So I signed up for another MOOC…

14 01 2013

Don’t be alarmed. There will be no new 16-part series of the entire process because I have my own three classes to teach starting later today. I just wanted to see how Philip Zelikow of the University of Virginia handles the structural issues surrounding his World History MOOC and maybe check out his lectures on some of my favorites subjects like industrialization and World War I.

Even though the class just started today, I can see major differences with my last MOOC already. For one thing, Zelikow isn’t using peer grading. Instead, MOOC student grades are based on long (at least compared to Jeremy Adelman’s class) multiple choice tests. On the one hand, as a believer in good writing I should find that appalling. On the other hand, peer grading in the Adelman MOOC was such a disaster (at least IMHO) that I actually understand his decision. This doesn’t mean I want to give anyone college credit based on their performance, but I do understand why Zelikow went this route.

The other major difference is only obvious because I’ve been in contact with Zelikow already and he was nice enough to send me his on-campus syllabus.* He is doing what they call in the trade these days a “flipped classroom.” In other words, his students at Virginia are watching the exact same MOOC lectures that the Coursera students are. In other words, the University of Virginia is both a producer and a consumer of Zelikow’s MOOC materials.

UVa isn’t hiring adjuncts and grad students to do the teaching dirty work here. As Zelikow’s syllabus explains:

“[E]ach discussion section will be in a classroom of no more than sixty students. It will be led by the professor, not a TA.”

This is a good thing. Think how easy it would be to immediately double or quadruple the size of the class. Despite the obvious, immediate cost-savings adjuncts could bring here, Zelikow and UVa are talking the more expensive way out. After bitching for three months about how nobody taking Jeremy’s MOOC had a living, breathing professor helping them out, the on-campus MOOC students at UVA will have Zelikow himself. How can I possibly complain about that?

But what’s going to happen on all those campuses where Zelikow isn’t available? As far as I know, cloning him isn’t option. For any other campus, this flipped classroom would become a “wrap-around.” That means they would farm out their content creation to Zelikow and Coursera while local faculty would just lead discussion sections. Six community college faculty members in an absolute must-read at IHE today explain the problem with that arrangement:

In the meantime, our job as professors, according to the dictates of the emboldened technocrats, is to become rope-makers for our own professional hangings. The debate here is not really one about technology and higher education, as most of us know that online education is now a permanent part of the educational landscape with legitimate uses. No, what this MOOC debate is about is whether we blithely open the door to the gutting of what is most precious about what we do.

No self-respecting tenure-track historian would allow their content creation to be farmed out off campus because picking what they teach is what makes the job fun. Besides, as I’ve explained before, content knowledge is what makes Ph.D.s worth our salaries. Without it, we’d all be paid like high school teachers or even worse. Despite Zelikow’s excellent intentions, this is how the debundling of the history professoriate begins.

Look for more occasional updates about this MOOC coming eventually, but this time I’m conceding immediate failure before I ever begin. Sure, I feel guilty about contributing to the ruination of the course retention numbers, but at least I’m doing it in the name of quality blogging.

* Which, by the way, I describe and quote with his permission.

World History MOOC Report 13: In which I violate one of Richardson’s rules.

26 11 2012

“Please remember that your professors are human and it’s hard work to stand in front of a hundred pairs of eyes and talk for an hour. In the last decade, students seem more and more to regard us as if we’re behind a screen, and seem to think they can talk, read, sleep, or just stare at us glassy-eyed without it having any effect on our performance. This is a shared enterprise. It’s hard to lecture to an apparently disinterested sea of eyes. If you don’t think a lecture hall is intimidating, take a minute after class some day to stand behind the podium and look at all those seats. Then imagine holding the attention of everyone in those seats for an hour, two days a week. Wouldn’t it be easier if the people there seemed interested? You don’t have to act like you’re watching U2, but do try to make it clear your heart hasn’t actually stopped beating.”

– Heather Cox Richardson, University of Massachusetts, from “Richardson’s Rules of Order.”

I like that quote well enough that I use it on my U.S. survey syllabus (with attribution). I’ve spent far too much time freaking out about the effect of technology that I don’t control on my classroom, so my general solution is to meet students half way.* Put on a good show, and I can hopefully command their attention. As a result, students should learn much more than if they spend fifty minutes a week playing with their phones while I drone on in the background.

Superprofessors can put on a good show too, but they have no way of knowing whether their show is being well-received. Apart from the labor implications, I think what bothers me most about MOOCs is the general tendency from Coursera and elsewhere not to care how their courses are being received? You’re dropout rate is 95%? “Don’t worry,” they tell us. “It’s just a MOOC.” Perhaps that’s because one of the most appealing things about MOOCs from a financial standpoint is that once you’ve got the superprofessor on tape, you don’t have to change the lectures at all. The whole machine can run itself. Any impetus to make contact with the instructor has to come from students or no contact will occur at all.

