“I want to invest in people, not a computer screen.”

25 06 2013

Since I’m deep into the index-writing process now, I’m lucky that friend of the blog and CSU-Pueblo history grad student Britney Titus dropped another (scroll down here to see more) post on me today. While I can’t seem to talk her out of trying to become a history professor (and believe me I’ve tried), it’s nice to see her back me up on the notion that students, especially good students like her, won’t put up with MOOCification.

I have been pretty outspoken about my intolerance for online education, but this MOOC conversation has brought my frustration to an all-time high. Not only are Coursera and other MOOC-minded companies disregarding the true meaning of getting an education, they are doing so at the cost of students and faculty, all of which are profoundly affecting the future of higher education.

Let’s begin with Georgia Tech destroying graduate education with the help of MOOC providers. Last month, Inside Higher Ed released this article, explaining why current state systems are choosing to collaborate with companies like Coursera and Udacity. Ranging from increased enrollment to sharing capabilities, state systems across the nation are eagerly seeking to collaborate with these providers, Georgia Tech being one of the first to join.

In the next three years, that school will offer a master’s degree completely online to 10,000 new students for the mere cost of $6,630. Even though that sounds like a great deal, it seems rather steep to me, especially since nearly anybody will be able to get one. Then that $6,630 investment will eventually be worth absolutely nothing, much like my undergraduate degrees today, unfortunately. When did a master’s degree, or any degree for that matter, become something we buy as oppose to something we earn?

On to problem number two: what are students learning and how they are learning it? In reading up about this whole Coursera debacle, I came across this wonderfully ironic article about how the Coursera MOOC entitled, “Fundamentals of Online Education: Planning and Application” crashed and burned after only one week of instruction back in February. The problem came when the instructor tried to get the 41,000 students to use Google Docs for group work when Google Docs can only have 50 simultaneous editors on one spreadsheet. Even more embarrassing is the fact that the course was offered by Georgia Tech and had made the promise to teach students about how to deal with online problems. Guess it makes sense then as to why the 41,000 students were a little upset when they all received an email saying the class was cancelled. Group work is hard enough in a traditional brick and mortar environment. Take it to cyber space among 40,000 of your peers and it becomes impossible.

Even though I find it somewhat hilarious that an online course had to be cancelled because of technology problems it does raise more serious concerns, the first being this type of educational environment. How are 41,000 students supposed to learn at the same time and what happens when they, say, can’t upload into Google Docs? Like many of my peers, the first thing I do when I have a question is email. Well, multiply that times 41,000 and you have a professor who is drowning at a computer screen and at least a thousand students who never get an answer. When did higher education become a commodity as opposed to an opportunity? Furthermore, when did it become about quantity rather than quality?

Speaking of professors, they are the ones I feel for the most. It seems as though another main goal of Coursera’s is to gain all the credit and profit, while others (meaning professors) do the work. In that Inside Higher Ed article about state systems, Coursera founder Daphne Koller explained that institutions could create content and then share it among one another, with Coursera taking a chunk of the change. I just wonder how institutions and professors are supposed to do that, especially with accessibility hovering over their heads.

So professors are supposed to create content for the MOOC and make sure it is accessible as well. I fully agree with education being accessible, I just wonder how you are supposed to know what student among the 40,000 needs that accommodation? Oh wait, that’s right, professors are supposed to do that beforehand and just assume a student among the masses will need it. So that brings up a last question that if professors are sharing content with one another, as Koller obviously supports, how can one be sure that the information being shared is completely accessible, or even correct? Are the professors who have put in the time and effort to create the content in the first place supposed to double check one another?

So professors are supposed to not only create syllabi, create content, double check content they have had to pay for, answer thousands of emails, prepare for their own class lectures, and all the while trying to produce scholarly work of their own? I hear they have to eat, too. The fact remains that as a student, I want to invest in people, not a computer screen. In this MOOC day and age, professors are becoming facilitators, rather than teachers; a sad, but true reality for a student whose fondest college memories are the times she sat in class and just listened to her professors make history come alive.

