Reinventing the wheel.

27 03 2014

What’s old is new again in edtech land. While that’s always been true to some extent, what’s new now is that this constant effort at reinvention has begun to take MOOCs as the status quo to be contrasted against rather than what they once were, namely the bright, shiny new thing that will save us all.

You say you want evidence for this trend? The folks who produce one particular online program tweeted this at me last week, presumably because the author used my Slate article as a jumping off point:

As a social phenomenon, access to education in this way – that is available for everyone, for free – is unprecedented and changing the way we live, work and learn. No one wants to move away from that or undo the huge steps forward we have made. But, as we have seen, it is not a perfect system. Something needs to change to utilise this power to its best advantage, to take what we have learned and move it a step further. Students need interaction with their teachers and fellow students. They need support. What we have seen so far is that MOOCs fail to address the need for communication as a learning tool.

Their solution? “[A] combination of online learning and personal interaction.” Don’t get me wrong: That’s certainly an improvement over MOOCs, but something like that’s been available for about twenty years now. They’re called online classes. You know…the non-massive ones. Certainly online classes are not all the same, particularly since the more student/teacher interaction they foster the better. However, to claim that personal attention is somehow an exclusive selling point of this one provider requires a rather selective reading of edtech history.

Nevertheless, others have actually invented their own new acronym for doing what some people have been doing for ages now. My much-valued commenter and online friend Contingent Cassandra sent me this link:

Small Private Online Courses (SPOCs) on the other hand, are purposely focusing on class size as a sort of opposite of the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC). A University Business article emphasizes that this isn’t a new model, but one that may be finding a broader audience as school and corporate partners offer specialized curricula to small groups of (17-20) learners. These numbers mean that the kinds of support often missing in MOOCs and other large classes – such as personalized feedback and coaching, and opportunities for real-world experience – are more readily available.

That sound you hear is a whole slew of dedicated online instructors hitting their heads against their desks over and over again. Certainly offering online students this kind of personal attention beats what they’d get in MOOCs, but when you get right down to it that’s not a very high standard, is it? The other important question is how long can these Small Private Online Courses can stay small. When will the profit motive that even public universities now express regularly get the best of any instructor’s best intentions?

Leaving the substantial minority of people who do really innovative teaching online aside, the question then becomes how should we judge online education as a whole. What does online education get right that we can’t do in face-to-face classes? What does it get wrong? More importantly, why does it get what it gets wrong wrong? New UC Chancellor Janet Napalitano (of all people) may have hit the nail on the head here:

“There’s a developing consensus that online learning is a tool for the toolbox, but it’s harder than it looks and if you do it right, it doesn’t save all that much money,” Napolitano told about 500 policy and education experts at a speaker series sponsored by the Public Policy Institute of California….

Online courses may indeed prove to be useful, she said, but more as a way to augment upper-division work for students who are already deeply engaged in their subject matter.

Let the people who have already learned how to learn learn online. Give all the students who don’t know how to learn yet the attention they deserve. More importantly, let them get all the attention that they can get in a classroom setting before you give them the option of entering the brave old world of online education. When online education at all levels of instruction becomes the only option for the vast majority of students, higher education will have failed us all.

Reinventing the wheel here is hardly a pedagogical imperative. It’s not even a financial imperative, since (as Napolitano points out) online education doesn’t really save universities all that much money. Just because you can teach students online doesn’t mean you should teach students online, especially in massive open online courses that offer no individual attention at all unless students win a lottery or beg for it.

When all is said and done it’s not the teacher/student relationship that’s broken. What’s broken is the political economy of higher education that has convinced some people to consider even the worst forms of online education an imperative in the first place.



5 responses

27 03 2014

Whatever else one can say about the ed-tech “revolution,” it’s a rich lode of comedic ore. I’d love to see someone like Evgeny Mozorov pick through the tailings and write an academic novel that lampoons all the idiocy and corruption you’ve been documenting here.

And you are so right about the way MOOCs have lowered the quality bar so much that just about any shiny new repackaging of the obvious can clear it.

If I had to pinpoint a moment in pedagogical history when this process was first set in motion, maybe it would be the moment when university coursework was reduced to “student learning outcomes.” This reduction (an obvious logical fallacy conveniently overlooked by academic VPs and accreditors nationwide) allowed higher ed to wink away the benefits of student-faculty interaction and enabled the takeoff of online ed. It’s been tough going ever since.

27 03 2014

Hi Jonathan
It was really interesting to read your take on MOOCs and the history of online learning. Many thanks for referencing my blog post.
What would you say was the most important thing we can learn from MOOCs? Where do you think the future of online education is heading?

27 03 2014
Jonathan Rees


I think the most important thing we can learn from MOOCs is that teachers do matter, especially if you want students to actually complete a course.

29 03 2014

I think it’s also worth noting that actually, free, accessible education is *not* a novelty created by the internet age: but in fact, until the last generation or so, was pretty much the rule at public institutions. CUNY was free into the 1970s, and tuition/fees at state universities were often exceptionally low until the passion for tax cut over a,me the commitment to the common good back in the 70s and 80s

5 04 2014
tom abeles

you and others mention that to function in a MOOC as currently configured requires a student with a set of basic cognitive knowledge and process skills. In point of fact, at least in the US, the screening system that allows students into universities has had it’s selectivity down graded. Weak secondary school curricula and a population which is more diverse in culture, language and social preparedness are now on the doorsteps. And faculty are not equipped, based on past models, to effectively respond whether in brick or click space, regardless of their protestations (we have Ph.D’s and content is what counts.) MOOC’s are, as I have said, the canaries in the coal mine. They expose the problems of a system weakened from PreK-12; the schools are relieved of the responsibility when they give a secondary school diploma and shove the students into the post secondary arena.

The fiscal issue forces the post secondary institutions to cast a blind eye and not send the students back or demand payment for inadequately prepared students. And the faculty have no voice or are unwilling to stand up and expend the energy which they need to devote to pub/perish and soldiering on in the classroom with their students–especially adjuncts.

No technology, except, perhaps a patient “bot”, and no individual teacher can correct what has been years of abuse of young minds. Yes, dents can be made but even the proverbial professor on the log opposite the student can necessarily compensate. Like the lack of proper nutrition at conception that can’t be replaced post birth, universities can never fully rehabilitate a flawed diet received in PreK-12.

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