Much to his credit, Jeremy Adelman is doing his best to overcome this structural defect for his world history MOOC. If you want to reach him, you can find him in the forums fielding questions. If you want to send him tiny parachutes of pedagogical wisdom (just like in “The Hunger Games”), you can find him on this very blog.

Which is why I’m writing about my decision to violate my favorite of Richardson’s Rules of Order with some trepidation. You see, I didn’t do anything at all on the MOOC last week. First I had to finish proofing my book manuscript; then, like a third of the population of the state of Colorado, I got the stomach flu. Then I spent Thanksgiving weekend with my in-laws on the top of a mountain outside of Boulder. Now I’m looking at four plus hours of lectures to get through even though I have a faculty development grant due today as well as other forms of non-teaching related bureaucracy.

My solution is that as soon as I finish typing this post I’m going to treat Jeremy like a podcast. He’ll be talking away on my office computer while I type away at something else on my laptop. I know Jeremy doesn’t mind – What’s he going to do, fail me? – but I’m still bothered by the whole thing because I believe in the bond between professor and student. I’m going to break that bond because I have to and because I can.

How is this different from the problems that Richardson confronts in her rules for face-to-face classes? Even in an ordinary online class, the professor is tracking the progress of all the students in the class. They might not read every comment on the discussion forum, but they at least know how many times each student has logged into the LMS. Despite Jeremy’s efforts, he can’t be everywhere at once. He’s a superprofessor, not Superman.

It’s not just that you’re on your own kid in a MOOC. It’s that the powers that be don’t really care whether you finish the course or not. That strikes me as a monumental change in the assumptions behind higher education about which I have seen absolutely no comment. It reminds me of the Clinton/Republican position on welfare reform. Education is now a “hand up” if you’re willing and able to take it rather than an obligation upon society to help you. Why any so-called “liberal” academic would accept this paradigm shift is completely beyond me.

Perhaps they’re all “well-meaning liberals” in the Mario Savio sense of that phrase. We all know how Clark Kerr’s university-as-firm vision has worked out, don’t we? Why on earth would we want that firm to get even more impersonal?

* That’s also my solution to the student reading problem, as I explain today in a new post at the blog of the Historical Society.

World History MOOC Report 12: In which I am in a state of confusion.

14 11 2012

I am probably the luckiest MOOC slacker in the entire world. I looked at writing assignment 4 a couple of days ago. Two of the three questions made me scratch my head and go, “When did we ever even cover that subject?” The other one was about the Industrial Revolution. I actually know something about the Industrial Revolution. I wrote my 750 word essay in half an hour and submitted it about two weeks early.

This doesn’t mean that I have put nothing Jeremy has taught me to use. I actually opened up a new tab during the last industrialization lecture and wrote down the following points in Evernote for future use:

Organic power switches to inorganic power.
Instead of locating plant near energy source, the energy can be moved to the plant.
Use that Peter Breughel peasant Image to illustrate the pre-industrial norm?

I also had an earlier note about railroads as being the result of engines getting small enough that they could became mobile. Jeremy, I promise that if M.E. Sharpe does give me the contract to write that early-nineteenth century industrialization prequel that I wrote a proposal for a few weeks ago, you will be prominently featured in the acknowledgements because this MOOC has really helped. I find it interesting that the stuff I remember best is about the material I knew the most about going in rather than the least. In terms of personal practicality then this MOOC stuff has been a remarkable success.

However, Jeremy’s platform really isn’t serving the cause of global education very well at all. I’ve already complained about the old method of lecturing not fitting the new MOOC delivery system. As I’m writing about the assignments, I want to elaborate on how much I miss having a syllabus to fall back upon.

The class does have an announcements page. When Hurricane Sandy led Jeremy and folks to add a few days to the last assignment, that announcement appeared there. It also came via e-mail. The revised schedule appeared there, but that schedule keeps dropping further down the page the more announcements there are. There’s a page where the writing assignments are listed with links where you can submit your work and see your grades, but those assignments are just numbered and lettered. They aren’t even labeled by the question which means that I had the darnedest time remembering what the last question I answered happened to be.

Even when you find your question, you have to keep going returning there over a two-week period as the assignment progresses. It all makes me wonder whether some of these people who aren’t submitting assignments have the time to do the work, but they’re just boycotting the amazingly bad interface they’d need to master to get full credit (if there even is such a thing in a MOOC).

Even before Jeremy began reading this blog, I particularly enjoyed reading his weekly e-mails because they made me feel less like a number. While he doesn’t really address the class directly on video, he clearly writes his own e-mails. This helps bring a personal touch to a rather soulless system. Yet the extension e-mail was about a paragraph long, and I believe that there was no weekly e-mail at all again last week. This seems particularly unfortunate as that e-mail certainly could have helped me navigate my assignment due date related confusion.

