Sunday, April 21, 2013


Much buzz about Massive Open Online Courses.  The NYT has a column on it today.  I have to address it because MOOCs seem like a really cool idea, but pose some problems if when politicians and administrators  consider them as a panacea for solving some of the real challenges we face in higher education--spiraling tuition. 

The author, AJ Jacobs, has a nice pithy take and looks at some of the important stuff as he took 11 different courses via MOOC.  The article is interesting and engaging, but I am afraid it suffers from grade inflation.  How so?  Well, other than convenience, nearly all of the other grades given (except for the profs who get a B+) are below a B yet the final grade is a B. 

The profs get a B+ as they are interesting, organized, and knowledgeable.  Rock on for the profs!  Jacobs does worry:
MOOCs are creating a breed of A-list celebrity professors who have lopsided sway over the landscape of ideas. I pity the offline teachers. I fear one of the casualties of these online courses might be the biodiversity of the academic ecosystem.

This is already our reality.  Some profs have a heap more sway, and it is not always the quality of the ideas.  Anyhow, I don't think MOOCs are going to change the "biodiversity" of the academy unless hiring moves from departments to higher levels where they might focus on the ability to teach to TV cameras. Also, there is a heap of selection bias already in this as the MOOC profs are mostly those, I guess, who have heaps of experience in presenting to large crowds.  I doubt that we will be hiring new profs based on their ability to teach to thousands.  I do see a disjuncture between what departments want and what administrators and politicians want.  Good luck resolving that one.

Convenience--gets an A as students can listen to the podcasts anywhere.  I had students listening to my lectures (the big lecture class was automatically taped) anywhere.  But if the class requires a visual component as is likely for many fields, then it will be hard to take the class while driving or in the hot tub.  So, some limits here.  The combo of convenience and cheapness (free!) means that folks do not complete the courses.  Apparently, 97% fail to finish.

Teacher to Student Interaction: D.  That sounds about right.  With the numbers so skewed, thousands of students to one prof, the prof is not going to be able to answer all emails, engage in discussion boards that much, etc.  In my 600 person class, I did interact with the most engaged students, and had TAs interact with the rest.  But the numbers here are of a magnitude or two that make any real interaction impossible.  D might be generous.

Student to Student interaction:  B-.  Really?  Yes, there are heaps of technology that make interaction possible but likely?  Vibrant?  I have always insisted that students learn as much from each other as from the profs, and my fear with distance learning is that this component of an education disappears.

Assignments: B-.  Writing is dead.  I cannot imagine how anyone could give meaningful feedback on thousands of essays.  Yes, we are now developing computer programs to do so, but I just cannot imagine that being particularly useful.  I did have online tests for my big class but the students were so nervous about other students cheating that I gave up on it. 

Overall, Jacobs gives the MOOC experience a B.  I would have to take his scores and produce a C at best.  The convenience great but offset by the lack of interaction with students or profs.  He admits his "retention rate was low" which is key.  I guess we will have to await studies that will assess whether the stuff that gets taught via online distance learning sticks as much or as little as the stuff in the classroom.

I know my students in the big 600 person class don't remember everything I taught.  I certainly hope those in the smaller classes, like the seminars I taught, retain more.  Anyhow, if this is the future, I am just a wee bit worried.  Again, my primary concern is not that the web is the wrong way to teach but that administrators and politicians will jump on the web as a $-saving enterprise or $-making enterprise, and I am not so sure it will save money or provide experiences that are similar to spending a few years hanging out in one spot with a lot of interesting, engaged people.

1 comment:

Steve Greene said...

That last sentence really says it all.