“My biggest fear, frankly, is not a fear connected to Penn at all…It’s a fear that thinking right now about higher education, and especially public higher education, is driven by logics of efficiencies, concerns about the spiraling costs of education, et cetera. And that, too rapidly, these [MOOCs] will be seen as ways of bending the cost curve. And that efficiencies, real or imagined, will become a device for withdrawal of support from high-quality education, and replacement of that experience with something that’s perhaps adequate, but not outstanding. I’m very, very concerned with the misuse of these technologies in a way that is viewed as a cheap way out.”
– University of Pennsylvania Provost Vincent Price in Trey Popp, “MOOC U.,” The Pennsylvania Gazette, March/April 2013.
I was cleaning out my old magazines earlier today and found the article quoted above (which tells you how closely I skim my old alumni magazines). On the one hand, it’s good to know that the chief academic officer of my alma mater shares my concerns about MOOCs. Unfortunately, you can still see hints of full-blown MOOC Derangement Syndrome in the lingering belief that sometime in the future MOOCs might actually equal the quality of face-to-face classes. Unless you offer massive numbers of students the same individual attention that all paying college students at least have the opportunity to receive, they will not be as effective educationally. You can come up with the greatest MOOC since sliced bread – not MOOC 2.0 but MOOC 177.0 – and MOOCs will still have this problem because massiveness is a feature of MOOCs, not a bug.
Take the MOOC I know best, Jeremy Adelman’s World History class. I read last week that the completion rate in that course was 0.8%. My theory for why that class was the lowest of the low is that Jeremy wanted to make his MOOC as close to the Princeton experience as possible. That’s why he assigned MOOC students six essays. Students not only had to write them, they had to peer review other people’s work in order to see their own grades. While this might not equal the load in the Coursera Machine Learning MOOC, it’s still a lot of work for someone who might have signed up just to hear nice lectures about the Mughal Empire. Sure, these students won’t learn as much, but you’re still giving the people what they want.
Again, this is a feature of MOOCs, not a bug. From the same article about MOOCs at Penn, here’s Coursera’s Daphne Koller:
“Unbundling is a good thing,” Koller says, “because it allows you to extract units from courses that are of value in and of themselves, and provide them for students.
Presumably peer grading is going to go the way of the dodo because very few people seem to want to participate in that activity. But wait!:
Recently, peer assessments have been the focus of extended research as an outgrowth of the remarkable help some MOOC students gave their classmates via discussions and ad-hoc learning groups. When a class grows to over 1,000 students, Stanford professors found that students tend to support each other and rely less on the staff for answers to their questions. For example, the first Stanford AI class taught by Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvik featured one (yes, 1) teaching assistant.
What if students could be even more active? Could they be taught to grade the work of their peers?
Um…no. First we had the magic rubric. Now we have the magic carrot to get students to read the magic rubric even more closely. If the course is unbundled so that students don’t have to do every part of it, they will have no incentive to do all the work. If the students do not know the subject they are grading, there is no way they will ever be able to grade as well as a trained professor. That’s why the rush to redefine MOOC completion rates vs face-to-face completion rates is in full swing. Because it’s obvious that MOOC completion rates will never get better. Low numbers are a feature of MOOCs, not a bug.
Which brings me back to my illustrious alma mater. From the same article:
Penn has a nonexclusive agreement with Coursera. “We put our energy into this partnership,” he says. “It makes sense to play this out in a way that benefits both Coursera and Penn. But if at any point the company moves in a trajectory that’s not consistent with our mission, there’s really nothing lost by that. And to some extent one could imagine a scenario where our investment in that company proves to have been a wise investment in a financial sense, even if we part ways and move in very different directions.”
Let’s imagine a scenario in which Coursera does something unspeakably awful for education. Penn says, “We’re going to take our MOOC business somewhere else.” Not only is Coursera still around to keep doing that awful thing, Penn will presumably still be in the MOOC business. If you’ve accepted the notion that the university making a profit from education is compatible with Penn’s mission, I don’t see how it’s ever possible for a partner like Coursera to ever do anything that contradicts with that mission.
After all, the primary market for Penn MOOCs is the rest of us, not Penn students. Price can always protect them from the Big Bad Wolf, but not students and faculty outside of West Philly. In other words, MOOC derangement syndrome, the irrational belief that MOOCs can one day be just as good as face-to-face classes, is a very convenient syndrome to have if your professors aren’t the ones at risk for being unbundled.