A few days ago, while searching for the best way to contact my satellite TV company, I discovered a website called Speaking of world history, I’m old enough to remember the days that when it was something of a scandal that your customer service operator might be talking you from Delhi, India instead of Terre Haute, Indiana. Now we’re just happy to get a human, any human at all.

Maybe there should be a site called for students who feel alienated by the impersonal nature of the MOOCS that Coursera offers us. I feel very fortunate to have this platform which my superprofessor reads. What avenues do the other 81,999 students in my course possess?

World History MOOC Report 11: In which I have too much time on my hands.

9 11 2012

So I’m writing this post from a cheap hotel out by the highway in Lafayette, Indiana.* When I got back yesterday afternoon after a long day of research I thought I’d take care of my self-imposed MOOC-related responsibilities for the week before I did some other work and went to bed, when I realized that watching these videos was taking an incredibly long time.

Part of this was definitely the quality of the free wifi here. The thing buffered every minute or two for a few seconds. But then I took a look at the video listings and did some quick math in my head. The parts of the first lecture of the week added up to about seven minutes more than the first lecture of the week! That’s when I started experimenting with speeding Jeremy up to 1.25x and then 1.5x speed. That button is right there at the bottom of my pop-up screen, but then I felt guilty as I kind of know Professor Adelman now (at least just a little bit). Therefore, I just listened to him talk the way that God and Coursera intended me to hear him.

This does raise an interesting point, though. Ordinary professors are bound by the constraints of the periods that separate their classes from other classes. Superprofessors have no such constraints. After all, what are you gonna do? Demand your money back?

When I have too much time on my hands like yesterday, this is definitely a good thing but I wonder how people who are a lot more pressed for time than I am feel when they realize that this week’s lectures are going long. To compound the matter, Jeremy was recommending lots of outside reading books in this weeks’ first lecture. They were excellent recommendations (I need to sit down and actually read Alexis de Tocqueville straight through myself someday), but it makes you wonder exactly who is this class aimed at. Is it supposed to be fun extra learning for busy professionals and retirees or a substitute for college?

Apparently, Clay Shirky explained which students that Coursera is counting on at the opening session of Educause the other day:

The missing piece is a caveat in Coursera’s terms of service that prohibits the use of Coursera’s MOOCs for anything but informal education.

“You may not take any Online Course offered by Coursera,” stipulate the terms, “or use any Letter of Completion as part of any tuition-based or for-credit certification or program for any college, university, or other academic institution without the express written permission from Coursera.”

In other words, they’re not going to make any money unless their free product is a college substitute. If students speed all their superprofessors up to 1.50x, they could all shave fifty percent off the time they need to get their degrees. That’ll solve the college cost crisis!**

PS to Jeremy: Tell Dan that when you say that a map is particularly important, he should probably be absolutely certain that the audience at home can actually read the names of the countries and cities on it.

* FWIW, Purdue has the nicest food court in its student union that I have EVER seen. I am so jealous.

** Assuming superprofessors like Jeremy don’t spoil the party by making their lectures fifty percent longer than regular face-to-face classes are.

World History MOOC Report 10: In which I look on the bright side (sort of).

2 11 2012

If you haven’t checked out the comments to this post in which I discuss MOOC pedagogy with Jeremy Adelman, you really should. If nothing else, he’s given me an enormous amount of material for a week with no lectures. Like this:

I think you are giving a partial representation of a more complex story that would involve the multiple tiers of students, some auditing, some doing the full-bore (as it were). The submission levels are low compared to what? Compared to all enrolled? Or compared to other MOOC’s? What we know about MOOCs is that they all have very high attrition rates and uneven participation rates. My main concern is that people understand the principle of reciprocity so that peer support and assessment doesn’t run into free-riding; which is not the same as more passive forms of using the course, like watching the lectures no more.

This came in response to my second mention of the poor response rate from my fellow students on the first writing assignment. Jeremy (and some new commentators on this blog) have been suggesting that there are multiple levels of engagement in a MOOC and that we should celebrate that for increasing engagement with the humanities, and world history in particular. That works for me. Despite my carping, I’ve come to enjoy my MOOC experience more the closer it gets to my period of expertise. I particularly enjoyed Adelman’s discussion of building national identities around the world during the Nineteenth Century and his brief history of the American West in global perspective.

The problem with this kind of cheeriness, however, is that even as some parts of American higher education reach for a broader audience, those parts are nonetheless doing their best to eat the lunches of those of us left in the vast MOOC-less wasteland. Mills Kelly described this process quite succinctly a few days ago:

Why are we in trouble? The answer is both simple and very complicated. The simple answer is that institutions with much better brands than ours have thrown themselves head first into the MOOC swamp and already we are seeing signs that in the coming year or two many, if not most (or even all) of these institutions will find ways to offer academic credit for what are now free courses. Once that happens, our students are going to vote with their feet (or fingers on keyboards) and will start taking increasing numbers of courses from these institutions–both because these courses are convenient, and because they are from institutions with better brands.

