Monday, March 11, 2013

MOOCs and Books, Ctd.

Thomas Friedman continued his love affair with MOOCs this week. Some of us "may think this MOOCs revolution is hyped," he wrote. But we're wrong, because one Harvard professor who is about to teach the first Humanities MOOC on edX was asked to throw out the first pitch at a baseball game in South Korea. No, I'm not making that up.

Friedman is confusing celebrity and fame with being an effective teacher. Since this professor's lectures have been seen on TV and online, he is now famous in places like South Korea and China. I am all for this--I'd love a world in which professors who lecture on justice are routinely as popular as "Hollywood movie stars and N.B.A. players."

My question for Friedman would be this: did Carl Sagan revolutionize teaching? He was a learned scholar, and his "Cosmos" programs were seen probably by millions (maybe even "billions and billions"?), and he achieved celebrity and pop culture fame. But his success at popularizing science did not change the way we learn.

Moreover, Friedman really does not seem to understand the difference between MOOCs and online education (or using online resources in traditional classes). The key word in the acronym is "massive." These courses purport to be able to do for tens (even hundreds) of thousands of students what college and university classes do for dozens or at most hundreds now.

But he blithely slides into a discussion of the "blended model" in which online lectures are "combined with teacher-led classroom experience." There is simply no way this can be done in a MOOC. There can be no meaningful "teacher-led classroom experience" that is also "massive."

Friedman actually says "we have to get beyond the current system of information and delivery--the professorial 'sage on a stage.'" I had to read that twice to be sure he really said that--MOOCs are the ultimate "sage on a stage" experience. Those 20 million Chinese views he earlier extolled were pure "sage on a stage." The MOOC is almost exclusively a means of information delivery. Yet Friedman seems utterly unaware of the contradiction.

What MOOCs promise (at least as represented in Friedman's fevered prose) is ultimately impossible. Their massive nature precludes it. He says, for example, that all that matters now is that you "can prove you mastered the competency." How does a MOOC do this? If the competency is critical thinking, no professor, even with assistants, can judge that in a MOOC. So what are MOOCs moving toward? Peer grading. So the people who decide whether you have "mastered the competency" are also people who are in the process of mastering the competency themselves. In what other area would anyone accept such a proposition?

Peer evaluation can be a good teaching tool. In our Historiography and Research Methods course here at Wofford, we do a peer evaluation exercise. But the actual grade is not assigned by another student. The professor grades both the essay under peer review and the review itself. Having done this many times, I can assure you that students cannot competently grade each other--certainly not without oversight. Many times a student will "correct" something that is not wrong or offer terrible advice that would make the essay worse rather than better. Only someone who has mastered the competency already is in a position to judge those things.

Friedman makes an obligatory nod to the "huge value in the residential college experience and the teacher-student and student-student interactions it facilitates." But, he continues, they cannot survive without "blending in technology." That just shows how little Friedman understands current realities. That's being done all the time--but NOT in MOOC style. (A tool like Moodle, e.g., allows for posting PDFs and videos to an online syllabus, as well as online discussion, and is used widely at Wofford College right now).

The real problem is what Friedman thinks technology can do. Technology, he says, can "improve education outcomes in measurable ways at lower costs."

That's the fantasy at the heart of MOOC mania. The very things that create that "huge value" are not "measurable," and cannot come at "lower costs." As I wrote in my previous MOOC post, the mirage is the same old one: a quick, cheap technological fix.

Friedman says "We still need more research on what works." While more research and more data is always good, I disagree. We know what works: dedicated teachers, low student-faculty ratios, experts who give concrete individual feedback on student work. We know these things work. They just don't come cheap.

If American society were determined to provide better educational opportunities to more people, it could do so without a single MOOC. There are thousands upon thousands of unemployed or underemployed PhDs out there, ready, willing, and able to give students the individual attention they need to thrive. But that does not come at "lower costs."  It is time to face the fact that in American higher education, we want the quick pay-off and we want it cheaply. This is the short-term corporate mindset come to education. We could simply make a choice to invest in more colleges, to increase the government funding given to state universities. Instead, as a nation, we have been disinvesting in higher education. We lack the will to put the money into it. MOOCs foster the illusion that we can have our cake and eat it too.

One footnote on the benefits of the old ways of doing things: I read Friedman's column the old-fashioned way. In print. Right along side it on the page was another op-ed by David Toscana entitled "The Country That Stopped Reading," about the education system in Mexico. One sentence struck me: "In our schools, children are being taught what is easy to teach rather than what they need to learn." That is the danger of MOOCs--that we will let the technology drive what we teach. As Toscana says, "it’s not about pedagogical theories and new techniques that look for shortcuts. The educational machine does not need fine-tuning; it needs a complete change of direction. It needs to make students read, read and read."

Does anyone think MOOCs will do that?

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