Freak out in a MOOC-age daydream.

16 12 2013

“We have this strong belief that you can only learn when you do something yourself and that you can’t really learn by watching somebody else talking at you.”

– Sebastian Thrun of Udacity, interviewed in Forbes, December 9, 2013.

He’s right, you know. Long-lasting, hard-thinking, critical reasoning-infused higher education is a lot of work and hard to do. Why then do each of the major MOOC providers’ platforms feature talking heads lecturing? Do they think they can somehow change the way that learning works if they do things their way frequently enough? This, I would argue, is the MOOC-age daydream: Automated learning can somehow become better than learning from another human being if we study it enough. I have news for you folks: It won’t because it can’t.

Much to their credit, a lot of superprofessors understand the limitations of their new medium. As Duke’s Dan Ariely explained to the PBS NewsHour:

Every week, students would pose some questions and I would go online and try to answer some of those, but it’s not the same.

Even some administrators now realize the contradiction of quality at the heart of any Massive Open Online Course. This, unbelievably enough, is the Chancellor of the California State University system, Timothy White:

White went further, calling a recent San Jose State experiment with the online startup Udacity — in which fewer than half of the students passed online courses — a failure.

“For those who say, ‘Well, Tim, you’ll save a lot of money if … you do more things online,’ that’s not correct,” he said.

That’s almost enough for me to forgive him for his 2011 appearance on “Undercover Boss” (which I called “appalling” at that time).

So why then are we still talking about MOOCs after all this time? Probably because money talks – or to put it another way, the predators need to find prey. Here’s my last new link for a post that’s turned out to be a gigantic link dump for everything I read since I started grading my final exams in the middle of last week, from Wired Campus this morning:

edX has created “a revenue-generating solutions division,” according to one slide. The organization has begun developing a range of fee-based services for different kinds of clients—not just colleges, but also government agencies and private companies. Those services include hosting and providing technical support for institutions that use edX’s open-source platform, OpenEdX.

How much revenue can that division generate for a product that can’t provide the same quality interactive instruction that a living, breathing professor can? Not much, as long as living, breathing professors are still a viable option for most students. Therefore, expect MOOC providers to just keep on freakin’ out until the money runs out (which might be rather soon).

Hopefully, the living breathing professors of the world can outlast them.




4 responses

16 12 2013

I read the interview with Dan Ariely and like his opinion on the “value” of traditional education; however, his opinion of community colleges is appalling and far from the truth. He said toward the end of his interview, “But I think that as you move to universities that are more about just coming to classes — community colleges, large lecture halls — those don’t get the same amount of benefit from the interaction with the faculty and therefore the tradeoffs between them and online could become much closer and people might opt more for online.” Really?! He obviously has no idea about student-to-instructor ratios at community colleges (the largest class size in my department is 45) and about the crucial role instructors play at motivating and role-modeling for their students at community colleges. This is such an elitist view and completely out of touch with the reality for the majority of student who attend community colleges and state universities. Sorry. I do not see how MOOCs would work for my students who need to be motivated daily even to come to class and do the work.

16 12 2013
Rolin Moe

I agree with a lot of your sentiment but I disagree with the “outlast them” aspect, as if there is a war between the vanguard and MOOCs. There are changes that need to be made to education, and to go “us vs. them” means I have to choose a side, and I want to change some things about the system without going hog-wild over MOOCs. If we are going to use battle metaphor, the war is between the vanguard and what today I labeled as neoEdTech, an amalgam of a whole host of theories and technologies and assumptions and attitudes that boil down to the notion that education is a private good (and all of the potential for that notion and warts of that ideology). MOOC is just a battle in the war, and it’s a war of attrition, and if we look at declining government subsidy and Do-It-Yourself University and Competency-Based Learning and Big Data Will Set You Free and the adjunctification of faculties and easing accreditation standards as federal policy and changing university structures as state policy…well, “outlast them” might achieve a win versus the MOOC but a loss against what the MOOC represents.

To go with music analogies, I’d move to Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changing.” Waiting for the storm to pass denies climate change. There are positives to what educational technology can help us accomplish. What we as a field need to do is recognize those positives and shape debate around that, getting buy-in from professors and professionals. Otherwise, Silicon Valley is happy to get buy-in from VC, politicians and the press, and if you look at how this debate has played out in K-12, the teachers are not the ones who are viewed favorably.

16 12 2013
Jonathan Rees


I get where you’re coming from, but there are basic class and academic freedom issues involved here that a less confrontational approach simply cannot address. Anybody’s who’s read this blog for a while knows I’m about as far as you can get from being a true Luddite. Really, I’ve come to believe that there is a political economy to this entire debate that even the most well-meaning MOOC enthusiasts generally ignore.

I see my role as bringing those issues back into the conversation while advocating for faculty at all levels. To do otherwise strikes me as unilateral surrender.

16 12 2013
Rolin Moe

I agree with the need to advocate for faculty in this age of EdTech. My MOOC research views the whole debate not as about a learning system but rather as a sociocultural phenomenon, so I appreciate what you are saying. But the MOOC is just one small part of a much larger battle. The MOOC is not going to replace teachers, whether it lasts or not. But the MOOC is a result of policies, attitudes and cultural shifts…and the result is a devaluation of education and educators in a space that, once a public good, is now a private one. My issue is believing that the storm will roll over. The storm is the way of life. Faculty must adapt and have their voices heard, and I disagree that battle rhetoric is the way to do it. Organization in that manner no longer has political economy in my opinion, it gets lost in a bluster about union thuggery. There must be novel options to explore.

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