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.


“These people have never heard of books.”

8 07 2013

“Some see online courses as cheap or free learning for all. These people have never heard of books.”

Atrios’ Eschaton, July 5, 2013.

“But Atrios,” the MOOC Messiah Corps cries, “haven’t you heard of cMOOCs?” Writing last year in a post I still refer to fairly often, Lisa Lane divided MOOCs into three types: Network-based, task-based and content-based. That last one is the Coursera/Udacity model. In contrast, she defines what most people call a cMOOC this way:

The goal is not so much content and skills acquisition, but conversation, socially constructed knowledge, and exposure to the milieu of learning on the open web using distributed means. The pedagogy of network-based MOOCs is based in connectivist or connectivist-style methods. Resources are provided, but exploration is more important than any particular content. Traditional assessment is difficult.

Apparently, these people have never heard of book clubs. Yet as Aaron Bady noted in his last epic MOOC post, had MOOCs stayed in this original format, few people probably would have ever heard the term. But then this not-all-that-evil idea got transmuted by the Stanford Computer Science Department and their Silicon Valley backers. Aaron writes:

“I would argue that getting a “Grade” for such a thing—or charging money for it—would be to fundamentally change what it is.”

So in homage to that original idea, I now see talk about “artisanal” MOOCs. This is a contradiction in terms. The sacrifices inherent in reaching massive audiences change the nature of education for the worse by definition. You can call a pig a goat, but that doesn’t make it any less porcine.

Whether MOOCs are evil depends upon their context, not their structure. A thunderstorm in the desert is welcome relief, but rain on your wedding day is a lot worse than ironic. MOOCs may make excellent edu-tainment for the nerdier set, but they should never serve as a substitute for college classes. While those nice Canadians invented something that isn’t necessarily evil, they lost control of their invention once it got out in the world. That explains why the Silicon Valley version of MOOCs is so much different than the way that MOOCs were originally conceived.

I will concede that cMOOCs probably are better than anything Coursera has to offer from an educational standpoint, but from a labor standpoint they are equally bad. Imagine an alternate reality in which Canadian superprofessors start colonizing American higher education with their connectivist MOOCs. They could give no grades and charge no tuition and a lot of academics throughout North America would still end up unemployed. Getting crowdsourced out of a job is just as bad as being replaced by a machine from the unemployed person’s point of view.

More importantly, the students enrolled in these MOOCs for credit would still be missing many of the most important parts of the college experience. You can’t learn all that much if you’re too busy doing someone else’s job. Michael Carley, in a post I desperately wish I had written myself, captures the inevitable downward spiral of digital sharecropping:

The Taylorization of work is reaching its height in the mooc, where the tasks of writing a course, lecturing it to classes, teaching it to individuals, and examining it, will be first divided, and then, like the self-checkout, subcontracted to the customers.

This is being sold to the punters as a great boon, the opportunity to only hear canned talks from the best superprofessors at the finest universities (of which there will only be ten). Going to university need no longer include going to university, meeting other students, or, best of all, dealing with demoralized staff trying to hold on to their jobs until pension age.

Given enough time, the only university staff seen by students will be the avatars of superprofs, not necessarily live ones, proving eternal truths with slightly out of date jokes, and historical examples that weren’t at the time. The staff with the power over students, until they too are replaced by the self checkout, will be those desperate enough to take casual jobs doing the marking, not an obvious recipe for diligence and rigour.

Now that’s evil, and the more of those tasks the students assume, the more evil it is because they are far less likely to complete them successfully than even the least qualified, poorly-paid instructor.

If you want to start an online book club, be my guest. If you want to transform higher education, however, there better be a professor directly involved. Otherwise, it’s no longer college. To suggest that education can be crowd-sourced not only defies logic, it is an insult to all of us who went through years of training in order to be able to do every part of our jobs well. Without us, you might as well just go to a library and start reading.

Why build a better mousetrap when you can kill the cat instead?

