Reading is fundamental.

10 12 2013

One of the great themes of the MOOC Research Initiative conference I went to last week was trying to define what exactly constitutes success for a MOOC. Is it the percentage of people who finish it? Is it the number of people who start it? Is it the number of people who report that they got whatever they wanted out of it? This explains why everyone there could learn that “MOOCs have relatively few active users with only a few persisting to course end” and not just pack it in and go home. MOOCs in the eyes of the earnest, well-meaning people who are creating them are a different animal than the regular college course. Therefore, they argue, the success or failure of MOOCs should be judged by a different standard than the courses that the rest of us teach.

Unfortunately, succeed or fail, the “lessons” that MOOCs teach us are still going to be applied to regular college courses whether those of us who teach them like it or not. That’s why Anant Agarwal of edX, the guy who thinks Matt Damon should teach a MOOC, writes about unbundling higher education here as if it’s both inevitable and good for everybody involved. For example, consider this paragraph about unbundling just the functions of a university in general:

Traditional, four-year higher education institutions do far more than provide an education. Universities are responsible for admissions, research, facilities management, housing, healthcare, credentialing, food service, athletic facilities, career guidance and placement and much more. Which of these items should be at the core of a university and add value to that experience? By partnering with other universities, or by enlisting third parties to manage some university functions, could schools liberate resources to focus on what they value most?

I doubt it, but even so tell that to the people whose jobs are outsourced. The university as some bizarre hybrid of General Motors and Walmart certainly isn’t a future that I relish.

However, as a teacher myself, the part of his op-ed I find most interesting is his description of how we would unbundle content. It’s based on a very common analogy among MOOC enthusiasts between MOOCs and textbooks:

This practice actually began with the textbook centuries ago when instructors started using course content written by other scholars. Instructors are generally comfortable using textbooks written by a publisher’s team of authors, which they sometimes supplement with their own notes and handouts and those of their colleagues.

Leave aside the fact that some of us don’t assign traditional textbooks at all, what’s most interesting to me here is that he’s treating video lectures and the written word as if they’re the same thing:

MOOC technology may provide a new resource in online content for professors to do more of this in the future. Professors will have a choice to use multiple sources of content — the key being “choice” — in their lectures and classrooms that best fit the topic or their teaching style, and the learning styles of their students.

This is a classic example of a product purveyor struggling to find a market. While this might work in some disciplines for which outcomes matter more than the processes by which you reach them, it won’t work in the humanities at all. Here’s why::

1) Texts (using that word in its traditional sense) require more interpretation than film.

I’m not a film studies guy and I know nothing about theory, but I do know a little bit about auteurship, the notion of film reflecting a director’s personal creative vision. By focusing your attention on different parts of the screen, they can control where you look and, to a great extent, what you think about the story after it’s done. It’s like when I saw that “I see dead people” movie, and proceeded to kick myself after it was done for not picking up on the surprising twist until that guy who hasn’t made a decent movie since wanted to me to see all the clues he dropped earlier.

Books, especially textbooks, can’t paint the whole picture for you so you’re left to fill in much of the gaps yourself. That’s why teaching from a textbook that compliments your class is so important.

Sure you can go back and watch a difficult part of a lecture again, but it’s even easier to go back and read the difficult parts of a book. Suppose you do exactly that and you still don’t get it and you need to ask your professor about the concept that you missed. Are you two going to go back and watch everything from 2 minutes, 34 seconds to 4 minutes, 5 seconds again during class time? Isn’t that going to disturb everybody else around you? Indeed, it is much harder to discuss a “text” (in the broad sense of that word) if that text isn’t written because it’s much harder to access and process the parts of it you need.

Writing has persisted for thousands of years for a reason. You can run a video lecture on x150 speed, but you can’t skim it.

2) Reading is a skill. Teaching that skill is why the humanities exist.

Reading trains your attention span. You can’t read and watch TV at the same time if you hope to retain anything. In a MOOC, you can open a new tab and check Facebook while you’re listening to the lecture because nobody is there to watch you (except maybe the NSA).

Even in the Internet age, jobs require lots of reading. You’re reading right now. Shockingly enough, I think it’s a good idea to develop the reading skills to deal with long texts while in college so that graduates can apply those skills to shorter texts once they leave.

Unfortunately, too few people read these days. Indeed, I believe this is the root of our educational crisis today. These statistics come from a book about e-readers called Burning the Page:

“We’re a nation of readers and nonreaders. According to these studies, 33 percent of high school graduates who do not go on to college never read another book for the rest of their lives, and 42 percent of college graduates never read another book for the rest of their lives. Sadly, 80 percent of U.S. families didn’t buy or read any books last year.”*

Making more MOOC content available for professors won’t help this crisis one bit. That’s why “All reading is good reading” is my new mantra (but that’s a subject for another post).

3) Humanities or otherwise, choosing the content you teach yourself is a vital component of academic freedom.

Oh God, there he goes bringing academic freedom into it again! Well, it’s not just me really. Here’s part of a very recent report on the freedom to teach from the AAUP:

The freedom to teach includes the right of the faculty to select the materials, determine the approach to the subject, make the assignments, and assess student academic performance in teaching activities for which faculty members are individually responsible, without having their decisions subject to the veto of a department chair, dean, or other administrative officer.