When that happens, we can expect that more and more of our students will be presenting us with transcripts from Stanford, Penn, Michigan, the University of Virginia, and other similarly better known competitors, and demanding that we accept these courses toward our degrees.

Actual enrollment in an actual MOOC has made me more optimistic than that for two reasons. 1) If actual professors review the course structures of these MOOCs for which they are supposed to award credit, they’ll see that they differ greatly from the brand images of the institutions that hosted them. [“So you took a history course from Princeton, but there was no required reading?”] and 2) I don’t think most college students will pick this kind of education if given a real choice because it is impersonal, superficial (since drilling down in history requires reading and real time responses), but still incredibly time consuming.

Professor Adelman is doing the best he can to create a worthwhile experience, but the format in which he’s operating has made it very difficult for me to see any of the pedagogy which he tells us he’s considered. As Alan Levine put it in a post I read yesterday:

…I have the question of how video lectures of people reading content is really going to play in parts of the the world where connectivity is not what it is in Palo Alto.

And is this really the best learning we can give the world? Lectures, machine grading, and multiple guess? Really? Check the century on your digital watch, Socrates.

In short, it’s not the MOOCs that I’m afraid of – it’s the people who insist on making their declarations that MOOCs are the future a self-fulfilling prophecy. Some of them actually have the power to make that happen.

World History MOOC Report 9: In which I prefer peer evaluation to peer grading.

29 10 2012

For the uninitiated, let me try to explain the process by which the assignments in my world history MOOC work. Students have a week to answer one of three questions with a 750-word essay. The guidelines for writing the essays stress all the important things: Evidence, argument, not plagiarizing. So far, I think, all the questions have been one sentence long.

You can type your essay right onto the Coursera site, but I’ve found it much easier to write mine in Word and cut-and-paste it into the box once it’s ready. Before you submit, you have to pledge that your work is your own. You can even go back and change your essay after you’ve submitted it as long as it’s still before the due date.

Once you’ve submitted your essay, it’s your responsibility to grade the essays of five other students over the course of the seven days following the deadline. You use the 0-3 scale that I’ve mentioned earlier. You award three grades: one for evidence, one for argument and one for exposition. There’s a space for anonymous comments, and also a place where you can leave your initials and your location if you so choose. Once you’re done, you see your essay again and you do the same thing to your own essay. You can even leave yourself comments! You get your grade back a week after you turn in the paper. I haven’t paid much attention to the math involved, but every single grade (your peers’ and your’s) is used to determine your final numerical grade.

On the one hand, there’s something incredibly appealing about students anonymously reading other students’ papers. I do something like this all the time in class, and am constantly stymied by the unwillingness of students to be critical of one another, especially when the author is in the room. This system could prevent that. It also saves the time during class that students spend reading each others’ work. This way they’d get more and probably better evaluations than they would ever get in a 50-minute class period.

On the other hand, when you move from peer evaluation to peer grading I still have many problems. I find the notion that students can grade their own work even for just a portion of their eventual final grade and get college credit for that to be too utopian to take seriously. And as I’ve already suggested before, there’s something insulting to professors about any system that suggests that anyone can grade. Let me explain how this played out in practice for me on the second assignment in order to illustrate my point.

The last one of my five peer papers was my first example of plagiarism. As a huge fan of Laura Gibbs’ Coursera Fantasy blog, I was fully prepared for such an occurrence. Even if I hadn’t expected this, just think about the audience. As I learned last summer while teaching in South Korea, there are huge differences in what constitutes plagiarism across cultures.

We students got very little guidance as to what plagiarism is. I spend at least ten minutes in class a semester on this subject, but all I remember reading was a few lines at the bottom of the writing guidelines and what’s in the pledge. Why spend more time on plagiarism? My example was hardly clear cut. Unlike the usual examples of plagiarism that I see when grading, a single word that I know the average college student would never use in any context did not set me off. This time the alarm bell sounded because the essay was almost completely off topic. When I Googled a uniquely-constructed sentence, I came to a year-old blog post. While the “works cited” section listed that blog post and noted that the author and the student were in fact the same person, none of the words duplicated in both essays had quotation marks in the assignment.

Can you plagiarize yourself? Leaving aside the actual answer to that question, where does the average MOOC student go for guidance if they’re faced with this kind of dilemma? The whole point of a MOOC is that the machine is supposed to run itself, but effective grading requires knowledge and experience that students and their peers don’t have. I decided to give the essay mostly “1”s for its off-topic character and to explain that some people might define this as plagiarism in by far the longest comment that I’ve written for this course.