29 05 2013

I’ve had some trouble picking out technological books for my summer reading list. Jaron Lanier’s book sounded really good when I first heard him on To the Best of Our Knowledge. Then he uttered the word “micropayments,” and he lost me forever. Similarly, I felt kind of nervous about getting Evgeny Morozov’s To Save Everything Click Here because I read that he picks on some people whose work I really respect (most notably Nicholas Carr). But then Morozov showed up in an otherwise dull New Yorker story about political contributions from Silicon Valley with what may be the best quote I’ve ever seen in that storied publication:

“You might not be able to pay for healthcare or your insurance, but if you have an app on your phone that alerts you to the fact that you need to exercise more, or you aren’t eating healthily enough, they think they are solving the problem.”

“Here is a guy who understands my frustrations with technology,” I thought to myself. I bought the book posthaste, read it over Memorial Day weekend and am so glad I did.

If you’ve read the reviews, you know that Morozov’s main contribution to discussions about technology is the re-appropriation of the term “solutionism,” by which he basically means coming up with extremely simplistic technological solutions to problems that don’t (or just barely) exist. More importantly (and I think this is what every review that I’ve seen has missed and which is captured beautifully in that New Yorker quote), Morozov is particularly hard on Silicon Valley types for acting as if their technological solutions are apolitical when in fact they are political as Hell – mostly because they tend to accept the existing distribution of power as a given.

MOOCs, the usual subject of this blog these days, come up early in the book. This is from p. 8:

“The ballyhoo over the potential of new technologies to disrupt education – especially now that several start-ups offer online courses to hundreds of thousands of students, who grade each other’s work and get no face time with the instructors – is a case in point. Digital technologies might be a perfect solution to some problems, but those problems don’t include education – not if by education we mean the development of the skills to think critically about any given issue. Online resources might help students learn plenty of new facts (or “facts,” in case they don’t cross-check what they learn on Wikipedia), but such fact cramming is a far cry from what universities aspire to teach their students.”

Or at least we can only hope.

While MOOCs pretty much disappear from the narrative after that point, it was very difficult for me to forget them because the problems that Morozov spots with Silicon Valley in general apply particularly well to MOOC purveyors in particular. For example, here’s a useful quote from p. 314:

“Our geek kings do not realize that inefficiency is precisely what shelters us from the inhumanity of Taylorism and market fundamentalism. When inefficiency is the result of a deliberative commitment by a democratically run community, there is no need to eliminate it, even if the latest technologies can accomplish it in no time.”

Those two quotes actually go together very well. You can cut the inefficiencies of education down to nothing by putting videos of smiling superprofessors on the world’s computer screens, but then you won’t be teaching most people anything. Education is SUPPOSED to be inefficient because it is never (to use another word I picked up from reading Morozov) frictionless. If students can’t stop and ask questions, they won’t know if they really get the material. Worse yet, they might think they get it even if they don’t.

The other thing I kept wondering as I read Morozov discuss different aspects of solutionism is what problem does Coursera think it’s solving? The most obvious example would be the high cost of higher education, but watching videos isn’t education. That’s why we’ve never heard anyone from Coursera or Udacity actually admit that MOOCs are designed to be course replacements. They’re either supposed to help people in lesser-developed countries learn or help poor disadvantaged non-superprofessors get back to their roots and teach down in the trenches mano y mano. I find these arguments incredibly offensive because 1) People in lesser-developed countries deserve face-to-face educations of their own (steeped in the culture of their own nations) and 2) Most of us are teaching mano y mano already. [If I hate MOOCs, why do I have to defend 400-person lecture courses? Can’t I hate both?]

The other Silicon Valley tendency that Morozov covers in great detail is the widespread belief that tech alone can save the world. You know what he means already. It’s the same reason that Bill Gates is so much more dangerous now that he’s not working at Microsoft every day. Through a combination of hubris and already having too much money to know what to do with, everything must be disrupted for the good of humanity. No, humanity will not be consulted because, as that New Yorker quote suggests, the “Internet” isn’t really a democracy. It just feels like one if you have no idea how power is distributed or how it’s actually used.

