“Sentence first — verdict afterwards.”

15 06 2013


“‘Stuff and nonsense!’ said Alice loudly. ‘The idea of having the sentence first!’”

– Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland, 1865.

What kind of professor “experiments” in front of tens of thousands of students? Gerry Canavan is right – one who already knows the results. And the results are, of course, that MOOCs are a resounding success (even if that requires moving the goal posts all the way back to your own ten yard line).

That’s why this two part LA Review of Books forum on MOOCs (Ian Bogost’s outstanding contributions being the notable exception) compelled me to suspend my book-induced blogging hiatus. I’ve never seen so much back-slapping when the game has barely started.

For example, Cathy Davidson’s contributions aren’t really all that different than anything else she’s said already written about her upcoming MOOC. It’s just sad to see someone who’s written so eloquently about quality education throw that priority out the window:

It is in this context that I find MOOCs a useful goad toward educational experimentation that may lead to methods for educating more students and in ways more responsive to the connected world they inhabit everywhere except in school.

Wait, she does mention quality when she insults the efforts of ordinary online teachers everywhere by asserting that “the Doc on the Laptop is even worse than the Sage on the Stage.” This isn’t exactly a scientific argument. It isn’t even a social scientific argument. Davidson and her fellow superprofessors privilege access over educational quality because it justifies decisions that they’ve already made. Since MOOCs are the future, then why not me?

I’m not sure if Ray Shroeder falls into this same self-serving category, but in a way his pronouncements are much more disturbing since they are blatantly political rather than merely technological:

We are now learning on a global scale for a myriad of reasons, not the least of which are the imperatives of the economy, the affordances of the technology, and the need to globalize our learning experience. There is no turning back. The social compact for funding higher education is forever changed.

Really? I didn’t vote for that, did you? Didn’t Jefferson talk about the tyranny of imposing your will on future generations? It seems they might actually want to have some say over permanent austerity, don’t you think? Can we at least talk about what higher education actually entails before we accept our glorious online future as a permanent fact of life? If we don’t, then this whole MOOC discussion is going nowhere and a lot of innocent people are going to get hurt.

So how do we get out of this MOOC stalemate? Question their assumptions. In Part II, Ian Bogost pretty much sums up all the frustrations of my superprofessor educational campaign in a few handy sentences:

Al Filreis offered an inspiring account of his work teaching a modern poetry MOOC, and Ray Schroeder related stories of his globally distributed students making work groups in wi-fi-enabled fast food joints. Filreis and Schroeder stop well short of making hasty generalizations or no-true-Scotsman claims about MOOCs — but that’s largely because they make no general claims whatsoever. If I had to summarize the common, implied conclusion in their contributions to the first round of this discussion, it would go something like this: “Our MOOCs seem like positive and gratifying contributions to humanities education, so MOOCs can’t be all bad.”

So for what feels like the 67 millionth time: Nobody is trying to take anyone’s MOOCs away. It’s just that some of us simply refuse to assume that MOOCs are by definition successful because they reach more people than traditional education does. Real higher education (as opposed to mere information transferal) depends upon direct contact with the professor. MOOCs may “evolve,” but unless they eschew their essential “MOOC-iness” – namely their mechanical, impersonal industrialized nature – they’re not going to educate anyone any better. If they do, then they’ll no longer be MOOCs.

Access to higher education is completely meaningless without success and success is much less likely without access to the professor. Even the staunchest defenders of MOOCs know this deep down in their hearts. Pop quiz: Who said this?:

“The real value of attending a great university isn’t just the content…It’s the interaction with the person delivering that content.”

Yes, that’s Andrew Ng of Coursera, offering the soothing sentiments that every MOOC agnostic wants to hear from him. Unfortunately, no superprofessor can possibly interact with tens of thousands of students at once. For MOOCs to look good, their defenders can only compare them to no education at all. This explains why the MOOC messiah crowd is so keen on talking about access to higher education rather than access to the professor. Otherwise they’d have to consider the effect of MOOCs on students who are in college now or who’d go to college anyway, and that wouldn’t be a fun discussion for them to have.

But this isn’t just about teaching. Some of us want to have this discussion about MOOCs in light of the already exploitative labor policies of American higher education. Those who scream “Access!” at us when we start this discussion are basically saying that they don’t care. I guess this shouldn’t be surprising as nobody cared when adjunctification rolled in originally, but that doesn’t make a bitter pill any easier to swallow.

Faculty members of all kinds who are in the process of being sentenced to future joblessness deserve a fair hearing. Behaving like the Red Queen when Alice questions your assumptions only makes MOOCs look even more like stuff and nonsense than they do already. Sometime in the very near future, the fortunate college professors left standing after this house of cards collapses are going to look back on these discussions and wonder what the Hell most of us were thinking.



9 responses

15 06 2013

How MOOCs work requires seeing how students use them. I wrote about the recent research by MIT’s Lori Breslow on the first edX MOOC.


Clearly, without a teacher, the successful students are devising ways to communicate with each other. This point deserves close inspection.

My take: “show and tell” is being used by “extreme users” for their own benefit. Can it scale? Can it lead to a Socratic method online?

15 06 2013
Mark R. Cheathem

An important question that’s not answered: Who were these extreme users (the cream of the crop)? What characteristics define them? Are they college-educated already?

Seems like a lot of trumpeting about how great this MOOC worked (for an extremely small number, by the way) without knowing anything substantive about that population.

18 06 2013

The research goes into that but doesn’t draw out much beyond a wide international following. A more recent article was written by a MOOC enthusiast, and might shed more light. This kid is in Pakistan, age 12.


16 06 2013
Ms Piggy

This wonderful piece is both light-hearted and yet also deeply cutting – as a longtime reader (but not commenter before now) I thought of you when I saw it! http://chronicle.com/blogs/conversation/2013/03/25/its-mooas-not-moocs-that-will-transform-higher-education/

16 06 2013
Jonathan Rees

Thank you, MP. I remember that one from when it first came out, but it’s nice to see it again. Please do pipe up here when you are so moved.

17 06 2013
Need-to-Know News: New MOOC Research Hub, ROI on Higher Ed Degrees, Ed-Tech Tools | online learning insights

[…] “Sentence first – verdict afterwards.” More or Less Bunk […]

17 06 2013
Susan Davis

Great post! Thank you!

18 06 2013
Supersize Edu - CogDogBlog

[…] I got to thinking about Morgan Spurlock’s self experiment on fast food after reading the ever rapier like Jonathan Rees Sentence First– verdict afterwards: […]

6 09 2013
Why Coursera and Udacity are the worst things that ever happened to MOOCs. | More or Less Bunk

[…] at elite institutions and elsewhere. I sometimes question Cathy Davidson’s judgement on this blog, but she’s absolutely right when she argues […]

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