To fully understand my decision here, you also need to understand what I think the problems are with the assignment itself. Jeremy tells us that a lot of thought went into the design of these assignments, and again I believe him. [It’s the parts that resemble traditional history classes that I don’t think have been changed enough.] However, this kind of assignment has the feel of being designed by committee because it doesn’t know what it is.

Is it the equivalent of a blue book essay? Sort of, but there’s a section for “works cited” at the bottom of the paper submission form. Not footnotes. Just works cited. Is it a research paper then? If so, why are we frequently reminded that we need to rely on the knowledge that we all hold in common from class in order to make the peer grading system work? But how can we cite the textbook then if the textbook is not required reading for the course? If forced to choose, I’d pick blue book essay over research paper if only because I wouldn’t want to teach proper footnoting techniques to 82,000 people. In my case, I pretty much have to treat it like a blue book exam essay since I don’t have the textbook and the forums aren’t really helpful for answering the essay questions. No matter what, it really should be one thing or the other.

So how’d I do this time around? Solid rock star all around (thank goodness). However, I can only find one comment from any of my peer evaluators. Does this mean that four of my peers couldn’t be troubled to leave comments? Does this mean that only one person evaluated me? I’m not sure, but either way it is pretty clear that peer grading isn’t quite working out the way its creators anticipated.

The magic rubric.

25 02 2013

I spoke on Wednesday with Daphne Koller, one of the founders of Coursera, the Stanford spinoff that is one of the big players in the for-profit MOOC world. She vigorously disputed the notion that the MOOC model was less appropriate for humanities education than for the hard sciences. Koller believes that with the right grading “rubric” students can grade each other’s papers even on issues of critical reasoning and grammar, thus solving seemingly daunting logistics problems.

[emphasis added]

Andrew Leonard, “Conservatives Declare War on College,” Salon, February 22, 2013.

After spending the weekend reflecting on that quote, I think I’m simply going to note that Daphne Koller knows as much about teaching history or English as I know about teaching computer science. Nonetheless, I do think that examining the impossibility of Koller’s magic rubric is worth the effort because the future of the humanities depends upon our ability to explain what we do all day to the various constituencies that control our fate.  

1) A rubric long enough to explain all the rules of grammar would be a book.  [As a matter of fact, I think it is.] Getting any student to read that book is another matter entirely.  Even if they read it, will they know how to apply all the rules?  I read all the time, but can’t barely remember any of those rules anymore let alone explain them. However, what I do know is what a good sentence looks like, which is what I explain on papers when I’m grading them. If you didn’t know anything about something, explaining that concept to others who no equally little would be completely impossible.

2) Defining critical thinking always raises memories of Justice Stewart discussing pornography, which explains why measuring it with a rubric is so ridiculous  What matters most to me here though is that even if students could judge critical thinking in their peers, the best kinds of critical thinking come out during classroom discussions, not during grading.  Yves Smith recently wrote at Naked Capitalism:

I’m gobsmacked that no one is talking about how online education offers no socialization.

The classroom setting is both a model and and a catalyst to critical thinking, whatever it happens to be.  Evaluating critical thinking with a rubric not only destroys the necessary spontaneity that promotes it, it practically defeats the whole purpose of the exercise in the first place.

Does Koller actually believe that the magic rubric exists or is she fooling herself because that serves her narrow self-interest?  I don’t know.  However, I do know that every English or history professor at every Coursera partner school who has any teaching experience at all knows in their heart of hearts that the magic rubric is a complete fantasy.  They also know that turning the grading function entirely over to computers or students is a wholesale abandonment of their pedagogical responsibilities. Karen Head is an assistant professor putting a composition MOOC together at Georgia Tech, so I think she deserves a little slack here:

Discussion and peer assessment are central to our traditional instructional approach, but may not be possible in the ways they currently use them.

Their search for the magic rubric is obviously ongoing.  They won’t find it.

The question for any humanities superprofessor then becomes what to do next.  Do they decide that an inferior education is the new normal or do they walk away?  Last time I heard from Jeremy Adelman, he was willing to acknowledge these problems but wanted to keep experimenting with his world history MOOC because of the value of teaching World History as part of a global dialogue. Historian Philip Zelikow has bypassed this problem by foregoing writing altogether, except for his on-campus class. This, however, will not stop anyone else from giving students credit for completing his MOOC, particularly as the University of Virginia could probably use the revenue.

So far, these guys are only participating in the experimental phase of MOOCmania, but the institutional phase of the experiment is coming up on us very quickly.  Not only are more schools building their own MOOCs, more and more are offering MOOCs for credit whether Jeremy likes it or not.  When the choice for actual college students becomes watching a MOOC or attending class, enough of them will inevitably choose the former that many of us who still do things the old-fashioned way will be in deep trouble through no fault of our own, particularly when MOOC credit is actually cheaper.