Let’s go back to my favorite subject in order to make more sense of that argument. Suppose I want to improve higher education. I could build tools to help professors do their jobs better (like Zotero or Diigo or even WordPress) or I could get rid of professors altogether and hope for the best. Why build a better mousetrap when you can kill the cat instead? That way whatever sorry excuse for an education I create solely through technology (namely MOOCs) will look great in comparison to nothing.

People who want to disrupt higher education don’t care one whit about the quality of higher education. They want to disrupt higher education because that’s where the money is. While they will inevitably fail at making higher education better, recent history suggests that this inevitable failure will not prevent a few people from getting very rich at the expense of faculty and students worldwide.

“Warning: This is not college.”

10 05 2013

Among the many things I’ve been doing since my semester ended is start another MOOC: Nutrition, Health and Lifestyle out of Vanderbilt. Why? Not only does it remind me of my dear, departed sabbatical, I teach food history. In that class we end up spending more time in the present than in any other course that I’ve ever taught and this MOOC is all about the food present.

I’ve almost completed the first week of six or seven so far and it has been very enjoyable. The production values are terrific. The superprofessor, Jamie Pope, is a good lecturer. There’s even a fair bit of history in it. If there’s a structural change between this course and the others I’ve taken, it’s the fact that the multiple choice questions come in the middle of the lecture rather than the end.

What hasn’t changed is the work level. As with the history MOOCs that I’ve taken or observed, there is no required reading in this class whatsoever. I admit to knowing absolutely nothing about nutrition as a discipline (which is one of the reasons I wanted to try this MOOC), but I have a hard time believing that there is a face-to-face nutrition course anywhere in the country that doesn’t have some kind of required reading. After all, reading is an important part of education of all kinds because the act of reading reinforces the learning process. I guess you could argue that the MOOC is nothing but a jazzed-up textbook, but how many other textbooks can you get a certificate for reading?

As I anticipated, Coursera/Vanderbilt is doing practically everything possible not to scare anybody off. Indeed, that’s why some of the lines from the syllabus border on pathetic. For example, after noting that the textbook is not required, the syllabus states that the video lectures provide the “core content for this course.” From what I can tell, the weekly assignments do not require writing (which seems understandable for nutrition), but you can still earn a “Statement of Accomplishment” without submitting any of them.

In one sense, this situation isn’t hurting anybody. 70,000 people are learning about nutrition, gaining knowledge that can improve every person’s life. This is certainly a good thing. In another sense though it may harm a lot a people. This class is on the Coursera Signature Track. While Coursera is clear that completing a class like this earns no college credit, they’re also clear that handing over $30-$100 per course to get your identity and performance verified does have value. Introducing this option, the company wrote on its blog:

We hope that offering verified certification for our courses will open up many new and valuable opportunities for students…

What are those opportunities? Perhaps they just mean professional development, but if you doubt that somebody somewhere is going to try to get college credit out of that certificate then you must have been born yesterday. The same thing goes if you doubt that some college somewhere will be delighted to award credit for that certificate – at a price. [Measured “competencies” anyone?] If enough people take MOOCs on the Signature Track, there may even be a movement to demand it.

If MOOCs could be limited to nerdy edu-tainment, I wouldn’t be writing this. If we could slap a label on every MOOC that says, “Warning: This is not college,” perhaps I would have no problem with them. I know superprofessors believe that they are doing a great public good by putting their lectures online and in a limited sense they are, but MOOCs do not exist in a vacuum. One person’s outreach is another person’s college substitute. That means that one superprofessor’s public service can also be an ill-informed administrator’s deadly weapon against the rest of us and against rigor in higher education in general. To think otherwise is the height of both naïveté and short-sightedness.

Will Coursera make us stupid?

