He’s leaving Coursera. That’s how it worked out.

17 07 2014

Please forgive me. This post is going to be more than a little self-serving, but as one of the very few people who actually completed Princeton Professor and Friend of this Blog Jeremy Adelman’s World History MOOC I think I’ve earned that privilege. I found this month-old Daily Princetonian article last night on the Twitterz;

Adelman agreed to teach the course for three years after which the University will conduct a thorough review of its performance. He said that he will offer the course next fall on a new startup platform NovoEd that allows for greater student engagement.

Adelman said that he considered the first year’s course a failure.

“Version 1.0 failed. I hadn’t realized how much the rituals of two physical lectures a week were like the spinal cord of the course,” he said. “It was like this blah course.”

Adelman said he also found that students were not engaging in the online discussion forums with non-University students, and many were not watching lectures regularly, waiting until right before the exams.

However, he said that he made adjustments to the course that resulted in very interactive projects and high participation, creating online blogs and project assignments that would be posted online.

Version 1.0 was, of course, the MOOC that inspired my 16-part critique of the class (which you can find here if you scroll down). I’d heard a lot of the stuff in that article exchanging e-mails with Jeremy and talking to him briefly after our AHA panel back in January, but I never heard him describe that course I took as a failure before.

I actually think he’s being more than a little hard on himself. The fault here lies not with the superprofessor or the students, but with the course design. And I’m not talking about the assignments which he has apparently tweaked and improved, but with the whole xMOOC-oriented similarity to his ordinary face-to-face World History class.

If you must MOOC, says me, then you really should blow the whole thing up and start the world afresh.  That means little or no lectures. With respect to history, this would make introductory courses an impossibility since students wouldn’t know the content otherwise. Coursera would hate it, but this structure could put the kind of global dialogue that Jeremy loves so much front and center. Imagine a worldwide research methods course during which students could share their findings with each other! Or even a historiography course in which students explain how historians from different lands around the world have confronted similar historiographic problems.

I remember trying to explain cMOOCs to Jeremy somewhere in the comments here that I won’t dig up. I hope that helped. Indeed, I’m delighted to see that he’s retained the rights to his own course, thereby making it possible for him to migrate to a better platform than Coursera for the kinds of really innovative pedagogy which he enjoys. I look forward to hearing about the details of the new course. Indeed, at this rate I may have to stop referring to Jeremy as a superprofessor.

Perhaps it’s not the MOOCs themselves are the problem then, but just the “massive” part. Or maybe even just the corporate part. These days, I actually think it might be interesting to design a non-massive, online history course that would supplement rather than replace other traditional history classes. Keeping to that principle would require what’s left of MOOCs to remain in the hands of caring faculty like Jeremy, rather than the folks down the road at Penn who have actually invested in Coursera, hoping to use West Philadelphia as a base to colonize the world.

MOOCs as pedagogical experiments rather than MOOCs as weapons. It could happen. Those nice Canadian people have been trying to do things that way for years. Jeremy’s Canadian. It all kind of makes sense now, doesn’t it?



6 02 2014

All of the papers from our MOOC forum at the American Historical Association about a month ago are now online at AHA Perspectives. Mine is here. This seems like a good place to thank David Mazel, Ian Petrie and especially Perspectives Editor Allen Mikaelian for helping make that essay the best it could be. However, it is no different than the version you may have already heard by playing the tape of the session.

The same thing is not true of Jeremy Adelman’s paper. You may remember, Jeremy got caught in Amtrak hell during an East Coast snowstorm and didn’t arrive at the room until very late in the program. Since he didn’t have time to deliver a full paper, this is the first place I’ve seen his written remarks.

Most of the essay explains the changes he made between the first version (the one I took) and the second version of his World History MOOC. Some things went better. Some things went worse. What I find extraordinary, however, is his theory as to why one important aspect of his MOOC got worse in version 2.0:

There are now 108 partners and almost 600 courses. There is a tendency to study (if you can use that word) extensively, not intensively.

This has changed the learning ecology because students online are less engaged in the active learning components than they once were when there were fewer courses. The online forum discussions, where Russians spoke with Brazilians, Americans with Indians, were once a vibrant and exciting component, but they’ve lost their energy. Whereas I once feared the forums would be Babelian, with many different voices talking past each other, my fear now is silence. Version 2.0 was, as far as student interactivity is concerned, a shadow of version 1.0.

[Emphasis added]

Honestly, I didn’t think Version 1.0 was all that interactive in the first place, but that’s not why I find this theory so interesting.

Jeremy is reminding us that no MOOC is really free. Students pay with their time (and, trust me, Jeremy’s class takes an enormous amount of time to even complete in a half-assed manner). With MOOCs of all kinds competing for the attention of the mostly white, male retired physics professors of the world, anybody expecting to rack up tens of thousands of eyeballs can’t ask too much of their students. Nobody wants to feel like a shirker, so thousands of students will undoubtedly rather enroll in the easy MOOC with no reading or writing requirements that they know they can complete than the hard MOOC that they’ll just surf through occasionally on the way to greener pastures.

Of course, since students pay for MOOCs with their time, they have to be the kind of students who have time to give. If Daphne Koller had her way, we’d all imagine the typical MOOC student as some impoverished under-schooled 18-year old with no access to schooling. In fact, those are precisely the kinds of people who would be least likely to afford the time, let alone the Internet connection to watch superprofessors do their thing. That’s why the typical active MOOC student is highly-educated and career-oriented. They have the time and especially the incentive to take advantage of everything that MOOCs have to offer. Lack these incentives and you’ll either a) Never watch a lecture to begin with or b) Give the next MOOC over a shot at keeping your attention.

I think Ann Little’s point about the problem of teaching controversial subjects in MOOCs also plays into this overall argument. While I covered it in my initial notes from the session, here’s the explanation in her prepared text:

The demands of the MOOC—particularly its massiveness—work against introducing students to the latest, cutting-­edge research and conversations happening in our profession because MOOC professors will be asked to offer only the broadest and most inoffensive courses out of fear that courses on certain subjects—­slavery or genocide; gender and sexual minorities; nonwhite people in general—won’t sell.

These are also the kinds of courses that are the most difficult to teach, even on a face-­to-­face scale, because of the various political views and life experiences of our students. As someone who teaches courses on women’s history, gender, and the history of sexuality, I have serious doubts about how much breadth and complexity MOOC history courses can offer.

Sexism? Too depressing. Change the channel. Racism? Too depressing. Change the channel. Genocide? Are you kidding me? I only want to take happy MOOCs! After all, life’s too short to spend the whole time bummed-out by history. Of course, the happy/sad dichotomy will more likely work itself out as a slow slide into banality as pressure from providers or university administrators to attract more possibly monetizable eyeballs leads superprofessors into injecting more and more of the MOOC equivalent of T&A into their classes.

Come to think of it, how long will it be until MOOC providers begin to inject actual T&A into their MOOCs? After all, if we’ve learned one sure lesson here in the early history of the Internet, the only way anyone can be certain to make money in this new medium is to sell pornography. Hopefully most of the superprofessors of today will quit long before that moment arrives. Unfortunately, I strongly suspect a few of them will go off and start their own edtech companies.

MOOOOOOOOOCS!!!: #AHA2014 edition.

4 01 2014

So we did our panel yesterday. The nice people at the History News Network (aka David Austin Walsh) did indeed film it, but they say the tape won’t be online until next week. In the meantime, I thought I’d just dump my (probably not all that accurate) notes from the presentations online while I’m breakfasting at Starbucks on my way to the library again, with just a couple of introductory remarks of my own for each speaker:

1) Philip Zelikow

For those of you who may have seen any of his MOOC, Philip really is that poised. He says he did multiple takes while filming those lectures, but I’m telling you he couldn’t have needed all that many. I was so grateful to him for coming because (for reasons I’ll explain below) without him most of the session would have been like the sound of one hand clapping:

MOOCs different from regular online courses.
14 weeks (the length of both his and Jeremy’s course) is highly unusual.
UVA does MOOCs for outreach.
“These [meaning MOOCs] are not cheap” if you want to do them well.
Huge #s are meaningless. How many people actually try out the course?
His course had 94 separate video segments. If the narrative arc worked some were as long as 30 mins.
90,000 people signed up.
15,000 people gave the course the old college try.
10,000 stuck with it.
5,000 of those were online auditors (weren’t taking the tests).
2,500 more were downloading and watching the segments offline.
“Most gratifying teaching experience of my entire life.”
Someone even sent him flowers [Unsolicited, of course].
This was an overload. As a dean, he isn’t even supposed to be teaching at all.
Advantages of MOOCs:
1) Allows for more elaborate integration of media.
2) Students can freeze on maps.
3) Students can learn at different speeds.
4) His students get the follow-up explanation from him, not the TA.
“In a way, I’m doing the TA sections.”
TAs are doing history labs, something new that wouldn’t happen otherwise.
Students self-report that they work 50% harder in his flipped course.
Is the pure online material useful? Yes, students in and out of UVA said it was highly enriching.
Flipping class is highly satisfying for everyone involved.

2) Me

Well, of course I couldn’t take notes on my own paper and (as I explained earlier this week) I can’t post it yet. For now, I’ll just say this: labor historian at heart that I am, I made the “MOOCs as scientific management argument,” comparing the “unbundling” of the historian’s job in the classroom to having Frederick Taylor stand behind you with a stopwatch. Break up any job, and you can pay the people performing the component parts less – often much less. The folks who were livetweeting me seemed to think I was being combative, but I really do understand that nobody interested in MOOCs welcomes the virtual equivalent of academic Taylorization. My fear is that if we really do leave everything to the market, we’ll get this outcome nonetheless.

3) Ann Little

It really is a privilege to be able to hang with Historiann in the non-virtual world. For those of you who have never met her, she does indeed talk like she writes in the sense that she is both incredibly astute and hilarious at the same time. Funny story: I was going to avoid using the word “superprofessor” with two of them in the room because I thought it was too inflammatory, but Ann just dove right in. Therefore, I lapsed repeatedly by the end of the session too:

What MOOCs can’t do well:

1) MOOCs obscure the real work of teaching.
2) MOOCs make it difficult to teach controversial content.
3) Compares the upcoming MOOC and in-class version of Stephanie McCurry’s slavery class at U Penn. [The MOOC version is much easier.]

Professors face attacks on their politics first to soften us up for later budget attacks.
Quotes my Provost on us only working three days a week.
Will superprofessors be too afraid to cover race?
Students need to hear other people talking about controversial material.
Given a say in the matter, would students only pick Whiggish studies of progress?
Would polarization occur in a gender or sexuality class?
Would the discussion boards in a class like that look like the angriest corners of the Internet in general?
How will McCurry monitor the shocking nature of the material on the discussion board?
McCurry at Penn: Six books, primary sources and discussion section.
Her MOOC appears to have nothing but online primary sources.
Real education requires skin in the game from both sides, both the teacher and the student.

4) Jeremy Adelman:

Jeremy’s plan was to take Amtrak down from Princeton to DC in the morning, but there was that big snowstorm in the Northeast the night before. I was getting optimistic travel updates from him by e-mail the night before, but they kept getting more pessimistic as the reality of Amtrak under stress began to sink in. I was kidding him about making a dramatic entrance from the back of the room, and it turns out that’s exactly what he did – straight from Union Station, about 25 minutes before the end of the session. I don’t think he even took off his coat before he started talking:

“My attitude is experimental”
Starts with the fact that he doesn’t want to ban students taking notes on laptops.
Didn’t want to have an adversarial relationship with his students.
[This explains his interest in the flipped classroom.]
Interested in the promise of global learning.
His hope was the world could talk to itself.
Papers were the part of the MOOC that worked the least well.
Forums worked in the sense that there was global dialogue.
The problem was that there was less dialogue between Princeton students and the world.
Second version of his MOOC had Princeton students blogging for the global audience.
Princeton students didn’t want to go out and engage the planet.
From flipped classroom at Princeton, students got a lot out of lectures for the first time in 25 years.
Most MOOCs give certificates. We gave nothing. Going to change that.
Lifelong learners take relatively passive attitude toward learning.
Going through college without learning how to write is a problem.
Jeremy also announced (quite offhandedly) that he’s leaving Coursera.

That’s it for me for now. Hopefully, I’ll get some time to write something more reflective about this next week, but my semester starts a week from Monday and I still have syllabi to write (during those three days that I’m actually working).

Peer grading (still) can’t work.

17 10 2013

I’ve been trying very hard not to sound smug lately. While the anti-MOOC bandwagon was once somewhat lonely, it now seems that just about everybody hates MOOCs now, the public, faculty, college presidents and even campus chief information officers. When I read stories like this, I try to remember that folks like Aaron Bady and Siva Vaidhyanathan were writing about the stupidity of MOOCs just as early as I was, and they were doing it far more eloquently than me as well.

What I hope has stood out in my coverage of this subject on this blog has been my tendency to get down in the weeds and explain exactly how MOOCs work. This was the product of my actually taking one. That led directly to one angle of MOOC criticism that I don’t think comes up nearly as often as it should: the obvious flaws in peer grading. Again, peer review is one thing – I use that strategy myself sometimes. However, letting students grade each other’s papers remains a fundamental dereliction of duty. After all, they don’t pay us to chat on Twitter all day, do they?

Yet peer grading survives. Indeed, a team of writing instructors at Ohio State seem to think they’ve made a big stride towards solving the problem with this strategy:

One way to improve peer grading in MOOCs could be to let students grade their peers who graded them.

That’s what a team of writing instructors at Ohio State University decided last spring when they were designing a massive open online course on rhetorical composition, known as WExMOOC.

They built a custom peer-grading system designed to assess not only the quality of the essays submitted by their MOOC students, but also the quality of the feedback that other students in the course contributed after reading the essays.

While the obvious question here is, “Who’s going to grade the grades of the graders?” and I love Frank Pasquale’s line about “graders all the way down,” this would help solve one problem I pointed out in IHE back in March:

Comments were anonymous so the hardest part of the evaluative obligation lacked adequate incentive and accountability.

Know that you’re grades are going to get graded and maybe – just maybe – you’ll do a better job.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t solve the even more obvious problem with peer grading: Students in a writing class aren’t qualified to grade writing (Otherwise, they wouldn’t have enrolled, would they?). Here’s me back in March again:

Good grading technique is difficult enough for graduate students to learn. Because of the size of the course I think I can safely assume that many of my fellow MOOC students inevitably had no history background at all, yet the peer grading structure forced them to evaluate whether other students were actually doing history right.

The implicit assumption of any peer grading arrangement is that students with minimal direction can do what humanities professors get paid to do and I think that’s the fatal flaw of these arrangements.

So why does peer grading continue? Follow the money. When you start with the assumption that your writing class has to have tens of thousands of people in it, then you structure your MOOC around being massive rather than how effectively it will teach writing. That’s why teaching a writing-based MOOC will always be a Devil’s bargain, but, unfortunately, so far the only people who pay the price are the students.

To be a superprofessor is an act of aggression.

11 07 2013

“Some may argue that MOOCs are not a proper substitute for college, but Koller noted that she would prefer to focus on the potential for students from emerging economies to get access to classes. ”It’s about, do you have an education at all,” she said.”

– Liz Gannes, “MOOC Madness Continues: Coursera Raises $43M,” All Things D, July 1, 2013.

Of course Daphne Koller would “prefer” to focus on students from emerging economies who have no access to education. That makes her company look like a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize. This tactic has already migrated down to the superprofessors who work for Coursera, as Mohamed Noor’s question here strongly suggests. In today’s IHE, MOLB reader Scott Newstok offers the perfect response to this tactic:

But to what are they being given access?

The answer to that question, of course, is educational content rather than an actual education. So if you want to educate the world, put your lectures up on YouTube and let Coursera/Pearson administer competency tests wherever those students happen to be. Don’t make a MOOC.

If you do make a MOOC, then you need to realize that there are serious repercussions to that act that affect many more people than just you and your students. I don’t expect Daphne Koller or any of her new backers to behave any differently than they’re already doing. She has obligations to her investors, and perhaps to her future stockholders as well. However, since anti-MOOC is now the hip thing to be, I’m warming towards a suggestion made by Benjamin Ginsberg:

Professors who lend their names and reputations to MOOCs should not be allowed to simply ignore how their lectures are used. Those willing to allow their lectures to replace real classes should be named, shamed and censured by their colleagues.

All this talk about access being the be-all and end-all of higher education at a time when one third of student loan borrowers don’t even earn a degree is beginning to make sick to my stomach. So here are my talking points for the shaming. Feel free to borrow, expand or add new ones in the comments or at your next annual meeting, no matter what your discipline happens to be.

I. To be a superprofessor is to stop teaching.

For sake of argument, let’s break teaching down to just two components: information provision and learning assistance. If you’re a superprofessor who records their lectures and sends them out in the world via MOOC, you probably flip your classroom, make students watch your lectures at night and have more time to provide learning assistance during class hours. What happens if your students don’t watch the lectures when they’re supposed to do so? This is what happened to my old superprofessor (scroll down) Jeremy Adelman:

He thought he was more present than ever in his Princeton students’ lives (“they see me on their laptops, they see me at the live dialogues, they get emails from me a lot more often”), but the student evaluations at the course’s end were “very mixed,” to which Adelman was unaccustomed.

“The one thing I learned about this experience is that the spinal cord of a conventional Princeton survey course like this one is the lectures,” Adelman says. “Once I took the spinal cord out, the course went quite gelatinous. It lost its structure. So I have to build it back in.” He also found that students fell behind watching the lectures in the week they were assigned for discussion in precepts. “That wasn’t good,” he says.

I would argue that this is the inevitable effect of unbundling yourself. You can’t build a spine back into a class if you’re not in the room when it’s supposed to happen. Dividing teaching into two tasks, let alone all the many tasks that might actually reflect absolutely everything we professors do all semester, is impossible because in reality we do many of those things at the same time. Just through the mere act of lecturing we provide content, evaluate learning by judging the response of our students, frame a class by deciding which content to provide and offer potential feedback by calling on people who may have questions about what we just said. To try to break those functions up into pieces is worse than pointless: It’s a disservice to the cause of real education.

That’s why anybody willing to do this should be called out. They’re cheating their students and not doing their jobs. It really is like the those old yellowed lecture notes, only more so. Students are smart enough to know what smells fishy and freezing your lectures in amber smells like a scam no matter how much attention you pay to some students in your class “breakout sessions.” There’s a reason Khan Academy started in secondary schools. Students won’t like paying a fortune in tuition to get their content from somewhere else, even if it is Harvard.

II. To be a superprofessor is to aid in the corporatization of higher education.

So Coursera got a lot more money. Where exactly does that money come from? Here’s the answer to that question in two tweets:

Seriously superprofessors, do you really want to work for these people? You know what, I’ll concede that Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller really do have the best interest of students at heart. Does Pearson? Does some Russian billionaire? [With the for-profit uni company I don’t even have to ask.] Who’s gonna win if a power struggle breaks out?

So while superprofessors tell themselves they’re expanding the reach of knowledge out into the world, what they’re really doing is contributing to the corporatization of higher education. The profits these investors seek won’t come out of thin air. They’ll come from “efficiencies” that destroy jobs and often cost students money, particularly during startup. In short, being a superprofessor is helping people whose politics you probably deplore by allowing them to monetize what should never be monetized.

You’re also helping my alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania. I hadn’t realized until reading this last round of news stories that Penn actually has an equity stake in Coursera. Now, this is where I’d usually make a lot of noise about never giving them another cent, but I don’t have any money to give them anyway.

What I will note is this, if you don’t work for Penn (or Caltech, another equity investor) and you offer a MOOC through Coursera, you have a conflict of interest. If I went out and taught for the University of Phoenix online during the semester, I’d be violating the terms of my contract. Why should teaching a MOOC for the benefit of Penn and Caltech be any different? Your university is actually paying in order to help schools like Penn take money that could be making your campus a better place for superprofessors and non-superprofessors alike. That’s why Penn is drafting a non-competition agreement for all its faculty to sign. They may be predatory in West Philly, but they aren’t stupid. And I bet they’ve trained all their superprofessors to tell you in great detail about all the benefits of access.

III. To be a superprofessor is an attack on your colleagues and your grad students.

You’ve heard of professors on food stamps, right? Don’t assume they’re just adjuncts:

Public university professors don’t enter the profession to get rich. But some faculty are having trouble paying bills, and have even qualified for foods stamps, [Randy] Olson [professor of astronomy and chair of UE Stevens Point’s Faculty Senate] said. “For somebody to go five to seven years beyond college to obtain a Ph.D. degree and to realize that you are in need of federal assistance to make ends meet — and that’s for a tenure-track position –” is devastating.

Along similar lines, I found this post to be particularly heartbreaking as well.

Now explain to me how your MOOC is going to do anything to improve these situations. On the other hand, I can see a million ways that it will make it much – much worse. Screaming “access” at those of us who point to the fact that profs gotta eat is just another way of saying you don’t care. It tells the world that you’re fine with introducing the winner-take-all ethos into higher education because you think you’re going to be a winner. Perhaps you are, but ignoring the losers is a sign of your own moral bankruptcy.

What’s that? You say you have no sympathy for those loser professors teaching at Directional State U.? How about your own grad students? That’s right, the people you’re training are the perfect candidates for being replaced by your MOOC long after you’re retired or dead. You’ve unbundled yourself, and can put your job back together again at a moment’s notice. Your grad students, assuming they’re lucky enough to get any job at all, will be unbundled involuntarily. As the seriously brilliant anonymous author of 100 Reasons Not to Go to Grad School explained it in Reason #82:

“Because of the enormous oversupply of PhDs (see Reason 55), people who once envisioned themselves lecturing in front of classrooms are being squeezed into teaching jobs in which much (if not all) of the “teaching” involves sitting at a computer. Even those jobs are scarce, and may become scarcer in the future as technological advancements allow fewer professors to teach more students.”

By helping to legitimize MOOCs, you’re destroying the quality of life for professors of all kinds moving forward. After all, there are only so many MOOCs that our little world can hold. By shunning you now, perhaps the rest of us faculty can do more than just save ourselves. We can prevent a dystopian, all-MOOC future for most students from occurring in the first place.

Besides, it’s not too late to change your position and reject superprofessordom moving forward. If you do, I guarantee that you’ll enjoy your next annual meeting a lot more than you would otherwise. In fact, I bet you’ll be treated like a hero! And, if you happen to be an historian…cough…Jeremy…cough…I promise to buy you a beer.

MOOC derangement syndrome.

11 05 2013

“My biggest fear, frankly, is not a fear connected to Penn at all…It’s a fear that thinking right now about higher education, and especially public higher education, is driven by logics of efficiencies, concerns about the spiraling costs of education, et cetera. And that, too rapidly, these [MOOCs] will be seen as ways of bending the cost curve. And that efficiencies, real or imagined, will become a device for withdrawal of support from high-quality education, and replacement of that experience with something that’s perhaps adequate, but not outstanding. I’m very, very concerned with the misuse of these technologies in a way that is viewed as a cheap way out.”

[emphasis added]

– University of Pennsylvania Provost Vincent Price in Trey Popp, “MOOC U.,” The Pennsylvania Gazette, March/April 2013.

I was cleaning out my old magazines earlier today and found the article quoted above (which tells you how closely I skim my old alumni magazines). On the one hand, it’s good to know that the chief academic officer of my alma mater shares my concerns about MOOCs. Unfortunately, you can still see hints of full-blown MOOC Derangement Syndrome in the lingering belief that sometime in the future MOOCs might actually equal the quality of face-to-face classes. Unless you offer massive numbers of students the same individual attention that all paying college students at least have the opportunity to receive, they will not be as effective educationally. You can come up with the greatest MOOC since sliced bread – not MOOC 2.0 but MOOC 177.0 – and MOOCs will still have this problem because massiveness is a feature of MOOCs, not a bug.

Take the MOOC I know best, Jeremy Adelman’s World History class. I read last week that the completion rate in that course was 0.8%. My theory for why that class was the lowest of the low is that Jeremy wanted to make his MOOC as close to the Princeton experience as possible. That’s why he assigned MOOC students six essays. Students not only had to write them, they had to peer review other people’s work in order to see their own grades. While this might not equal the load in the Coursera Machine Learning MOOC, it’s still a lot of work for someone who might have signed up just to hear nice lectures about the Mughal Empire. Sure, these students won’t learn as much, but you’re still giving the people what they want.

Again, this is a feature of MOOCs, not a bug. From the same article about MOOCs at Penn, here’s Coursera’s Daphne Koller:

“Unbundling is a good thing,” Koller says, “because it allows you to extract units from courses that are of value in and of themselves, and provide them for students.

Presumably peer grading is going to go the way of the dodo because very few people seem to want to participate in that activity. But wait!:

Recently, peer assessments have been the focus of extended research as an outgrowth of the remarkable help some MOOC students gave their classmates via discussions and ad-hoc learning groups. When a class grows to over 1,000 students, Stanford professors found that students tend to support each other and rely less on the staff for answers to their questions. For example, the first Stanford AI class taught by Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvik featured one (yes, 1) teaching assistant.

What if students could be even more active? Could they be taught to grade the work of their peers?

Um…no. First we had the magic rubric. Now we have the magic carrot to get students to read the magic rubric even more closely. If the course is unbundled so that students don’t have to do every part of it, they will have no incentive to do all the work. If the students do not know the subject they are grading, there is no way they will ever be able to grade as well as a trained professor. That’s why the rush to redefine MOOC completion rates vs face-to-face completion rates is in full swing. Because it’s obvious that MOOC completion rates will never get better. Low numbers are a feature of MOOCs, not a bug.

Which brings me back to my illustrious alma mater. From the same article:

Penn has a nonexclusive agreement with Coursera. “We put our energy into this partnership,” he says. “It makes sense to play this out in a way that benefits both Coursera and Penn. But if at any point the company moves in a trajectory that’s not consistent with our mission, there’s really nothing lost by that. And to some extent one could imagine a scenario where our investment in that company proves to have been a wise investment in a financial sense, even if we part ways and move in very different directions.”

Let’s imagine a scenario in which Coursera does something unspeakably awful for education. Penn says, “We’re going to take our MOOC business somewhere else.” Not only is Coursera still around to keep doing that awful thing, Penn will presumably still be in the MOOC business. If you’ve accepted the notion that the university making a profit from education is compatible with Penn’s mission, I don’t see how it’s ever possible for a partner like Coursera to ever do anything that contradicts with that mission.

After all, the primary market for Penn MOOCs is the rest of us, not Penn students. Price can always protect them from the Big Bad Wolf, but not students and faculty outside of West Philly. In other words, MOOC derangement syndrome, the irrational belief that MOOCs can one day be just as good as face-to-face classes, is a very convenient syndrome to have if your professors aren’t the ones at risk for being unbundled.

“Once I took the spinal cord out, the course went quite gelatinous.”

10 05 2013

You should really go read Jeremy Adelman dissect his own World History MOOC over at the Princeton Alumni Weekly. As an added bonus, you can read me say the exact same things I’ve been writing here for almost a year now.

The MOOC monster will never be satisfied.

26 04 2013

“Money always has the potential to become a moral imperative unto itself.  Allow it to expand and it can quickly become a morality so imperative that all others seem frivolous in comparison.”

– David Graeber, Debt: The First 5,000 Years, p. 319.

There’s been something of an explosion in professor-as-student MOOC blogging lately. The first one I ever saw was Laura Gibbs writing about the Coursera Fantasy MOOC. My posts on Jeremy Adelman’s World History MOOC (scroll down a bit) benefited immeasurably from Jeremy Adelman’s active participation in the comments. Steven D. Krause is blogging the Duke Composition MOOC, which is an immeasurable service to people like me who don’t see how a composition MOOC is even possible. There’s even an online site now with nothing but MOOC news and reviews (called, fittingly, MOOC News and Reviews).

What all these efforts have in common is a desire to explain the mechanics of how MOOCs work, and to make earnest suggestions for their improvement or improved use on campus.  Krause, for instance, suggests this scenario:

“What if a student could put together a portfolio from one of these MOOCs and use that body of work to place it into a particular level of first-year writing or out of the requirement entirely?  I don’t see how Coursera makes a ton of money from that, but it at least is a use for Coursera.”

Aye, there’s the rub.  While this does indeed seem like a reasonable use for a composition MOOC, Coursera and its ilk will never be satisfied with such a small, comparatively non-renumerative market.  After all, the company has investors to please.  That’s why the MOOC monster will never be satisfied until it takes over all of academia.

You can see more than a tacit acknowledgement of this in the rhetoric of people who urge faculty to dip there toes into online waters before the sharks take over the entire ocean.  Pat Lockley, writing in Hybrid Pedagogy, compares educational technology to the development of the machine gun.  “If you’re willing to hold the revolver,” he argues, “then you must be willing to hold the machine gun.”  [Having just made it through David Graeber’s amazing book, Debt: The First 5,000 Years, all this talk about economics and guns seems particularly apt.]   “To do nothing,” Lockley suggests, “is to let…others have dominion over your pedagogy.”

Well…sort of.  I agree, in the sense that if faculty keep their heads in the sands and keep teaching the way they’r professors taught, they’ll likely be overwhelmed by technological developments that will ruin the economic viability of college teaching of all but the most super of super professors.  I also agree that if you use technology, it can significantly improve the teaching of any subject.  However, to conclude from this analogy that MOOCs are higher education’s one inevitable future is a mistake of historic proportions.  “The real story behind MOOCs,” explains Tarak Barkawi at Al Jazeera English:

“may be the ways in which they assist management restructuring efforts of core university practices, under the smile-faced banner of “open access” and assisted in some cases by their “superstar,” camera-ready professors.”

In other words, bring in the machine guns and we all may just end up shooting ourselves in the foot.

Longtime readers know that when it comes to the war against MOOCs, I am hardly a pacifist.  Of all those MOOC narratives I listed in the first paragraph to this post, I think mine is the closest to being unremittingly hostile.  Yes, I think MOOCs are good for teaching a limited number of things in a limited number of ways, but I believe that no matter how many tweaks you put on them they will never be ready for prime time.  In other words, they can never be allowed to replace real college courses.  Every student deserves access to a professor, both for personal and pedagogical reasons. To abandon that principle, particularly out of naked self-interest, is simply a recipe for disaster.

That’s why we have to keep on MOOC providers to do the kind of things that are good for education, but not necessarily good for their bottom lines because they certainly aren’t doing those things now.  When Laura Gibbs examined the Coursera Science Fiction and Fantasy MOOC after taking it, she found that it hadn’t really changed at all. The moment when I got closest to trolling Jeremy Adelman rather than critiquing his MOOC occurred when he explained to the class that he was only going to reshoot a few of his lectures again because despite the fact that you couldn’t possibly find a more dedicated teacher in this world, he still expected his MOOC to run itself.

When you think about it though, this attitude makes sense.  Coursera is a business. Businesses are in the business of making money.  Reshooting lectures or redesigning courses takes time, money or both.  Since Coursera has a virtual monopoly on humanities MOOCs, there is no competition nipping at their heels.  Their staff, therefore, can devote the majority of their time to expanding their offerings rather than doing quality control.

There’s a part in Debt where David Graeber notes that in order to complain to a king about their policies you have to speak the king’s language.  In this case, the language of all our rulers is money.  Pleas about the need to improve the quality of education might as well be Greek to them.  We can make all sorts of reasonable suggestions about how the quality of MOOCs can be improved, but the private companies that provide those services have no incentive to take them seriously as long as we treat their coming as inevitable, the only outcome of higher education reform even worth considering.

This poses a potential problem.  Inviting an insatiable, giant, man-eating, tennis-playing blancmange to your party is stupid enough, but if you have to be that dumb then at least lay down some ground rules.  For example, don’t let the monster eat you out of house and home. Don’t let them eat any of your other party guests either.  If the monster can’t abide by those simple ground rules, then somebody is going to have to keep a weapon around in order to slay the beast because I can pretty much assure you that it will not go quietly.

Teaching in a straitjacket.

7 03 2013

The robot currently filing columns for the New York Times under the byline “Tom Friedman” is VERY EXCITED ABOUT MOOCS!!!:

We demand that plumbers and kindergarten teachers be certified to do what they do, but there is no requirement that college professors know how to teach. No more. The world of MOOCs is creating a competition that will force every professor to improve his or her pedagogy or face an online competitor.

In other words, the forces of the free market will unleash an army of truly super superprofessors who will join together to educate the world!!!

Thank goodness for Jeremy Adelman. While the Fried-bot was pontificating at a partially-off-the-record conference in Cambridge, he was publishing actual statistics from his MOOC in AHA Perspectives* that allow us to put this thesis to the test:

The gist of the course for Princeton students (weekly readings, papers, exams) did not change. For Coursera, I assigned fortnightly papers of 750 words each to be peer-reviewed. Any student who completed a paper by the due date was expected to assess five papers submitted by classmates. They had a week to write a paper and a week to assess their peers. In the end, 1,963 discrete “users” submitted over 5,000 essays and participated in almost 30,000 evaluations.

To make sense of those numbers, you also have to know that Jeremy’s course topped out at somewhere around 92,000 students. That means that the percentage of students who completed even one of the course assignments was incredibly low, way below the Mendoza Line. To accept that as a mark of success would mean accepting what the guy who lost Florida to Al Gore in 2000 once called “the soft bigotry of low expectations.”

Does this mean that Jeremy failed as a superprofessor? Absolutely not. As Phil Hill reminds us, students enter MOOCs for different reasons and therefore participate in different ways. What it does mean though is that MOOCs are not nearly as effective as actual college courses at getting students involved in every aspect of higher education. That’s why nobody I know is saying, “Kill all the MOOCs,” but they are saying don’t let MOOCs replace traditional higher education entirely because free online education isn’t there yet. I don’t think it can ever get there, at least not for humanities courses.

Jeremy is much more optimistic. However, he is also smart enough to be able to spot the existing flaws in his current course design:

For Coursera students, peer assessment needs upfront tutoring. It is not a natural skill; it cannot develop organically within the timeframe of an accelerated 12-week semester without frustration and attrition. With time, students did learn to evaluate each other, and by the end many students did feel they had gained from the exercise of writing and assessing six essays. But there was too much stumbling around in the dark as I learned along the way.

Does this mean that Jeremy believes in the magic rubric? I don’t think so. It seems more like he wants every participating student to get their own TA. If that’s true, I hope that Princeton is willing to put up the money for all that extra labor because I’m pretty sure that Coursera won’t or they’ll never be profitable.

That for-profit business model is like a straitjacket that will prevent Jeremy from doing what has to be done for the MOOC experience to measure up to what his on campus students get from him semester after semester. It’s not like he’s tightly bound and hanging upside down off the top of a building, but he’s bound nonetheless.

Perhaps Jeremy can wriggle out of his straitjacket and make his MOOC work as well as his other classes, but there was only one Houdini. To think that every superprofessor in every discipline cares as much as Jeremy and will therefore match whatever pedagogical success he achieves while working within the constraints of the MOOC format either makes you an ideologue or a fool.

I’ll let my readers decide which one of those labels best applies to the Fried-bot.

* It’s currently for subscribers only. If I remember the AHA’s system correctly it will be free access starting in April 2013.

Black is white. Up is down.

27 02 2013

“Daphne Koller even argued that large online classes are better than small classes because when you have the students do the grading and the feedback, the quality of the responses goes up and the time for responding goes down.”

– Bob Samuels, “Report from Little Hoover: Standing in Front of the Online Train,” Changing Universities, February 27, 2013.

For now, I’ll simply note that my experience in Jeremy Adelman’s World History Coursera MOOC demonstrated almost the exact opposite. I’m hoping that you all will be able to read my extended thoughts on the subject of peer grading one of these days, but since I’m told they will actually be published somewhere other than this blog I have no control over exactly when they will appear.

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