The longer we act as if the magic rubric actualy exists, the more damage MOOCs will inflict on the education of our most vulnerable college students and the livelihoods of our most vulnerable faculty colleagues. What I don’t understand is why more superprofessors can’t reach this conclusion before their MOOCs even get off the ground. After all, the non-existence of the magic rubric, like so many other things about online education, is actually bloody obvious.

The worst of the best of the best.

8 07 2014

During the early 1870s, the American industrialist Andrew Carnegie championed something called the Bessemer process, a new way of making steel that was only about fifteen years old at that time. As a result he could make more steel at a cheaper price than any of his competitors. He then took the profits from his initial success and plowed it back into the business, investing in other cutting-edge technologies and buying out his rivals who didn’t fall out of the market naturally. By the early 1890s, he was the owner of the largest steel company in the world. I’d argue that the principle that made this story possible is the first-mover advantage.

That’s not a statement about making steel, which of course had been going on for centuries before Carnegie came along, but with respect to the Bessemer process. Building steel plants was expensive, but Carnegie (who actually made his initial money working for the Pennsylvania Railroad), had the money to invest in pricey new technologies while his competitors didn’t. His steel was cheaper, more abundant and actually of higher quality than the other steel available on the market at that time. No wonder he got so rich.

Mark Zuckerberg’s wealth is much harder to explain. I know there were other social networks before Facebook, but I’m not exactly sure what made Facebook the one network that people absolutely had to join. Certainly, at some point it reached a certain critical mass of people that newbies came to believe that they’d be missing out if they weren’t on it.  Unfortunately, to me the ultimate problem with Facebook is that it actually impedes meaningful interactions with your friends rather than helps it by doing crazy stuff like conducting experiments upon you without your knowledge. That’s why I collected the e-mails of all my friends that I didn’t have already and got out. Facebook has shot whatever first-mover advantage it had to Hell.

As anybody who’s studied MOOCs in the slightest can tell you, the Stanford Computer Science department did not invent them – those nice Canadians did. However, it was those Stanford people who first decided to treat MOOCs as a market rather than as an educational opportunity. I can’t remember which came first, Coursera or Udacity, but there’s no question that Coursera at the very least has gone to great lengths to take advantage of its opportunity to be an early mover, putting MOOCs up regardless of quality – essentially beta testing them in front of tens of thousands of people – because they care more about quantities of students than they do about the quality of the educational experience they were providing.

Think I’m being unfair? Sebastian “lousy product” Thrun essentially admitted this to Fast Company last year. With respect to Coursera, do you remember the Google Document that brought down that online learning MOOC? The superprofessor who quit his MOOC in the middle of the course? How about the “no right answers” guy? These were not, as the MOOC Messiah Squad always like to put it, “the best of the best.” The people running these MOOCs were the worst of the best of the best, which actually turns out to be pretty darn bad in some cases. Well, I hate to judge a situation solely through its news coverage, but it looks like we have a new entrant in this particular Hall of Shame. From the Chronicle:

A massive open online course on making sense of massive open online courses caused massive confusion when the course content was suddenly deleted and the professor started writing cryptic things on Twitter. The MOOC, called “Teaching Goes Massive: New Skills Required,” was taught by Paul-Olivier Dehaye, a lecturer at the University of Zurich. Offered through Coursera, the course had been conceived of as a meta-MOOC designed to help disoriented educators find their feet in the online landscape. The course “grew out of the author’s experiences as an early adopter and advocate of newer technologies (such as Coursera) for online teaching,” according to a description on Coursera’s website. So far, the course has produced chaos rather than clarity. All the videos, forums, and other course materials mysteriously vanished from the website last week. As students in the course grappled with the bizarre turn of events, Mr. Dehaye offered only vague, inscrutable tweets.

And here’s some of the IHE coverage, which begins to explain the reasons for this weirdness:

“[Dehaye] appears to be conducting a social media/MOOC experiment in the most unethical manner,” the student said in a post that is currently the most viewed on the forum. “In my opinion his behavior is discrediting the University of Zurich, as well as Coursera.”

As the mystery captivated the post-holiday weekend crowd on Twitter, more details about the potential experiment were unearthed. Kate Bowles, a senior lecturer at the University of Wollongong, found Dehaye’s name attached to a 2003 paper in which the authors calculated how 100 people could escape from imprisonment when their only means of communication was a lightbulb.

Bowles also found what appeared to be Dehaye’s contributions to the community blog MetaFilter.

“I would be interested to hear people’s opinions on the idea of using voluntariat work in MOOCs to further research (in mathematics, particularly),” Dehaye wrote in one post. “Would this be exploitative? What would be good reward systems? Fame, scientific paper, internship?” He later shared his plans to teach the MOOC, and in response to a thread about the Facebook experiment, wrote “it is hard to pass the message on [C]oursera that emotions are important in teaching but that expressing those emotions can lead to data collection.”