Now read that sentence again in light of MOOCs. Yes, nobody has been forced to flip their classroom and use MOOCs – yet. But as is the case with learning management systems, the pressures to use one particular collection of recorded content as opposed to the textbook of your choice is going to be immense. What gets me is how MOOC providers know this, as evidenced by their decision to contract with administrations rather than marketing to individual professors and counting on them to decide if they’ve built a better mousetrap.

Let me end this long post where Anant Agarwal began. This is from the very beginning of his piece:

When massive open online courses (MOOCs) first launched early last year, we had no idea what to expect. And even today — with dozens of global institutions and millions of learners participating — we as an industry have so much more to learn as we puzzle out online education. One thing that both supporters and critics of online education agree on is that the MOOC movement has ignited a spirited conversation about the future of higher education.

I heard a lot of similar sentiments at the conference last week, especially about a new focus on the quality of online education in general, and I kind of agree. Why just “kind of?” Because if some people involved in that conversation don’t think reading is fundamental, then they have no business telling me what or how to teach.

* Since I read it on my Kindle (well worth the $1.99 I paid for it), I can’t include page numbers (sigh), but that passage is at Loc. 1740.



8 responses

10 12 2013
Contingent Cassandra

If the edupreneurs want to experiment with spinning off one of the current functions of universities, maybe they could start with sports/athletic facilities. Please?!?!?! (1) It would keep them occupied for a while, so they’d leave humanities alone, and (2)they might just come up with a model for non-sports-centered higher education (the spinoff would have to be real, with students free to opt in or not — no administrative-level decisions about fees automatically passed on to students. That’s the current system, badly in need of disrupting. Also, if student-athletes were going to be offered any academic services not available to other students, the sports program would need to pay for those, as well as, of course, coaches’ salaries.) If, instead, they bring down an athletic empire or two, while leaving the once-associated university standing, I won’t shed any tears.

11 12 2013

“This practice actually began with the textbook centuries ago…” Really? Centuries? The textbook as we know it today is a 20th c invention, tied to the rise of mass education. Sure, 500 years ago there were textbooks: Aristotle, Aquinas, Cicero, etc…

When I lecture and when I use a textbook, they both do the same thing, but often with a slightly different slant: they synthesize a significant body of information from books and articles. Because I teach non-us history, I can’t count on students having the basic narrative, so I’ll use a text to provide that. But it’s not as if I take my slides, lectures, and exams from the textbook. I have my own ideas!

Oh, and I love CC’s vision of unbundling athletics!

11 12 2013

Yes, reading is an important skill, and reading for comprehension is not easy. With that in mind, what does this sentence mean?:

‘It’s like when I saw that “I see dead people” movie, and proceeded to kick myself after it was done for not picking up on the surprising twist until that guy who hasn’t made a decent movie since wanted to me to see all the clues he dropped earlier.’

11 12 2013
Jonathan Rees

I never promised you a rose garden.

12 12 2013
Ian Wilson

I’m with you almost all the time and find all of your posts interesting (even those on refrigeration, and I’m a literary scholar who focuses on contemporary lit.).

I do have to quibble a bit, however, with the apparent dismissal of visual culture in this post. I agree with the heart of your point, even as regards video-captured lecture, so don’t mistake this quibble for a general objection.

Not only is it possible to skim a video by playing it at a slightly faster speed (at which speaking is still intelligible), one can review visual material for visual aspects at a much faster speed if one has already seen the material at the normal, intended speed (say, watching a film at 2x or 4x speed to refresh your sense of what happens when, in what order, etc.).

One can also in fact move to a certain point in visual materials pretty quickly. A well-designed and well-annotated captured video could assist this process with minimal additional work. Facility with the technology and a good video player helps, too. With some good work, a video can work like a well-annotated text.

Finally, you start to get to the heart of the matter when speaking about the auteur theory: the study of visual culture broadly aims to bring the analytical strategies of reading deeply or seeing intentionally–as is undertaken when reading poetry or viewing a painting–to the realm of the general visual culture that plays such an important role in our lives. All visual culture controls our vision, not just followers of the auteur theory. There is great value and depth to be found in such careful investigation of this element of our experience.

Again, really just a quibble with the extension of your point about video. I agree with so much of this post and so many others and have been led to terrific other material and discussions from this blog. I recommend it to everyone I can. I’d hate for an objection to your characterization of film studies to cause someone to stop reading some of your work. Thanks for all your terrific work!

12 12 2013
Jonathan Rees


No worries. Since it’s already been pointed out that that theory paragraph is hardly the clearest thing that I’ve ever written, I’m not surprised that you read it as being hostile to films as text. Actually, I’m not hostile at all.

You can certainly “read” film and I know that’s a difficult skill to learn, but you can also just sit back for two hours or so and watch the story go by, which would be the inevitable natural tendency of most people parked in front of a series of video lectures. Reading demands your full attention. Even good skimming is an active process, which explains why I think written text is an essential part of any higher education.

18 12 2013
Debbie Morrison

An example of teaching students how to read in college — my daughter, freshman at college described a recent assignment in her Biology class — each student had to select [and read] a paper from science journal, outline it, analyze content and present the key points to the class. This is a skill that is essential to undergraduate students…I have no problem writing a cheque for her tuition knowing she is getting an education that teaches her HOW to read (as is done in her science and humanities classes)…and think.

20 12 2013
Seven Must-Read Books About Education for 2014 | online learning insights

[…] the Page when reading Jonathan’s Rees’ [blogger, professor, author] post, Reading is Fundamental.  In his post, Rees suggests that reading, specifically skilled reading is on the decline, and […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: