MOOC sublime.

15 03 2014

“The steamboat sublime took expropriation and extermination and renamed them ‘time’ and ‘technology.’ From the vista of the steamboat deck, Indians were consigned to prehistory, the dead-end time before history really began, represented by the monuments of ‘remote antiquity’ that lined the river’s bank.

The confrontation of steamboat and wilderness, of civilization and savagery, of relentless direction with boundless desolation, was called ‘Progress.'”

– Walter Johnson, River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2013), 76-77.

Barbara Hahn of Texas Tech University is one of my very favorite people in all of Academia. We not only share similar interests and the same publisher, she is also a very, very good historian. As proof, I offer this from a new AHA Perspectives article intended to introduce other historians to the history of technology as a sub-field:

[A] difficult-to-shake belief in technological determinism—the idea that tools and inventions drive change, rather than humans—is widespread. When apps download on their own, or when cellphones appear to inspire texting over talking, it certainly feels as if technology changes and humans simply react. But most research into the history of technology undermines this widespread assumption. Technology itself has causes—human causes. If it didn’t, it would have no history. So the field by its very existence fights common misconceptions about technology.

Of course, the first thing I did after reading this article was to apply its lessons to MOOCs. Did MOOCs emerge fully grown out of Sebastian Thrun’s head? Of course not. They have both a history and a pre-history. While I’m not qualified to explore either of those subjects in any depth, I do want to explore the question of what a MOOC actually is from a technological standpoint so that others might have an easier time explaining that history.

Again, Barbara’s article can help. “What is technology?,” she asks:

Even experts struggle to fix its boundaries, but a modest definition will suffice to begin inquiry: technology is the systematic, purposeful, human manipulation of the physical world by means of some machine or tool. In this definition, technology becomes a process, rather than the artifact that process employs.

MOOCs, of course, employ a variety of technologies to achieve their goals, and since no MOOC is exactly alike (see Rule #2), the kinds of technology they use will be different. Video recording is one MOOC technology. A forum is another one. Some MOOCs use Google Hangouts. Others don’t. What they all have in common is the Internet as their base infrastructure, but since so many other things depend upon the Internet for their existence these days, I’d argue that that similarity obscures more than it illuminates.

As a student of the history of technology myself, I’d argue that what every MOOC has in common is a story to hold the diverse technologies that it employs together. Daphne Koller’s story involves bringing education to the undeveloped areas of the world. The story that all those nice Canadians tell involves students helping other students learn. The best I can tell, the story behind DS106 involves barely controlled anarchy (which might explain why it’s my favorite MOOC out there by far).

Listen to enough of these stories and you begin to detect patterns. What their proponents emphasize tell you what they think is important, but the opposite of that thought is true as well. What their proponents leave out tell you what narratives of MOOC progress discount or ignore altogether. Here’s a summary of a paper called, “Do professors matter?: using an a/b test to evaluate the impact of instructor involvement on MOOC student outcomes,” which I’m pulling from the blog Virtual Canuck:

The study concluded that teacher presence had no significant relation to course completion, most badges awarded, intent to register in subsequent MOOCs or course satisfaction. This is of course bad news for teacher’s unions and those convinced that a live teacher must be present in order for significant learning to occur.

Well let’s kill all the teachers then!!! What’s that you say? Probably not a good idea? I happen to agree, but if all you’re measuring is badges, course completion and MOOC satisfaction then this kind of conclusion makes perfect sense. Learning, or at the very least the learning process, has been obliterated by the structural sacrifices that MOOC creation entails.

Another part of the learning process that disappears in the xMOOC story is the direct interaction between the professor and the student. You just knew I was going to get to this particular MOOC news nugget eventually, didn’t you?:

An English professor at Harvard University turned heads last month when she instructed students in her poetry class to refrain from asking questions during lectures so as not to disrupt recordings being made for the MOOC version of the course.

Elisa New, a professor of American literature, instituted the policy at the behest of technicians from HarvardX, the university’s online arm, according to The Harvard Crimson, which first reported the news. The video technicians reportedly told her they wanted to record a continuous lecture, with no back-and-forth with students.

Of course, professors play an oversized role in the xMOOC story, but what this wonderfully symbolic anecdote shows us is that the process of teaching doesn’t. If anybody fails to understand this superprofessor’s lectures, in class or in the MOOC, they are just S.O.L. This shows that what we used to think of as teaching is being replaced by mere content provision in this new narrative, which I think I’m going to start calling the MOOC sublime.

In Walter Johnson’s version of steamboat sublime, “Progress” rendered Native Americans invisible. In the MOOC sublime, the people who disappear are the faculty members who choose to cling to the outmoded, inefficient mode of instruction that so many MOOCs aim to replace. Who cares if we use actual technology ourselves? As long as we fail to board the MOOC train before it leaves the station we are expendable.

How do you fight this kind of passive/aggressive, often self-interested narrative attack? I think we alleged Luddites need to come up with a story of our own in order to help us resist the fate that the edtech entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley have in store for us. I guess this post is my shot at doing so. Any additional details in the comments below would be much appreciated. After all, so many of our jobs may depend upon how well we can all tell it.




7 responses

15 03 2014
Sporch Ezza

I think a key element of counterattack is writing. You have often mentioned the writing you assign to help students understand history; John Warner and others have commented on the limitations of peer grading/critiques.

Helping students improve their writing cannot be automated into an xMOOC, even though adjunct faculty are sometimes hired to teach writing at disgracefully low wages. Writing can be taught well online, but not at “Massive” scale. The question for every MOOC defender/apologist is “Where is student writing in this new higher-ed ecosystem?” The MOOCsters may not care about student writing, but they should have to say so up front. If student writing is absent from a system, it is not true higher education.

Sporch Ezza

15 03 2014
Jonathan Rees


I’m currently kicking myself for not thinking of your point on my own.

15 03 2014
tom abeles

It seems that, regardless of the focus on the “student”, there is the extrapolation that in the end, it’s about the demise of the professor. It’s the same argument about safety if electronics replace the flight engineer in the cockpit of an airliner or the brakeman on trains now equipped with roller bearings or the loss of the iceman with mechanical refrigeration.

The same issue that arose with Socrates and the ability to write things down.
First there was the curious scholar who went around telling the world what he knew, then came the horse allowing the scholar to expand his audience and then came the internet which created an infinite soapbox for bloggers……

As I have said, MOOC’s are the canaries in the coal mines along with e-books, smart bots that can deliver evaluation of the written word, interact with humans as psychologists (think Elisa), or act as “smart” companions and personal tutors….. x-MOOC’s are the lecture hall on steroids.

As for “learning”, MOOC’s call the question of how one wants their education, latte, or shirt- off the rack as being low cost and “good enough” or hand crafted starting with the harvesting of the naturally grown, organically bred for color, cotton fiber.

As for knowledge acquisition, is one a visual or auditory learner? is one self-directed or needs input from an expert (at what level of involvement), and what is one’s ability to acquire- black coffee from the local donut shop, or hand picked, roasted and ground beans, expresso ground and brewed by recycled Ph.D’s with a free course linked to a code in an included fortune cookie.

16 03 2014

As I read this post I was reminded of a brilliant article from about ten years ago (when the first “oh, wow, online education will chane the world” wave hit), which was a history of the hype surrounding various mass education tools, from the correspondence courses that used to be sold on the inside of matchbooks, to radio lectures, to TV. Each technology was hyped as something very different from what preceded it, but in fact in all of them, a small group of students flourished, but most ran out of steam somewhere along the line. (I am, needless to say, blanking on the author’s name.)

The hard part of the counter-narrative, it seems to me, is that it is less a story than a set of questions about the terms of the discussion. As previous commenters have noted, it asks about the terms of the discussion. What do we mean by education? Does it require refining ideas through writing? How do students learn? What is the role of those with expert knowledge in the learning process? What makes it so weird (and hard) is that the MOOC is presented as a combination of two very different philosophical models of education – the “sage on the stage” in the form of the professor imparting information without taking questions, and then a pseudo-Freirian “you will learn from your peers”. When I applied to college back in the early 70s, this pretty much summed up what was said about Harvard: the real learning comes from your brilliant classmates.

So the counter-narrative is a story of our students, and how their education happens. It can be person by person, showing development over time, or it can be the story of what happens in one class. But that’s the story. It’s not abstract because education is not abstract.

16 03 2014

Hello, I like the analogy with removing characterss, but I don’t feel it will be professors that are removed. For the MOOC i worked on (English Common Law with Coursera), 4 people (2 admin, 2 Lecturers) provided a “course” to 46, 26, 2K (enrolments, ever came in, “finished”).
No exam board, no admissions, no librarians, no student support – just me and one inbox pretty much.
Without the Professor, no one would have turned up at all.
Maybe a different application would be to look into some courses being taught by individuals whose subject should have a more plural approach – why have so few MOOCs been ran by only one professor?

18 03 2014
Storytelling. | More or Less Bunk

[…] been writing about stories lately. Certainly, MOOCs have stories, but so does online education in general. One of the virtues of […]

18 03 2014
karl eilers

There is no question that MOOCs lose by not having a live instructor. The question is, what do they gain – or, what could they gain if we stopped treating them like canned lectures? With tens of thousands of students being served, why aren’t we producing them like Hollywood movies?

They say Edison had to post notices next to his lamps reminding users not to strike matches. Presented with a new tool, our invariable reaction is to try to use it in the old way. Yet in the 1950s, Don Herbert (“Mr. Wizard”) was teaching science with a stage set, props, lighting, actors, scripts and so on. The large, MOOC-like audience made it financially possible. How many current MOOCs meet this half-century old standard?

As for the instructors, maybe when they’re freed from doing the part of teaching a machine can do better, they’ll have time to do the parts a machine can’t do at all.

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