The gateway drug for MOOCs.

1 07 2013

This space started as a bad history blog. OK, maybe bad is a little strong, but I certainly didn’t have anything more interesting to write than all the other good history bloggers out there did. It started picking up steam when I began writing about online education. Why do that (particularly as I didn’t know the first thing about it at that time)? I had just been asked to teach online, and was absolutely appalled by how shoddy the standards were (at least as they were being described to me). So I politely declined, but figured I’d warn others who were as ignorant as I was.

What I got in response to those posts is an interesting group of readers and commenters, some of whom shared my concerns about online education and others who kept trying to explain to me that online education really could be something fantastic if dedicated people are given an opportunity to shine. While I do now agree with that assessment, my main question remains how long the people in charge of such endeavors are willing to let good online instructors do what they do well.

Consider the link my friend Phil Hill trolled me with on Friday:

For the past 10 years, online enrollment has been growing faster than traditional enrollment for higher education. In traditional programs, colleges are limited to hiring professors who live within commuting distance of a school. In the online world, the resource pool is potentially global. “Online education has freed us from the limited pool of professors in a local area,” says Kathy Naasz, Co-Founder and President of Professors On Demand. “Why not get the best professor in the world for a specific course? To do that, a global database is needed with meaningful profiles of professors based on academic criteria, and that is just what we have created.”

I have no idea whether this specific effort is a sincere attempt at improving online education or a front for the forces of permanent austerity, but it does illustrate the fundamental labor problem inherent in online education of all kinds: a nearly infinite supply of labor facing a limited demand for their services. You may have the best, most rigorous online class imaginable, but if you can’t put virtual butts in virtual seats you can be replaced with a snap of their fingers.

I’m hardly the first person to say this, but the appeal of online education from an administrative standpoint is that the professors can be anywhere, the students can be anywhere, yet the money still flows into campus. Get rid of campus altogether (no heating bills, no light bills, etc.) and you’re living Tim Ferriss’ dream.

Notice how I haven’t mentioned MOOCs once yet? The same principle is involved here only moreso. If you can get rid of the classroom, why not get rid of the professor altogether? Online education was the gateway drug for MOOCs. First they moved education online so that they could gradual shut down most parts of non-elite campuses. Now they’re gradually getting rid of most professors altogether, and of course it’s the online instructors who they’ll get rid of first. After all (and remember, this is administrative think I’m parroting here), who’ll notice? What ties do they have to campus anyway?

As you might imagine, the MOOC providers deny this. Here’s Anant Agarwal of edX:

Agarwal, who earlier this month spoke at the TEDGlobal conference in Edinburgh in defence of Moocs, denies that taking the teaching out of the lecture hall will jeopardise jobs. He insists instead that although lecturers’ roles may change slightly, students using Mooc resources will still benefit from contact time with professors.

Of course they will…at MIT and Harvard. However, he has no idea whether anybody with the right qualifications is going to be at home on the campuses that contract to use edX content. If he really cared that much, that would be part of their agreements. That won’t happen because it would decimate most of the appeal of MOOCs for ravenous administrators everywhere.

On Friday night, I asked what I thought was an intelligent question on Twitter and Google+. Here’s the tweet:

Based on the ensuing Google+ conversation, now I’m not so sure that was a good question after all. Small online classes will likely retain more students than large face-to-face classes. Small face-to-face classes by good teachers will likely blow away the online classes taught by bad ones. Too many variables. Apples to oranges.

But there’s one thing that I’m willing to boldly assert without fear of contradiction. Classes of any kind with the most contact between professors and students will be the most rewarding for everyone involved. Contact is possible in many ways now, but contact is still the key no matter what. While some students are motivated and smart enough to learn by themselves, or even to learn how to learn for themselves by themselves, you can’t have universal education without professors. You can have universal access to education without professors, but that’s not real education, is it? Even Sebastian Thrun concedes this point now. Unfortunately, MOOCs threaten access to the professor at all levels of higher education in classes of all kinds because they can be run by themselves or by people who are unqualified to teach the content that superprofessors provide. That’s why MOOCs ought to be recognized as the enemy of quality education by professors everywhere.

Those of us on the front lines of higher ed see the effects of austerity every day. Even the most enthusiastic MOOC proponents can’t just wish austerity away and if they make believe that the power divide between faculty and administrators isn’t there, they’re the ones most likely to have that come back and bite them on the butt. However, I’m afraid that by already conceding the enormous benefits of proximity, we’ve lost this argument before it has barely started.

Faculty are hardly the only ones who’ll suffer as a result.

Update: Looks like Phil was here long before I was.



14 responses

1 07 2013

I read for the history posts well before the rise of the xmooc and rather miss them. Couldn’t you do both?

Personally, I’m not sure even professors are any guarantor of education either. Many e-learning miasma got some version of their foot in the door in K-12 and FE stepchild area like ESL and GED before higher ed ever took notice. Managing (delivering or verb of your choice) those by MOOC alarms me far more because the populations are so much more vulnerable, less adult or (in the case of GED students) less informed about or aware of implications.

1 07 2013
Jonathan Rees

Actually Vanessa,

I still write (far too sparingly) for what I happen to think (irrespective of my involvement) is the best history blog going:

There’s a post about Teddy Roosevelt that I’ve been dying to write for months now, but I keep getting too MOOCed out to get to it. I promise I’ll write it before the summer is over and link when it’s up.

1 07 2013

Thank you. I’ll remember that and hold you to it.

Here, apropos of either much or little, an Egyptian proverb you might appreciate, “education is an adornment to the rich and a comfort to the poor.” Of late, it comes to mind more often.