2 05 2013

In 2008, the contrarian tech writer Nicholas Carr wrote an article entitled, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” Upon recommending it to a roomful of teachers the other night, I noticed that this article is famous enough to have its own Wikipedia page. I think of it as a kind of prequel for Carr’s less-famous book, The Shallows, but since I probably can’t convince you to read that before you get to the end of this post I’ll work off his article instead.

The main point of the article comes near the beginning:

I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.

In short, the Internet has a negative effect on everyone’s attention span and Google thrives on that effect.

First, all reading gets chopped down to discreet chunks. Next, all the lectures get chopped down to fifteen minutes. Then students watch those lectures at double-speed so that they can get on to what they really want to do (assuming their not Facebooking in another browser window already). You know where I’m going with this, but that would be a far too easy post to write. Therefore, I’ll go in a Carr-inspired rather than Carr-analogous direction.

Carr is more than smart enough to recognize that there are advantages to having the Internet (and by implication, Google) available. “For me, as for others,” he writes (or is this so old now that I should write “wrote?”):

the Net is becoming a universal medium, the conduit for most of the information that flows through my eyes and ears and into my mind. The advantages of having immediate access to such an incredibly rich store of information are many, and they’ve been widely described and duly applauded.

This is the reason I’ve changed my teaching methods in recent years. When I was growing up, history used to be all about how many facts you can memorize. In some places, I’m sure it still is. Certainly, students still have to know something about facts. You have no idea how depressing it is to ask a class who Robert Wagner was and get the answer that he used to be on “Hart to Hart.”* But Senator Robert Wagner is important not just for the sake of knowing who Robert Wagner was or what he did, but for knowing what he represented and still represents in America today. You are never going to get that from just a Google search, and, alas, you’ll never get that from a Coursera MOOC.

Read the last eight months of this blog if you want to understand my problems with Coursera’s format, but I’m not just talking about the format here. I’ve learned not to stake my life on a quick reading of anything MOOC. Nevertheless, the overwhelming majority of the courses that they offer seem to be introductory. [Seriously, are there any prerequisites for any MOOCs anywhere? Wouldn’t that mean that they’d no longer be open?]

Granted some of those introductory courses might be very difficult (like machine learning, for instance), but what do you do if you want to take your MOOC education to the next level? At Cal State, you can pay tuition and get on-campus courses, but if MOOCs are really the future of higher education, what’s going to happen to all those less popular upper-level courses that we teach every semester when most schools go all MOOC, all the time (kind of like this blog)?

Unfortunately, specialized classes are very un-MOOCish. After all, fewer people are going to be interested in Agricultural Economics than Introduction to Micro almost by definition. Fewer people means less opportunity to make money from whatever data they’re willing to give you. Perhaps more importantly, the way that upper-level courses tend to be taught (at least in my experience) serves as a stark contrast to the MOOC M.O. These courses are often structured around required reading, that reading tends to be deep reading, and it requires the active participation of a professor in order for students to be able to apply the principles they learned in intro courses to this new material in the most interesting ways. To put it another way, does anyone assign Milton in Intro to Poetry?

That’s why giving the impression that you can get the equivalent of an entire college education by scratching the surface of absolutely everything is a fraud upon the learning public. Yet the public is conditioned to think that way by the way that the WWW is structured, a mile long and an inch deep.

Of course, to blame only Coursera for potentially making us stupid is patently unfair. From their perspective the customer is always right (even when they’re not) so their business plan is a reflection of the values of their best paying customers, namely university administrators. As Bob Samuels argues:

“[T]he push to base university funding on degree attainment rates applies a factory model of production to the complicated world of instruction. Instead of pushing for innovative creativity, we are re-imagining education as a technological machine that spits out graduates at a faster rate. Yet, students are not widgets, and faculty are not assembly line workers; instead, we need complex solutions to complex systems.”

Unfortunately, we won’t find those solutions to our problems by Googling “MOOCs,” “Higher ed reform” or even “Edtech flavor of the month.” In fact, I don’t think we’ll find those solutions on the Internet at all. Some might say that makes me contrarian too, but that I would argue is the whole problem with higher education right there.

* In case you’re wondering, that’s a true story.

Real college classes have writing assignments and required reading.

1 04 2013

Do most MOOCs have required reading? I’ve been conversing with the proprietor of the blog Capitalist Imperialist Pig about that question in the comments here. They challenged me to look at all the excellent readings in two MOOCs, Gregory Nagy’s Ancient Greek Hero and Dan Ariely’s Coursera MOOC from Duke, so I did.*

Here’s the “Suggested Reading” statement for Ariely’s MOOC:

I will cover some of the material that is in my 3 books Predictably Irrational, Revised and Expanded Edition: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions (2008), The Upside of Irrationality: The Unexpected Benefits of Defying Logic at Work and at Home (2010), and The Honest Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone—Especially Ourselves (2012).

In other words, there’s no required reading, and one writing assignment which is (of course) peer-graded.

The Nagy course is better on reading. There’s a lot of free downloadable translations of Greek texts that you clearly need to read in order to pass the typical mulltiple choice lecture quizzes. But here’s the assessment and evaluation portion:

Students will be evaluated on assessment performance and participation. Assessments will be conducted each “hour” of the course. These will consist of quizzes on the reading (names, places, who is speaking to whom, etc.), as well as the application of principles and concepts central to the course.

Class participation, multiple choice quizzes and no writing at all.

Do you see a trend yet? Then consider this:

Yes, that’s right. You can learn all about great 20th Century ideas at the University of Texas without having to read about any of them. And don’t forget about Harvard lite (law school edition)!

The trend should be clear now: MOOC providers don’t want to scare off potential students with too much work. Talk about teaching in a strait jacket! This is exactly why higher education should never be privatized in the first place. It degrades the quality of the product…a lot.

I’m sorry if this bursts anyone’s bubble, but watching videos on the Internet and maybe writing a few very short essays that the professor never sees isn’t college. Real college classes have writing assignments and required reading. Real college classes require access to the professor. To say MOOCs like these can somehow replace an actual college education is tantamount to fraud.

But that fraud isn’t just going to hurt students left with no access to college but for MOOCs. It’s going to hurt society in general too. This is from UW-Madison History Professor (Go Badgers!) Bill Cronon’s presidential address to the last American Historical Association convention (no subscription needed). [Warning: this story will make any real English or History teacher (and probably more than a few others) cry.]:

Still more poignant and worrisome was the young man who came up to me after a lecture I had just given at another university introducing the major themes of the very long book about Portage, Wisconsin, on which I have been working for longer than I care to admit. I sometimes describe that book as “Michener-length,” though that is a reference few students born in the past thirty years would recognize. So I usually add that I expect the final book to be at least five or six hundred pages long, covering as it does the history of this small Midwestern town from the glacier to now. The illustrated talk I give about Portage is intended to be a crowd-pleaser, with lots of engaging images and stories, and at the end of this particular lecture, a shy young man came up to say how much he had enjoyed it. I thanked him for his praise, but was then mystified when he added that he was very sorry he would never be able to read the book on which my talk was based. I sheepishly told him that although I was taking a long time to finish it, it would eventually be published, and he would certainly be able to read it then. He shook his head and said that was not what he meant. He reminded me that I had described the book as being more than five hundred pages long. Then, with a sad and embarrassed look on his face, he said he was simply incapable of reading such a book, that he had never in his life read anything so long. I was taken aback, but I am quite certain he was speaking in earnest, and that his regret was quite real.

Educating the masses without fixing the problem which that story represents isn’t really educating the masses, no matter what the MOOC maniacs tell you. At least we can blame the delusions of the venture capitalists on self interest. What’s the excuse of everyone in academia who should actually know better?

* These MOOC syllabus links require accounts from the MOOC providers in question. And yes, if you’re wondering, I did get an edX account in order to write this post. [The things I do for this blog!]