Picking on the superprofessor here seems very, very easy, so I’d rather wonder what responsibility Coursera has for this disaster. I’m sure they’d tell you that picking instructors is the job of their partner universities, but Coursera still has to approve the courses. What standards do they use to decide who really is the best of the best? Judging from the failures I’ve listed in this post, not too many.

Coursera, in its search to attract eyeballs, has forgotten that education is not like steel – or at least steel rail.*  Quality matters. Frankly, I’d take any adjunct professor with ten years experience and put them in front of 50,000 people before I’d do so with any star in their field. After all, adjuncts devote practically all their professional time to providing a better educational experience, in fact their continued employment often depends upon it. Many (but certainly not all) professors at elite universities are too busy doing their own research to care about what’s happening in their own classes. Commercial MOOCs are simply the logical extension of that kind of negligence.

Professors who really care about the quality of education don’t give a damn about the first mover advantage. They’d rather do their jobs well than become famous or conduct massive social experiments on their students without their consent, which probably means that they’d never in a million years work for Coursera.

* The quality of steel actually did matter for later steel products like structural steel for building skyscrapers and armor plate for battleships. I’m just talking about the 1870s here.

Update: I wrote this post so early this morning that I forgot two really important entries into the Coursera Hall of Shame: 1) What I like to think of as the MOOC Forum Circus incident and 2) the truly terrible UC-Santa Cruz MOOC that Jon Wiener described in this article.  And just in case you don’t read Wired Campus (and you should), here’s Steve Kolowich’s truly weird update on the story behind the truly terrible MOOC at hand.

Going, going…gone?

3 07 2014

Thanks to the great Sarah Kendzior, I picked up a copy of Gone Girl when I was in Target yesterday.  While I’ve barely started it, I can tell it’s going to be really, really good.  What I think made me do it was that until I read Sarah’s piece on the death of malls, I didn’t realize that the book had economic themes, like this quote from the beginning few pages:

“I’d arrived in New York in the late ’90s, the last gasp of the of the glory days, although no one knew it then.  New York was packed with writers, real writers, because there were magazines, real magazines, loads of them.  This was back when the Internet was still some exotic pet kept in the corner of the publishing world–throw some kibble at it, watch it dance on its little leash, oh quite cute, it definitely won’t kill us in the night.  Think about it: a time when newly graduated college kids could come to New York and get paid to write.  We had no clue that we were embarking on careers that would vanish within a decade.”

I love good magazine journalism.  I have an almost religious devotion to the New Yorker since my parents were subscribers.  Yet I also read the Huffington Post and give content away for free at this very blog.  Does that make me a bad person?

Of course, it’s easy to imagine some bitter magazine writer muttering to themselves, “You’re next, professor.”  That, at least, is what the disrupt higher education crowd would like everybody to believe.  Longtime readers know that I constantly go back on forth on the question of whether or not my profession will “vanish within a decade.”  Today, I’m definitely in “I will survive mode.”

What’s improved my mood is an op-ed at Inside Higher Education.  The author, Randy Best, is discussing the pricing model for online classes:

These days, two out of three students attending on-campus programs receive some form of generous subsidy or discount, while their online counterparts, generally ineligible for such assistance, foot the full sticker price even though they do not benefit from all the amenities of the revered campus life, do not take up parking spaces, inflict wear and tear on facilities, or take up as much instructor time. Instead of embracing these online learners who produce considerable incremental revenue for institutions, colleges and universities are penalizing them, which has troubling implications not only for students’ bank accounts, but also for universities’ own vaunted views of fairness. By introducing e-tuition, which is appropriately lower than the on-campus price tag, universities could easily capitalize on the scale, brand extension, and new revenue synonymous with online learning while maintaining far more equitable pricing for online students.

Never.  Gonna.  Happen.  How do I know?  The entire existence of online courses is predicated on the notion that they’re just as good as the courses on campus.  Because offering online courses cheaper than face-to-face courses strongly suggests that these courses are somehow inferior to the courses that are offered on campus, universities will do nothing to discredit their brands.* Besides that, many of them have undoubtedly already spent the money they expect to take in through online courses on new administrators and climbing walls in the gym.

Best’s example of a university that’s bucking this trend is the online computer science MA at Georgia Tech.  If you remember though, this is the MOOC-ish MA in which people spend most of their time watching video, with minimal outside help.  They’re only discounting the sticker price because they’re hoping to make it up in volume and, as Chris Newfield has argued persuasively, their revenue estimates are probably inflated.  That would make this an exception that proves the world.

The problem here is prestige.  A long time ago, when I was in another one of these “I will survive” moods, I wrote a post called “The Walmart of higher education will not be online”:

The assumption that college is too expensive is certainly correct. The problem with this article is that it assumes that online education is the way to solve that problem. As I’ve noted before, it is possible to do some really interesting things with education online. However, if you’re just doing it to save money so that your university can keep more money for other things, your online courses are going to be awful. As a result, nobody will learn anything and they’ll all end up unemployed. The negative feedback loop will then lead to a real crisis in higher education, brought on by the people who thought they were saving it.