1 07 2013
Karen Michalson

Whoever said “in traditional programs, colleges are limited to hiring professors who live within commuting distance of a school” has demonstrated utter cluelessness regarding how real universities hire real professors. Job searches are advertised nationally, sometimes globally, and candidates apply from all over. But the MOOC-crowd consistently demonstrates that they do not understand how higher education actually works, so a comment like that does not surprise me. It’s right up there with, “Why not get the best professor in the world for a specific course?” Because there is no such thing as “the best professor in the world” by any meaningful academic standard, so the bean counters will have to invent some bogus “standard” based on some algorithm they can easily measure, but that has nothing to do with academic excellence. It’s like teaching to the test (evaluating by the numbers) and it’s a mentality that’s done a fair job destroying high school education in the USA.

BTW – I greatly enjoy both your posts on online education and history. I’ll echo Vanessa to say I hope you can do both.

1 07 2013
Jonathan Rees

Y’all are very kind.

This may sound strange, but it’s much easier to keep quality (at least as I see it), when I post less. I also have a new project coming that I’ll be able to tell you about soon. In short, the distribution of topics will likely improve but they won’t all be here.

And Karen, if I never said it directly that series of yours was sheer brilliance.

1 07 2013

RE: the “utter cluelessness” evident of the Lords of MOOC Creation that Karen notes: it’s a feature, not a bug!

But why would we expect edupreneurs to know anything about the actual practices of the sector of the economy they’re about to loot? It’s so much easier to lie and to spread misinformation, because that will make the MOOC alternative look like the only solution to these imaginary problems (such as faculty recruitment, for example.)

2 07 2013
Contingent Cassandra

“The best professor in the world” is, indeed, a myth, and a pretty pernicious one, in my experience. I watched my grad department fall apart (unfortunately while I was trying to begin a dissertation) in part because they kept losing potential hires to this mentality (the administration demanded proof that the proposed candidate was not only good, but “the best of the best,” worthy of carrying the university’s prestigious name; meanwhile, scrappier, less self-important but still quite prestigious universities were busily offering said candidates very nice packages, and the candidates were accepting, not only for bird-in-the-hand reasons, but also because they were turned off by my institution’s self-importance). While it might be sort of amusing to watch professors from the supposedly-top-10 departments in any field duke it out to see who gets to be the MOOC star, it’s not good for higher ed in the long run (not least because many of those professors would be absolutely flummoxed if assigned to teach the average community college, or even regional u, intro class). Sports metaphors are not my forte, but I’m pretty sure that perpetual playing of all-stars games, with no local professional, farm, or amateur teams, and no Little League, would work for long.

1 07 2013
Karen Michalson

Thank you for taking the time to read it. I’m honored.

2 07 2013
Contingent Cassandra

*Direct* access to the professor (physical and/or virtual) is definitely key. At least in my teaching field (composition) and situation (teaching the same course in face to face, hybrid, and online formats for a traditional, actively-adding-more-bricks-and-mortar regional state u), the existence of the same course in multiple formats, and the requirements of our regional (funny how that word keeps coming up) accrediting body, have definitely been our friends. i need to show that what I’m doing online is equivalent, if not identical, to what I do in my face to face classrooms — and, given the nature of my class (focused on activities designed to develop skills more than the transmission of knowledge, fairly small — 20-25 person, at least at the start of the term — sections), it’s not hard to do that, as long as we *don’t* try to make the class more “massive,” either via MOOC or via lecture (and we’ve been getting pressure for decades to find a way to teach at least part of the class in large lectures. While we’ve successfully resisted, the tradeoff is that composition is one of the most adjunctified/precariatized fields in the academy).

So, from my perspective, I’d view not the existence of online classes, but the existence of large lectures (and an ever-decreasing investment of expensive professorial time in either running smaller connected discussion sections, or thoroughly training and closely supervising those who do*) as the “gateway drug” to MOOCs.

Of course, as the language itself (“lecturer” or even “professor”) suggests, mine is probably a minority disciplinary perspective (and I actually, perhaps somewhat perversely, think that English needs to move a bit back in the direction of classes that convey a larger narrative to larger groups of students — but with small breakout sections playing a vital role).

2 07 2013
Contingent Cassandra

P.S. To answer your original tweeted question, in my relatively apples-to-apples situation (same teacher; same course goals and, for the most part, activities and assignments; different formats), online has the lowest completion rate (attrition of at least 25% not uncommon), followed by hybrid, followed by face to face (attrition usually in the 5-10% range). The difference between hybrid and face to face is much smaller than that between online and face to face, however (hybrid attrition might be 10-15%). Of course, you still have to allow for factors other than the course/course format, such as student self-sorting/self-selection (students who are already overscheduled, overwhelmed, and/or afraid of a particular class have a tendency to choose the online format, even though it’s likely to exacerbate rather than solve their problems).

At least in my and my students’ situation (time is scarce, commuting and parking require significant time investments, the computer classrooms which allow a lab/hands-on approach to the work are expensive and hence scarce), I’d say that hybrid is a compromise that balances needs, costs, and resources quite well, online an ultimately less effective/efficient one. I suspect the same will prove true for many courses (and many larger programs) — and, of course, hybrid also has the virtue, from an academic labor perspective, of favoring professors who share physical space with their students, and with each other, at least part of the time.

3 07 2013
MOOC, Online Education and its future | Learner Weblog | Reason & Existenz

[…] The gateway drug for MOOCs. ( […]

15 11 2013
The Spectrum of Opinion About MOOCs | EdTechDev

[…] The gateway drug for MOOCs […]

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