Update: A reliable source tells me that I screwed up in my quick read of Professor Ariely’s syllabus. Apparently, there is a substantial list of regular readings scattered around the Internet that I didn’t see. That would make his class more like Professor Nagy’s, a MOOC with a higher workload than most. My apologies to both Professor Ariely and CIP. In defense of my overall point though, I’ll note that the two Coursera world history courses that I’ve been directly involved with have no required reading at all.

Late Update: Since this post is getting a lot of late attention from people who are likely new visitors here, they might also want to read my follow up post on this subject, Some MOOCs are more inferior than others.

MOOCs are to reading as Kryptonite is to Superman.

4 03 2013

I went to a meeting last week with a room full of scientists.  At one point, the guy at the front of the room lamented the fact that nobody wants to read anymore.  “You have no idea,” I said reflexively to no one in particular.  On second thought, I realized that they did have some idea as they’re probably trying to coax their students into reading boring textbooks.  I can at least pick interesting monographs.

Either way, we’re all at least on the same team.  So is Philip Zelikow (sort of).  From the WP article I cited on Friday:

“For about 80 U-Va. students, there are required reading, quizzes, written assignments, a midterm and a final exam.  That is all fairly standard.”

Indeed it is.  Zelikow also runs sections with his students, which is why that article is all about his flipped classroom.  Zelikow’s MOOC students, on the other hand, are required to do none of these things, which is a shame as Zelikow has an excellent reading list. Those books are only recommended for his MOOC students (as was Jeremy Adelman’s textbook) because they have no incentive to actually do the reading since they’re only being tested on the MOOC lectures.  University of Virginia students read books and watch lectures because they’re getting real credit from a real college for doing so, but only the most committed MOOCer would ever do all of that. Requiring everybody to handle a UVa workload would make Zelikow’s MOOC a lot less massive.

I’ve seen plenty of people claim that MOOCs are just like textbooks.  In fact, they’re not like textbooks at all.  They may perform the same function of conveying information, but watching videos requires a lot less effort on the part of students and therefore results in a lot less reward.  As a guy from the Gates Foundation told the Chronicle back in November:

“In that way, Mr. Jarrett said, MOOC’s may turn out to be a high-tech replacement for a textbook.

“We think in the short term the blended, flip-the-classroom model is going to be the one that’s most effective for the first generation, low-income students, the kind of students that we work for,” he said.”

[emphasis added]

Let me get this straight:  First generation college students get to earn degrees without reading, while kids whose parents know better get sent to real schools with required book lists?  What kind of education is an education without reading?  A lousy one, of course, but Coursera’s future profits depend upon a steady stream of eyeballs, not on whether the brains behind those eyeballs actually learn anything.  Therefore, the “customer” (who isn’t actually paying anything) is always right.  It’s this give-the-people-what-they-want mentality behind MOOCs that make them death to textbooks.

Honestly, I wouldn’t mind one bit if MOOCs only killed textbooks.  Textbooks are boring and almost nobody reads them – including the professors who assign them.  However, if MOOCs ever manage to killing reading in its entirety, I’m going to pack it in and find another line of work.  After all, how can you teach college history without monographs or English without novels?  In fact, how can you teach anything above an introductory course in any humanity without assigning required reading?

Of course you can’t, but maybe that’s precisely the point.

A dull, wonkish post about technology and historical research.

10 09 2012

Today I’m starting the second (and last) week of my research trip in and around DC. Last week I was at the Library of Congress. After I leave this Panera, I start in at Archives II, assuming I can figure out the bus schedule.

Most of the papers that I’ve been looking at have turned out to be obscure published speeches and government reports. As I don’t have much time here in the great scheme of things, I’ve found myself checking Google Books to see if everything in front of me was already there. Some of it was. Some of it wasn’t.

I can’t tell you what an enormous change this has been for me. Normally, I’d be taking everything I’m sure I’d use eventually up to the copier and copying like crazy. Now, the LOC has put in the best book scanners that I’ve ever seen (both in the Manuscript Reading Room and in Adams) which you can use for free as long as you have a thumb drive to store your results. Free stuff from the government! Somebody tell Paul Ryan!

