Ground rules for the MOOC Monster.

29 04 2013

So a giant, hairy, orange monster has shown up at the door to your classroom. Maybe you invited it, but more likely your dean or provost invited it into your department for you. What are you going to do? Are you going to let it inside and risk being eaten alive or are you going to try to bar the door?

Recognizing that plenty of people are not in a position to bar the door, I thought I would suggest a few ground rules for living with the MOOC Monster. After all, monsters are such interesting people. Maybe you and it can learn to get along. And rather than making these rules facetious (like “Don’t let him eat anybody,”) these are (mostly) serious:

1) The Monster is not allowed to get between the professor and the students.  In other words, every student must maintain access to the professor.

Public education does not mean education only for the self-motivated or the quick to pick up on things. Public education means education for everybody. That means every student must be able to ask questions of somebody who knows the answer. TAs are helpful in this area, but even students caught in a 500-person face-to-face lecture hall still require access to the professor. In theory, they have it. MOOC students, on the other hand, certainly don’t. Instead they’re barred in the syllabus from e-mailing the superprofessor or the superprofessor holds a lottery so that students have the privilege of participating in a Google chat with them. This is not good customer service.

Neither is pawning the inquisitive off on other students and calling that a “learning community.” Yes, there are plenty of things that students can learn by working together. There are also plenty of things that they can’t. Anybody who thinks that the entire college experience can be transformed into an interactive group activity is either an edtech entrepreneur or rolling too many of their own jelly babies.

As I’ve explained elsewhere, the Achilles Heel of endeavors like these is peer-grading. That’s where the lack of access to the professor hurts the learning process most because correcting essays is where most writing-based instruction occurs. Rather than quote myself, I’ll offer up an extended excerpt from this post at Degrees of Freedom:

But when paid graders have to go through thousands of submissions for AP History (for example), they are not simply e-mailed a rubric and a bunch of essays and told to get on with it. Rather, they are all flown into the same location and put through hours or days of training to ensure they are all grading consistently.

This usually includes sharing examples (called exemplars) of essays representing each score on a rubric (giving graders models to work from). It will also include mechanisms for sharing and confirming scores between graders and bringing in additional evaluators to break ties or settle disputes.

The point of all this activity is to squeeze as much inconsistency out of the process as possible so that the major source of subjectivity in a rubric-graded scoring exercise (idiosyncrasies between those doing the grading) is minimized.

Needless to say, no such training or collaboration is available when I’m scoring 3-4 essays from my home in Boston (and applying my own extra rules – such as the non-native English one mentioned above) while someone else is scoring their 3-4 from their villa on the Turkish coast (and applying his or her own idiosyncratic rules as they work).

This is not good customer service either. Indeed, if you actually care about learning, this kind of crapshoot would probably drive you to drink. Perhaps, just perhaps, the MOOC Monster could be a model party guest while visiting a math classroom, but if the course has anything to do with writing I don’t see why we shouldn’t kick the creature out before it comes in and trashes the place straight away.

2) The Monster must be kept on a leash. The professor must hold that leash at all times.

Technology, the cliché goes, is neither good nor bad. That depends upon how it’s used. How it’s used depends upon how much you know about where you plan to use it. Over the weekend, Michael Feldstein, fresh off a conference full of edtech startups and VCs wrote:

The prevailing attitude in the Valley seems to be, “Hey, we built the internet. How hard could education be?”

That’s right. Education is your career, but the capitalists of Silicon Valley are convinced that they can do your job better than you can. I wouldn’t trust my history classroom to a psychology professor (nor they to me, I hope), yet the guy who used to run and his venture capitalist buddies are convinced that they can recreate the Ivy League online. It would be hilarious if so many people weren’t assuming that this sort of thing was even remotely plausible.

If you need brain surgery, call a brain surgeon. If you want an education, then there better be some educators involved or you’re probably flushing your money down the toilet. I’m not talking about the venture capitalists here. If gullible administrators willingly give them guaranteed contracts then their profit is in the bag. I’m talking about the students. Professors serve as quality control for higher education endeavors. If your professor is about as accessible as the pope or Thomas Pynchon, then you can’t perform that function no matter how well-meaning you happen to be.