This brings me to my last point about the goal of education. In reading all these articles about MOOCs and other online learning environments, it becomes clear that the only thing that matters to MOOC providers is how many students a class can hold, not what the students are actually learning. In a blunt, but very enlightening statement, SUNY Provost Carey Hatch said, “We hope to reach more students with the existing faculty that we have.” Yes, because that is a great goal, spread the faculty so thin that the content itself suffers and the students are just doing busy work as opposed to actual critical thinking in a social setting. I’ve always said that teaching itself in public education has become about babysitting and test scores, but it seems like higher education is not so far behind. It is no longer about credibility or how to make the students think on their feet, it is about how well you can manage a virtual classroom of 40,000 students. Probably, the best question is why would anyone want that? Whether it is student or professor, why would anyone want an educational environment that is overcrowded and makes learning hard? More importantly, how do you develop the one-on-one relationships and mentorships that are so critical to growing students?

Sometimes the only way to get what you deserve is to stand up for what you believe in. I think it is time that students truly start standing up for the faculty they respect and the education they deserve, both of which are vital in any real world of learning.



11 responses

25 06 2013

Reblogged this on mikegino.

25 06 2013

Thanks Jonathan. Have you seen this post on how MOOCs don’t really save money?


25 06 2013
Jonathan Rees


I have. Have you seen the response from Thrun and the follow up from Chris? They’re on my Twitter feed somewhere if you haven’t.

This will all be in my next post as soon as I can clear enough time to write it.

25 06 2013
Britney Titus


Simple. Undergraduate courses, such as advanced physics, organic chemistry, or biomechanic engineering are some of the hardest courses in the post-secondary world. Yet, more students are entering into those fields and able to garner those degrees. Fast forward five years and those degrees are not going to mean much of anything either because everyone is entering into those fields now.

Same thing will happen to GT. It may not be easy, but the fact that every 1 out of 20 students (or whatever ratio you want to use) will be able to pass it will in fact lower the value of the degree itself.

I, myself, would be even more upset if I passed an extremely difficult class and it did not matter because 4,000 of my peers passed it too.

26 06 2013
Norm Matloff

Georgia Tech’s School of Computer Science has been experimenting for some time now with various ways to make and save more money. I had some interaction a few years ago with a faculty member who now is heavily involved in the MOOCs Master’s Degree. Nice guy, a thinking, caring person who kindly made time for me when I dropped by unannounced, but it was clear that at GA Tech the overriding issue is money. So for instance he justified hiring more temp instructors instead of ladder faculty as “more bang for the buck.” At the same time, they had just introduced a much-hyped “threads” program, which allowed students the chance to design do-it-yourself majors, all designed to bring in more paying customers.

In other words, there is not a lot of incentive at GA Tech to achieve/maintain quality of instruction, IMO, and the MOOCs Master’s Degree is just a logical extension of that kind of thinking. But what makes that even worse is that it is a master’s degree. Bachelor’s degrees in CS are more or less standardized, and PhDs are standardized by virtue of being research degrees, but one would be hard pressed to decide what ought to go into a master’s degree. This presents problems both for supporters and critics of MOOCs. The supporters can’t show data demonstrating success, and the critics can’t say “You didn’t do this or that.” We critics can say that a master’s ought to involve even more independent thought than a bachelor’s, but again, that’s a slippery concept, and one that MOOCs promoters can’t/won’t understand anyway.

I continue to believe that employers would not be interested in hiring graduates of MOOCs curricula, but GA Tech marketed the “threads” curriculum so deftly that they may be able to sell the MOOCs master’s too. These days anything is possible.

26 06 2013
Norm Matloff

This is a complex question. The short answer is that, in spite of the outlandish claims to need more software developers, industry wants people for the “talking” jobs, e.g. customer support. So, they really want people who have some programming background but who are very verbal, or for that matter even artistic. That in fact was a primary reason for GA Tech’s “threads” undergrad program, to draw in the liberal arts majors. Same for Stanford’s Symbolic Systems major, whose most famous graduate is Yahoo! CEO Marissa Meyer. (Disclaimer: The above is just for information, not to offer Ms. Meyer is a “success story” of the major.)

I agree that many of GA Tech’s customers (a more accurate word than “students”) in that new MS program will likely those who are looking for a credential securing them entry into the programming industry. Very few will succeed, not just because of the presumed shallowness of the MOOC-based degree but even more so because of the rampant age discrimination in the industry, starting at about age 35.

27 06 2013
Udacity is not a charity. | More or Less Bunk

[…] labor costs that make MOOCs attractive to administrators. Let me repeat a quote that Britney used here the other day that makes this perfectly […]

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