I scanned a few pamphlets, but for visual material it’s just priceless. Indeed, I’m also deep in the throes of picking pictures for this book and I’ve basically had to go by memory. Next time it’s going to be different. Of course, this is all to save the spines of the books, but I still feel like I hit the lottery.

I may be alone in this feeling because it seems that most people have gone entirely to cameras. I’ve seen some mounted on tripods, while some people it seems just bring in the same $90 Samsungs that they use on their vacations and snap away. I even saw one woman snapping pictures of her microfilm reader. [It may sound logical, but it sure looks funny.]

I was prepared to start using a camera and a tripod before this sabbatical started, but a few weeks back I changed my mind. Most of the sources I’m using using are pre-1923 and published. Indeed, I really can download most of them for free with a lot less hassle.

For the one-of-a-kind published and archival material (and you know, as more books are becoming available to everyone this is what will set great works of history apart in the future) I’ve got Zotero, which still beats the heck out of note cards. This is going to be my first all Zotero book, and I’m certain it’s going to take months off the writing process. After all, it’s having intellectual control of your research that’s most important when technology makes it easy to flood you with material.

Perhaps it’s a sign of my advanced age that I’ve chosen to avoid swimming in document snap shots. When I do research, I actually enjoy reading what I find in folders rather than just snapping them or even trying to copy it all. In fact, I think I do some of my best thinking that way. And in case you didn’t notice, I hate reading off a computer screen when it can be easily avoided.

Is it any wonder then why I don’t want my entire job to turn out that way?

“Has he lost his mind?”

6 08 2012

So I signed up for a MOOC. Seriously. A History of the World since 1300, taught by Jeremy Adelman from a certain university located in my hometown of Princeton, New Jersey.

Why would I of all people do such a thing? Well, I’ve had something of a complex about my overspecialization in American history since my first teaching job at Whitman College. Unlike Wisconsin, which had Americanists coming out of its ears, Americanists were in the minority at Whitman so the old Europeanists teased me for having such a limited knowledge base. I’ve rectified that somewhat through independent reading, but I could definitely stand to learn more specific factual knowledge from outside my country of specialty.

Then I watched this TED talk by Coursera’s Daphne Koller and got a little excited. I had never seen so detailed an explanation of the mechanics of MOOCs, and it seems as if they’ve gone to great lengths to help students learn the kind of factual knowledge that I’m missing when it comes to world history.

Have I lost my mind? Nope. Am I pulling a Whittaker Chambers or a David Horowitz on the subject of MOOCs? Nope. As anyone who’s ever watched a TED video knows, there are parts of every such speech that make you want to take a hammer to your computer screen (and I’ll get to that one for me in this speech in just a second). However, as I’m on sabbatical for this coming this semester, learning world history seems like a good use for some of my extra time.* In fact, there’s a place on my annual performance review for extra education which I’ve never had occasion to mark before. I’m absolutely going to put this down.

So what’s the problem? Well, for starters the course has only one text and even that’s only recommended. Is there a history class anywhere in America (let alone Princeton) which has no required reading? Seriously, I have a question for all the education geniuses out there who want me to flip my classroom: When are students going to do the reading I assign them? After all, history is a literary art, not a trivia game.

Now here’s the part of that Daphne Koller video that came close to inspiring me to violence (my transcription):

“Well, of course, we cannot yet grade the range of work one needs for all courses. Specifically, what’s lacking is the kind of critical thinking work that is so essential in such disciplines as the humanities, social sciences, business and others. So we tried to convince, for example, some of our humanities faculty that multiple choice was not such a bad strategy. That didn’t go over really well.