I am not a Luddite (not that there’s anything wrong with that). I try to learn technologies that I think will be useful to me in my life or in the classroom. I eschew technologies that won’t help, or which I know I can’t control. Also over the weekend, Derek Bruff asked, “Why isn’t the digital humanities community building great MOOCs?” I think the answer to that question is pretty obvious. Its members want nothing to do with a technology that they can’t control.

Come to think of it, the fact that MOOCs don’t do anything to improve the quality of education may have something to do with it too.

3) The professor is the one who gets to decide if the Monster has overstayed its welcome.

In real terms, I’m talking about assessment here. I hate assessment. I think it’s nothing but a fishing expedition for an excuse to punish higher education by defunding it, thereby making it even less effective than it already may be. Yet, for some reason, MOOCs seem to immune from all this assessment talk that dogs face-to-face classes. “Don’t mind the 90% dropout rate,” the MOOC enthusiasts tell us. “It’s a new technology. We’ll figure it all out down the road.” Maybe they will. Maybe they won’t. I still want to know why MOOCs deserve a pass while face-to-face classes don’t.

I think this is where that whole “Be a maker not a hater” business comes in. I have no problem with making things. However, if a professor can change their assessment rubric to value outcomes rather than individual student learning, they are cooking the books. Of course 95,000 students are going to do something, but doing isn’t necessarily the same thing as having every student learn what they need to know.

The digital humanities allows us to stretch the nature of our disciplines and of what students need to learn in college. I’m certainly fine with trying some of what this new subdiscipline has to offer in some of my classes. In fact, I just got a small grant from my university to try a class along these lines next spring. However, too many edtech startups and superprofessors are running down what most of us do every day in an effort to justify whatever disruption makes them rich, famous or both. Perhaps whatever tech that happens to be hip that week is a good thing. Perhaps it isn’t.

I say let the people who do the teaching be the judge.


But what if we can’t? What if the powers that be won’t let us kick the MOOC Monster out of our classrooms? Congratulations, if you understand that this is the likely outcome of laying ground rules for the MOOC Monster, then you understand that professors are employees, not entrepreneurs. Everything we do takes place within an industrial relations system in which most of us have very little power.

Nonetheless, I think there’s value in forcing the MOOC pushers to go on the record with their anti-education views. These simple ground rules aren’t unreasonable. They are reflections of the should-be-uncontroversial principle that educators know what’s best for education, not VCs or tech geeks. To argue against these rules would clearly reveal that the actual agenda of the MOOC “Revolution” does not involve improving the quality of education for anyone. Maybe then we professors might start paying more attention to the threat that the MOOC Monster embodies.

Monsters may be interesting people, but you can’t engage them in meaningful conversation if they’ve just swallowed you whole.




5 responses

29 04 2013
Karen Michalson

Yes, yes, and yes! “forcing the MOOC pushers to go on the record with their anti-education views” is a great idea, but somehow I don’t think they want to have that discussion, especially when the right wing can do it for them. The right wing’s obsession with pushing MOOCs as an equivalent to higher education is worth watching:

30 04 2013
Karen Michalson

CIP: Money is never just along for the ride.

1 05 2013
Rosie Redfield

It’s a mistake to view peer-review as simply a way to shift the burden of grding from instructors to students. With appropriate training activities (such as those provided by Calibrated Peer Review), the main value of peer-review is not the grading or even the comments, but the deeply developmental experience of the students doing the reviewing.

1 05 2013
Jonathan Rees


Sure, but it never works that way. None of the major MOOCs design or incentivize any student to offer that kind of critique. More importantly, even trying to do so will scare off students who have no interest in a deeply developmental experience. That’s bad business, which is a good reason why not to privatize public education through rapid MOOCification in the first place.

3 05 2013

Excellent way to frame it: The Monster. Faculty must always hold the leash. Brilliant ideas here.

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