So last night Aaron Bady (better known as @zunguzungu to his legions of Twitter followers) tweeted a link to an excerpt from an e-mail that a disgruntled MOOC student forwarded him. That e-mail had come from a Coursera superprofessor, and it read:
“First, I know that some of you want answers to the assignments. This is a seemingly reasonable request but very difficult to accommodate. Creating questions for the videos and the assignments has been the most challenging part of this new endeavor. Four people, including me, worked several months to create these. We believe our assignments are well thought out and reflect a good balance of conceptual and applied stuff. Creating the assignments online and then testing each one multiple times takes additional time. Due to copyright issues, we cannot simply give you questions from existing books, and I would not want to do that anyway. If this were a one-time class, we would have considered posting answers. It will however be very difficult for us to offer this class again if we have to keep preparing new sets of questions with multiple versions to allow you to attempt each one more than once. Handing out answers will force us to do that.”
Follow the conversation in that first link and you’ll see that much merriment ensued.
When I saw this, I begged Aaron to source it so that I could feel comfortable discussing it on this blog. On Twitter again, he explained that the e-mail came from Gautam Kaul’s Coursera Intro to Finance MOOC out of the University of Michigan. Aaron was then kind enough to send me and IHE‘s Ry Rivard a copy of the full e-mail, with the student’s name removed.
I’m guessing that the IHE story on this will proceed as soon as Rivard can confirm the legitimacy of that e-mail. That’s certainly the right thing for any journalist to do. I, though, am not a journalist. However, don’t get your hopes up that I’m about to pound Professor Kaul anyway. Assuming that the e-mail is completely legit, I don’t think he has done anything wrong except perhaps be too honest about the true nature of MOOCs for Coursera’s comfort. So I just want to use this unconfirmed e-mail to make two points about MOOCs in general:
1) MOOCs are designed to be frozen in amber.
Do you remember those professors in college who lectured off the same sheets of yellowed (not yellow – yellowed, as in used to be white) note paper for twenty years? MOOCs are like that, only moreso. If it takes twenty people and $250,000 to create a MOOC, you don’t have a lot of incentive to bring the gang back together to make necessary changes, like writing new multiple-choice questions.
What if the scholarship changes? What if you decide something doesn’t work as well as it should? What if the students change? Tough luck. They get what they pay for.
2) MOOCs cannot teach students to learn how to learn.
Here’s a little more of that e-mail I got from Aaron:
I believe that learning from each other, with a little push from the faculty/coach, is the way to go. So I encourage you to participate on the forums and learn from each other. Elizabeth has created subfolders within the assignments forum to help organize questions. Post your questions in the proper assignment subforum, and hopefully that will make it easier for all of us to find relevant discussions as well. Needless to say, do not post answers. It is not the answers that matter, but how you think and approach a problem that does.
I agree with every bit of pedagogical philosophy in that statement. The problem is, you can’t necessarily get students to do any of these things working inside a MOOC. If you’re not self-motivated and creative already, you will quickly become another face in the crowd. Hence, the high dropout rate for MOOCs of all kinds.
Like so many things in life, this story reminds me of something from Monty Python. Do you remember when Brian adresses his followers from the window and tells them, “You’ve all got to work it out for yourselves!”? The response from the crowd, in unison, is “YES, WE’VE GOT TO WORK IT OUT FOR OURSELVES!!!” I think that joke about the nature of religion has many parallels to higher education.
Plenty of already college-educated people taking that MOOC or others will, indeed, be able to work it out for themselves because they’ve already learned how to learn. The vast majority of the rest of them will just keep blindly following one superprofessor messiah after another, thinking that they’re learning something important about life when in fact what they’re really doing is helping the enemies of higher education keep more people from ever becoming enlightened at all.