Maybe this time I’ll stop changing my mind.  The future is a lot closer than it was when I first wrote that post, and the evidence of discounting still hasn’t surfaced.  What’s going to make them change their minds?

*  Of course, the good online courses aren’t inferior to the ones offered on campus, but if you discount them the market will still likely treat them that way.

Teaching at Harvard means never having to say you’re sorry.

20 05 2014

I’m afraid that this is going to destroy grad students,” one professor told me. “Not because of what it will do to elite universities, but other places. Why should a community college hire a new PhD when they can pipe in Stephen Greenblatt?”

That quote comes from the Harvard alumni magazine via a post I wrote last year. I titled that post “Stephen Greenblatt will not take questions,” which happens to be the answer to the question in that quote. This was particularly true at that time because Stephen Greenblatt did not have a MOOC. In the future, Stephen Greenblatt will still not take questions even though he’s now making a MOOC of his own.

Should the English grad students of the world be worried? On Sunday, the Boston Globe offered a behind-the-scenes look at the making of his MOOC (along with another one being developed by the Harvard historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich). Toward the end we find out that Greenblatt shares precisely these concerns about MOOCs:

Yet Greenblatt also counts himself among the many Harvard faculty worried about the potential downsides of Harvard’s foray into online courses. He and Ulrich were among several dozen professors who wrote a letter to the administration last year seeking more discussion about the “costs and consequences” of HarvardX.

Among his worries: Will cash-strapped colleges park their students in front of MOOCs and cut back on hiring professors? What will that do to the careers of up-and-coming scholars, and what will it mean for students’ access to faculty mentoring?

“There are serious, completely unresolved questions all over the place here,” Greenblatt said.

One of the concerns in that letter Greenblatt signed was “the impact online courses will have on the higher education system as a whole.” His quote in that story strongly suggests that Harvard has yet to address that concern (or in fact any concerns at all), but Greenblatt is becoming a superprofessor anyway.

To be fair to both Greenblatt and Ulrich, there seem to be concerns about the misuse of MOOCs all over Harvard amongst the people working on them. This is from HarvardX’s Justin Reich:

The faculty who teach MOOCs and see potential are among the same faculty who are concerned with cost, value, and ethics. The HarvardX team has the same combination of idealism and caution; we had a staff retreat on the Friday before the article came out, where we talked very explicitly about the ways in which MOOCs could exacerbate educational inequalities. Of course, on balance, the team leans towards optimism, and so they are there under the sewing machines, trying to make them work. But nearly everyone on this project is looking carefully at the consequences.

Of course, they’re still all doing MOOCs too. There’s lots of introspection at Harvard apparently, but absolutely no restraint. MOOC first, answer questions later.

What makes this attitude doubly infuriating is that future problems are readily apparent just from the information in that Boston Globe article. Here’s the key part:

As for the cost question, Harvard officials insist HarvardX must and will find a way to support itself and not detract from campus needs. The goal is a mix of funding sources, including philanthropy and licensing software and courses to other institutions. A donation, for example, paid for the deluxe studio in Widener Library.

And Harvard is beginning to experiment with ways to charge MOOC learners for extras, like a verified certificate or even course credit.

Peter K. Bol is one of the professors who taught the MOOC on China and is a vice provost overseeing HarvardX. He thinks every MOOC should have an automated version available for free. But for virtual office hours and other interactions with professors and teaching assistants, he imagines a small fee. A modest $10 or $20 from thousands of students could cover the cost, he said.

“As we go forward we have to always ask the question, how can we afford this?” he said.

Leave aside the obvious problem associated with asking students to pay up in order to “make magic happen.” People paying edX for course credit will not be paying local community colleges or public regional comprehensive universities for the same thing. And of course the fastest way to raise money is to convince colleges to award credit for MOOCs with ordinary faculty serving as the people who students can see for help.

To me, this suggests that the future of MOOCs will not be determined on the production side. Coursera, edX and the rest of them are going to keep on chugging MOOCs out until the money disappears. The future of MOOCs will be determined on the consumption side. MOOC producers will not be satisfied with revenue that comes from certificates or from charging bored people who already have college degrees to do Google hangouts with their superprofessors. MOOCs for credit is where the money is.

How will faculty at community colleges and public regional comprehensive universities respond when their administrations sign secret deals with edX or Coursera and then try to shove MOOCs down their throats? I’ve seen many hints that this is already happening and the faculty at such schools have already responded badly. It’s time for education and edtech journalists to stop focusing on the Stephen Greenblatts and the Harvards of the world and start doing stories on what happens out in flyover country when the MOOC rubber meets the less-selective university road.

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