What exactly does that certificate represent?

15 09 2013

One of the most popular posts in the history of this blog is also one of its worst. I published “Real college classes have writing assignments and required reading” on April 1st of this year. It got mentioned in Aaron Bady’s Sunday Reading twice over two separate weeks. Then it got picked up by WordPress’ “Freshly Pressed,” which makes it the reason you’re seeing that blue rectangle in the top right-hand corner of this page. I’ve been picking up scores of blog followers through WordPress ever since. Granted, many of them are fake accounts, but I know that at least some of you are real as you actually “like” posts and leave comments.

The problem with that post lay in its evidence. To argue that MOOCs aren’t real college courses, I read Dan Ariely’s syllabus at Coursera. Since I ended up looking in the wrong place for the reading assignments, I issued a correction at the bottom. Then I picked up a tweet from everybody’s favorite intellectual history grad student, L.D. Burnett, who quoted this from the course description of an edX philosophy MOOC out of UT-Austin: “While not formally required, prior to or during the course, you might wish to read the book.”

It turns out that what L.D. found was only the prerequisites for the course, not the readings for the course itself. This led to a sarcastic reply from “Mike H” in the comments to that post:

Your use of UT’s edX MOOC as an example of how little reading is required seems very odd as the course is not yet available so there is no way of knowing how much reading is required or not required in the course….MOOC’s have their problems no need to create fictional ones.

In my update to that post, I noted that both the history MOOCs I’d been involved with had no required reading, but the damage had already been done.

Well guess what? It it turns out that while L.D.’s analysis of that Philosophy MOOC was premature, it was also 100% accurate. Yes, despite earlier claims, I have signed up for another MOOC that I will never finish: Ideas of the Twentieth Century at UT-Austin, which starts today. Yes, I wanted to see how edX worked, but I also wanted to check out their actual syllabus, which required my signing up. [This is open learning?]

Here’s what part of the many course pages there says with respect to the readings:

While these readings are not required to complete the course, they are introduced in the lessons and available to you as suggested, optional readings, should a student want to dig deeper into the course topics.

[Emphasis added]

The thinking here is easy to understand. Make what we can available to interested students and some people can see the material firsthand. Why scare off students with reading? Besides, isn’t some learning better than none at all?

I’d be much more friendly with respect to to this line of argument if it weren’t for the fact that edX is pushing philosophy certificates. No, edX hasn’t made a million dollars in revenue from pushing these things…yet. This is from the general description of their certificate program:

All edX courses are rigorous and successful completion is a real accomplishment. EdX students have used Certificates of Achievement on university or job applications, or with their employers to showcase their abilities. Today, certificates of achievement are free. This may change in the future to help cover our costs.

Rigorous? Real college philosophy classes have required reading, not to mention writing assignments graded by people who are trained in teaching students how to write (rather than by other students). Or to make a long story short, this is another way of saying that that old sloppy post of mine may not have had all its ducks in a row, but the argument in it remains just as true and just as relevant as it was last April.


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9 responses

15 09 2013
Ben Alpers

As soon as we accept how much a given course directly leads to a job, promotion, or work assignment as the sole measure of what counts as education, we’ve essentially killed higher ed in this country and replaced it with a mix of vocational education (about which there’s nothing wrong, but it’s not all there is to education) and empty credentialing. And this sort of metric of the value of an education is, unfortunately, being promoted by a lot of folks who present themselves as friends of higher ed, including the Obama Administration.

I agree that these movements within higher education reflect much broader changes in our economy, changes which make the economic futures of the vast majority of Americans worse. The fantasy that a reimagined higher ed, focused on efficient credentialing, will allow millions of Americans to cheat these structural changes is just that, a fantasy. But it’s what is being offered to families who are rightly scared for their children’s future in our New Gilded Age.

I also agree that wishful thinking isn’t going to help. Organizing, arguing, and fighting against these changes, in the academy and beyond, is necessary.

16 09 2013
On Some Limits of Apple's Digital Pedagogical Vision | s-usih.org

[…] digital pedagogical approaches.  MOOCs, much touted as the future of higher education, seem to do a horrible job even asking students to read, let alone encouraging them to engage seriously and deeply with texts.  Although I continue to […]

25 11 2013
The soft bigotry of low expectations. | More or Less Bunk

[…] retention? They’re so watered-down that course on great ideas of the Twentieth Century can be devoid of required reading and a Coursera class in World History can have no writing assignments or required reading, yet the […]

21 04 2014
“We owe it to you, our hardworking students…” | More or Less Bunk

[…] suggest that whether you pay for a certificate or not at the end of your extremely rigorous MOOC (with no required reading) has no bearing on whether you learned anything from it or not. It does, however, have an […]

28 04 2014
It’s not the grade, it’s the comments. | More or Less Bunk

[…] by human beings or will only be graded by unqualified peers? The same kind of philosophy class that doesn’t assign any required reading – which means an xMOOC. The name of my post describing the syllabus in that same philosophy MOOC […]

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