, but for some reason it’s not to a lot of MOOC enthusiasts. Here’s one who understands this difference, Debbie Morrison at Online Learning Insights:

College students benefit greatly from instructor feedback, including when it’s provided in a small online learning community where interaction exists between students and instructor and students and students. In a Massive Open Online Course, [or even a F2F class of 100+ students] it’s impossible to provide the required learning conditions for this type of interaction.

It’s as if the superprofessors are wrestling with one arm tied behind their back. Sure they can make that one free arm do some impressive things, but it’s going to be awfully hard for them to grip anybody.



4 responses

4 04 2013
Mark R. Cheathem

That’s alright–EdX will just let computers grade the written assignments: :

5 04 2013
Norm Matloff

The NYT article makes some unusual concessions, points that are obvious to any of us here, but not to those awestruck by technology.

First, there is a statement that multiple-choice exams can’t test critical thinking. Then there is a statement that computers can never grade essays as well as the humans do–but only in the elite schools.

This statement about elite schools has interesting, and I believe false, premises. There are thoughtful, conscientious faculty at any school, elite or not–and at any school there are uncaring professors who haven’t given a thought as to what an exam should accomplish. Another point, possibly less obvious, is that the glut of PhDs who wish an academic career is resulting in many graduates of the elite universities ending up teaching at very ordinary ones. (So, hey, “Glut is good!” 🙂 Just a bit a dark humor, sorry, more coming.) So even if there were something to the claim that computer grading is currently fine for “the rest of us,” in time we should all be as “qualified” to do hand grading as the elites are, ha ha.

To me this is the only article I’ve seen in the mainstream press that addresses the issue of just what it is we want students to learn. The Times’ quote on critical thinking may be trite, but most of the articles don’t even go that far. To them, “learning” is just memorizing facts, formulas and techniques. And that, by the way, is what is behind “studies” that show MOOCs are just as effective at teaching as the live courses are; just change the definition of “effective.”

14 04 2013
Real college classes have writing assignments and required reading. | More or Less Bunk

[…] 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. […]

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