I could have an entire category of posts in this blog entitled “Stupid Stuff the Founders of Coursera have said.” This is not one of those instances, but it’s kind of the exception that proves the rule as I think it tells you more about Daphne Koller’s attitude’s towards learning than any of her more obvious forehead-slappers. The context is an announcement that Coursera is pairing with the World Bank to launch MOOCs specifically designed for lesser-developed countries. This is from the Coursera blog, written by someone with PR skills:
Today we’re excited to share the news that we have partnered with The World Bank to offer a selection of their courses on development and poverty alleviation. This partnership, which is part of The World Bank’s new Open Learning Campus initiative, aims to give policymakers, on-the-ground practitioners and other interested parties access to valuable, practical knowledge on development strategies and challenges.
Now here’s Daphne Koller from the World Bank’s press release:
“Since its launch, Coursera has experienced remarkable growth and momentum toward its mission to expand quality learning opportunities around the world for free. Among other areas of growth, Coursera continues to expand its capacity to deliver the best online learning centered on practical skills. An area of focus will be on social and economic development, and the partnership with the World Bank will be instrumental in this regard[.]”
Did you notice that how “access to valuable, practical knowledge” in the first quote and “learning opportunities” at the beginning of Koller’s quote here evolves into the delivery of online learning by the end? I know I’m parsing, but for a very good reason. Online learning is not a commodity. Coursera can “deliver” all the knowledge in the world if it’s so-inclined, but that’s no guarantee that anybody is actually learning anything on the other end of that supply chain.
People who have a real interest in improving the quality of MOOCs have been debating precisely this issue ad nauseam for over a year now. The key feedback venue in MOOCs for learning from peers is the discussion forum and, as Robert McGuire recently explained, most of these aren’t exactly works of pedagogical genius:
Ironically, the biggest obstacle preventing MOOC students from forming relationships is the feature most relied on to encourage them. Discussion forums are the number one complaint by readers and contributors of MOOC News and Reviews, an online publication devoted to critiquing individual MOOC courses and the evolving MOOC landscape. Most MOOC discussion forums have dozens of indistinguishable threads and offer no way to link between related topics or to other discussions outside the platform. Often, they can’t easily be sorted by topic, keyword, or author. As a result, conversations have little chance of picking up steam, and community is more often stifled than encouraged.
As Phil Hill (where I got that link) noted after using that same quote:
There are several studies that appear to show that MOOC discussion forums have few students participating and that the forums are dominated by a small number of students.
He then goes on to detail those studies. Certainly this doesn’t mean that learning isn’t happening in the privacy and isolation of somebody’s computer room, but if you except the premise that there is a difference between learning and the delivery of knowledge it does make learning much less likely.
This problem is hardly specific to MOOCs. Debbie Morrison has authored a nice chart designed to help regular online instructors overcome participation problems in their inevitably much smaller classes. The solution to each problem she lists is something that the instructor can do to facilitate more participation and/or community. Unfortunately, if your course is massive, a superprofessor is unlikely to recognize that there’s a problem even if they’re more accessible than the Pope or Thomas Pynchon because you won’t have the time to give every student the individual attention that they deserve.
This important distinction reminds me of a term that the New Yorker‘s Nathan Heller’s applied to MOOCs in his piece from last spring and I don’t think I’ve seen since: broadcasting. Here are the relevant bits:
Supporters of moocs say that they are a different and heartier species. Rather than broadcasting a professor’s lectures out into the ether, to be watched or not, moocs are designed to insure that students are keeping up, by peppering them with comprehension and discussion tasks…
For decades, élite educators were preoccupied with “faculty-to-student ratio”: the best classroom was the one where everybody knew your name. Now top schools are broadcast networks.
Yes, MOOCs have multiple choice questions, discussion forums and places to upload essays for peer-grading, but there is no way that any MOOC provider can force or even cajole students into using any of these accoutrements that make actual learning more likely unless they hire faculty of some kind for every thirty or (at most) fifty students. To do that, however, would drive costs up so far that it would ruin their non-existent business model. All that’s left to do then is to broadcast knowledge and to hope that the people in lesser-developed countries and the retired physics professors of the world who are listening appreciate the opportunity enough to pay something for the privilege of access.
Somehow that doesn’t strike me as all that disruptive or revolutionary – as long we all agree on what the definition of learning is. However, if Daphne Koller’s definition of online learning wins the day, I fear for the future.