“These people have never heard of books.”

8 07 2013

“Some see online courses as cheap or free learning for all. These people have never heard of books.”

Atrios’ Eschaton, July 5, 2013.

“But Atrios,” the MOOC Messiah Corps cries, “haven’t you heard of cMOOCs?” Writing last year in a post I still refer to fairly often, Lisa Lane divided MOOCs into three types: Network-based, task-based and content-based. That last one is the Coursera/Udacity model. In contrast, she defines what most people call a cMOOC this way:

The goal is not so much content and skills acquisition, but conversation, socially constructed knowledge, and exposure to the milieu of learning on the open web using distributed means. The pedagogy of network-based MOOCs is based in connectivist or connectivist-style methods. Resources are provided, but exploration is more important than any particular content. Traditional assessment is difficult.

Apparently, these people have never heard of book clubs. Yet as Aaron Bady noted in his last epic MOOC post, had MOOCs stayed in this original format, few people probably would have ever heard the term. But then this not-all-that-evil idea got transmuted by the Stanford Computer Science Department and their Silicon Valley backers. Aaron writes:

“I would argue that getting a “Grade” for such a thing—or charging money for it—would be to fundamentally change what it is.”

So in homage to that original idea, I now see talk about “artisanal” MOOCs. This is a contradiction in terms. The sacrifices inherent in reaching massive audiences change the nature of education for the worse by definition. You can call a pig a goat, but that doesn’t make it any less porcine.

Whether MOOCs are evil depends upon their context, not their structure. A thunderstorm in the desert is welcome relief, but rain on your wedding day is a lot worse than ironic. MOOCs may make excellent edu-tainment for the nerdier set, but they should never serve as a substitute for college classes. While those nice Canadians invented something that isn’t necessarily evil, they lost control of their invention once it got out in the world. That explains why the Silicon Valley version of MOOCs is so much different than the way that MOOCs were originally conceived.

I will concede that cMOOCs probably are better than anything Coursera has to offer from an educational standpoint, but from a labor standpoint they are equally bad. Imagine an alternate reality in which Canadian superprofessors start colonizing American higher education with their connectivist MOOCs. They could give no grades and charge no tuition and a lot of academics throughout North America would still end up unemployed. Getting crowdsourced out of a job is just as bad as being replaced by a machine from the unemployed person’s point of view.

More importantly, the students enrolled in these MOOCs for credit would still be missing many of the most important parts of the college experience. You can’t learn all that much if you’re too busy doing someone else’s job. Michael Carley, in a post I desperately wish I had written myself, captures the inevitable downward spiral of digital sharecropping:

The Taylorization of work is reaching its height in the mooc, where the tasks of writing a course, lecturing it to classes, teaching it to individuals, and examining it, will be first divided, and then, like the self-checkout, subcontracted to the customers.

This is being sold to the punters as a great boon, the opportunity to only hear canned talks from the best superprofessors at the finest universities (of which there will only be ten). Going to university need no longer include going to university, meeting other students, or, best of all, dealing with demoralized staff trying to hold on to their jobs until pension age.

Given enough time, the only university staff seen by students will be the avatars of superprofs, not necessarily live ones, proving eternal truths with slightly out of date jokes, and historical examples that weren’t at the time. The staff with the power over students, until they too are replaced by the self checkout, will be those desperate enough to take casual jobs doing the marking, not an obvious recipe for diligence and rigour.

Now that’s evil, and the more of those tasks the students assume, the more evil it is because they are far less likely to complete them successfully than even the least qualified, poorly-paid instructor.

If you want to start an online book club, be my guest. If you want to transform higher education, however, there better be a professor directly involved. Otherwise, it’s no longer college. To suggest that education can be crowd-sourced not only defies logic, it is an insult to all of us who went through years of training in order to be able to do every part of our jobs well. Without us, you might as well just go to a library and start reading.



8 responses

8 07 2013

Better to go to the library– most of those books have been reviewed prior to publication!

8 07 2013
Contingent Cassandra

Carley’s dystopia strikes me as spot-on. The only part he left out is that the superprofessors will cease to write (at least parts of) their own lectures, their underpaid “research assistants” will plagiarize (or at least take sloppy notes), and — well, we’ll have the same problem that occurs when some superprofessors “write” books.

Bottom line: describing and advancing the state of knowledge at a fixed point in time is useful, and the result can be conveyed in a number of different media, but that’s scholarship/popularization of scholarship, not teaching.

8 07 2013
Michael Carley

Fagamaid ansuid mar ata se. Exactly right. Somebody (Peter Medawar maybe, but I need to check) said that the point of going to a conference is that if you read a book it describes work done a couple of years ago; a journal paper is year out; a conference paper is six months out; a conference talk is what somebody was thinking about yesterday. The point of a lecture is that even if you are describing the eternal truths of the laws of thermodynamics, you can relate them to what was in today’s news. Moocs are books passing off as talks.

8 07 2013
Alex H

Awesome……..Just Awesome Share.I love it.Looking forward for more.Alex,Thanks.

1 08 2013
The pro-MOOC coalition cannot hold. | More or Less Bunk

[…] heck have all these Americans done to our previously excellent idea?” To be honest, I still have trouble with the kinds of MOOCs that Siemens et. al. first imagined. Nevertheless, anybody whose ideas got […]

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