[Audience chuckles]

So we had to come up with a different solution. And the solution we ended up using is peer grading. It turns out that previous studies show, like this one by Sadler and Good, that peer grading is a surprisingly effective strategy for providing reproducable grades. It was tried only in small classes, but there it showed, for example, that these student-assigned grades on the Y-axis are actually very well-coordinated with the teacher assigned grades on the X-axis. What’s even more surprising, self-grades, where students grade there own work critically – so long as you incentivize them properly so that they can’t give themselves a perfect score – are actually even better-correlated with the teacher grades. So this is an effective strategy that can be used for grading at scale and is also a useful learning strategy for the students because they actually learn from the experience.

I’ve covered this precise subject before, but this sounds even worse to me now than it did then. When testing becomes the be all and end all of American education at all levels, we act like it’s OK to care only about the math and not about actual learning.

How are students ever going to learn anything about critical thinking in any subject without good, thoughtful comments? The students are incentivized to get done with their peer grading as soon as possible because it’s not their grade. When I grade, my salary incentivizes me to actually explain to my students how to do better next time. As further incentive, when my comments actually help, it makes grading their papers easier in the future. That kind of attention will never scale up. Period.

I only worry if anyone will care. I guess I don’t care for purposes of what I want out of this class, but presumably I know something about critical thinking already.**

* No lazy professor jokes, please. As anyone who’s ever been on sabbatical knows, it’s not a work-free period. It’s a period when you do different kinds of work. I’ve been telling people that I’ll be a professional writer until January. I have a new research project to work on, but of course I’m going to write about taking this course too.

** If I can’t ace this course I’m going to be so ashamed.

Has it really come to this?

24 04 2012

If I were a good history blogger, I’d tell you about the two all-star Progressive Era politics panels I saw while I was at the OAH in Milwaukee last weekend. I’d mention that despite the aforementioned all-stars, the best paper I heard all weekend was from Khalil Gibran Muhammad, Director of the Schomburg Center For Research in Black Culture. Maybe I’d even throw in the fact that Daniel T. Rodgers lives in the house where I grew up.*

But I’m not a good history blogger. That’s why I bypassed a session on early 19th century industrialization so that I could watch two extremely dedicated (but also jaded) history professors from the College of Southern Nevada describe what it’s like to teach the U.S. survey online. Here is a selection of my three+ pages of notes:

* They test students’ ability to find correct, reliable information.
* Students have no clue what a reliable source is.
* Open book, open note testing is basically required [in an online course].
* “If we’re all doing a canned course, where is the student going to go who has a different learning style?”
* Teach a canned course and you’ll be bored the second time you do it.
* Your course always has to have a little bit of you in it.
* Start your course with a syllabus quiz.
* They have to tell students not to upgrade their browsers, otherwise they won’t be compatible with the LMS.
* You have to do your own tech support.
* You have to be available more than just office hours.
* One administrator there asked for “online office hours.” They revolted and won…for now.
* Self-paced students will skip around.
* Their LMS looks like someone else’s Google home page. [I think it was called “Angel.”]
* It is possible for students to see when you are online.

Now here’s the stuff that really got to me:

* “Students don’t read text.”
* They are conditioned to look for icons, so you have to include icons.
* Apparently the business school in Nevada is telling students that it’s OK to cut and paste from the Internet in their papers because that’s what you do in real life.
* You can’t have more than three paragraphs on any single page otherwise they won’t read it.

That last one is when I piped up, almost involuntarily. “Has it really come to this?,” I blurted out, without even raising my hand. “Yes,” they both replied in turn, it has.

In an excellent speech during one of those Progressive Era sessions, Jackson Lears from Rutgers quoted one of my favorite icons of that time, who I have mentioned elsewhere on this blog more than once. “Do not worry over the charge of treason to your masters, but be concerned about the treason that involves yourselves,” said Eugene V. Debs. “Be true to yourself and you cannot be a traitor to any good cause on earth.”

How anyone can teach online and still feel as if they’re being true to themselves completely beats me.

* Yes, I am from Princeton, but I prefer to say that I’m from New Jersey. Otherwise, it destroys whatever credibility I have with other members of the working class.

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