Monday, February 4, 2013

MOOCs and Books

What if we developed a technology that enabled an expert in a field of study to reach not dozens or even hundreds of learners but tens or even hundreds of thousands of learners?

That question was purposefully posed so as to make it sound profound in its potential possibilities. But if you think about it for a second, it's actually kind of dumb. We have done this, many times. Gutenberg did it with the printing press. Edwin Howard Armstrong (the true father of the radio) did it. So did the pioneers of TV and the internet. There's nothing fundamentally new about the idea.

Nonetheless, last week Thomas Friedman wrote one of his typically breathless columns on the promise of the new education technology tool called MOOCs (massive open online courses). Teasing Thomas Friedman about this tendency is shooting fish in a barrel, and he is right to see potential benefits from these courses, but as usual he goes overboard. In Friedman's view, MOOCs have the "potential to unlock a billion more brains to solve the world's biggest problems."

The historian in me views such proclamations with deep skepticism. The same potential was seen in radio in the 1920s:
Starting in 1921, broadcasting licences were held by universities in Utah, Wisconsin, and Minnesota (Casey, 2008, p. 46). By 1925, 171 licences had been granted (Farley, 1952, p. 18). In addition, K-12 education systems in Ohio and Wisconsin were developing “schools of the air”, that would provide curriculum for use within traditional schools and distance education programs (Reid, 1942, p. 118; Williams & Nicholas, 2004, p. 111).
Enthusiasts believed that not only would radio provide a new delivery vehicle for education, it would transform how everyone taught and learned: "the new medium of radio was seen as aiding in the promotion and implementations of new, promising educational theories for teachers and students alike."

How many of us today see radio as having prompted a revolution in education?

No doubt radio was sometimes put to good educational use (as the article quoted above argues). But a revolution? I don't think so.

In the 1950s, there was similar enthusiasm for the potential of television to educate the masses, and again, TV has been put to some good educational use. But did TV revolutionize education? Hardly.

The key trait in all of these reflexive embraces of technology is the perennial American desire for a cheap technological quick fix to our problems. The North American British colonies were founded during the Scientific Revolution and flourished during the Enlightenment. Americans love technology, and for good reason. Technology has been very good to Americans. Where we lose our way is when we see it as a panacea, or as an end rather than a means.

The simple fact of education is this: it is hard. It is hard for teachers, it is hard for learners. It requires work. It is labor-intensive. There are no short-cuts. No new technologies, no trendy new techniques from self-styled educational innovators ever have or ever will alter those facts.

In the end, a MOOC is an information delivery vehicle. So is a book. It is entirely possible for an individual with enough motivation to self-educate by going to a library and reading. But how many people actually do that? Precious few. Most of us need structure, incentives, and perhaps most of all, someone with expertise (i.e., greater knowledge and experience than ourselves) to hold us accountable for the quality of the work we produce.

Friedman uncritically quotes a Princeton professor who says his online version of one of his courses produced thousands of questions and comments, compared to the "few penetrating questions" produced in his actual classroom. "Within three weeks I had received more feedback on my sociological ideas than I had in a career of teaching," he says. His teaching improved as a result, he says.

That's great. But I have a question that wasn't answered by Friedman. Did each of those thousands of students get their questions answered?

The answer of course is "no."

So who really benefits from this, if the students do not get answers to their questions?

The professor writes: "Although it was impossible for me to read even a fraction of the pages of students' comments as they engaged with one another, the software allowed me to take note of those that generated the most discussion."

As is so often the case with exciting new ideas that purport to be all about the students, the benefit here goes to the professor, not the students. His ego is stroked, he gets lots of "feedback" on his ideas. And maybe the student learns a little something too. Whatever.

The professor openly admits he never reads even a fraction of the student comments, but he dismisses that as something of no importance. Why? Because now, the technology itself determines what matters. Note how the professor has shifted his emphasis--what matters now are not the "few penetrating questions" he used to get in the old-fashioned physical classroom but the most common questions or comments from the MOOC--as relayed to him by software. Since no software will ever be able to identify a "penetrating question," we just can't afford to worry about them. No doubt there were penetrating questions in those thousands of comments, but the professor never read, much less answered, them.

This, we are told, is a positive revolution in education.

There is no doubt value in the quantification of student reactions to class material. We get it all the time in traditional classes. If the vast majority of students do badly on a given exam question, I learn that either the question was not very good or my explanation of the relevant material was lacking. I know I need to improve something. That's good feedback.

It is not, however, necessarily the case that the most discussed point is the most important point. (Many students are remarkably skilled at driving discussion to areas of little or no significance.) That's where the judgment and expertise of the teacher comes in--we have the responsibility to know what is essential and what is marginal. In this case, the teacher has outsourced that job to the students via quantitative data-gathering software.

This, we are told, is a positive revolution in education.

Anyone who has spent time as a teacher knows that the best question is rarely the most common question. That one student who asks that great penetrating question brings value to the whole class, potentially--but not if no one (including the professor) ever hears it. In MOOCs, that's more likely than not.

This, we are told, is a positive revolution in education.

MOOCs can never truly replicate real teaching. Thousands of people listening to a lecture online will no doubt gain something from it. But when there are tens or hundreds of thousands of people in a "course," there is no true feedback from the teacher. That person is no different from an author of a book. The material produced by the teacher may have great value, but that's where the influence ends. The students, like readers, are effectively on their own.

Just as I'd like to see more books made more available to more people who want to read them, I want people with no other educational options to have MOOCs. I'm sure the most determined students among them will gain real advantages from them.

Friedman promotes MOOCs as a solution to the very real problem of providing education widely and inexpensively. But no thinking person should be fooled that MOOCs constitute "education" any more than simply having a library makes for a college.


  1. Mark, I'm curious as to what you make of the enthusiasm the big, first tier brands (Harvard, Stanford, the like) have for this.

  2. It is no more than speculation on my part, but my guess would be that it is primarily marketing. If they are indeed "first tier" then they should be the ones providing this content. Also, the educational model of the MOOC is not all that far from what very large institutions sometimes do in survey courses, in which professors only profess and do little or no grading--that grunt work being farmed out to graduate student teaching assistants.

  3. It's kind of silly to compare radio or TV to a computer and the internet. When the camera came around, people thought it would kill painting, but of course it didn't. However as computers and the internet have come around, they have completely, irreversibly changed cameras - Kodak is bankrupt, the one-hour photo lab is all but gone, slide film is ancient history - and with cell phone camera, point and shoot cameras are likely on their way out too. Same for the music industry - radio didn't stop people from buying records, but the internet and mobile computer devices sure did. Everyone sees the struggle of newspapers in this environment, and TV, books, magazines, movies - all are facing huge challenges as the combination of computer device and worldwide network fundamentally changes the way that they work. MOOCs may not be perfect, but neither are MP3s to any recording engineer or audiophile. But from my perspective they represent a helluva credible threat to the status quo in education, even if they are ultimately not very good! And if the providers figure out methods for increasing rigor and quantifying achievement, and ultimately providing thousands and thousands of students the opportunity for earning transferable credit for free, I think there will be a large number of people who are currently teaching who won't be in the not too distant future. I thought when I moved from a career in magazine publishing to career in teaching at the college level that I'd dodged the bullet of industries under the internet gun, but I no longer feel that is the case. I'm just glad I don't teach gen ed courses that are in high demand.

  4. My point is not that computers or the internet have no educational applications. It was that MOOCs cannot truly deliver what they promise: the equivalent of the in-class experience on a massive scale.

    Online courses that have class sizes that allow for individual attention from professors can be effective. But a MOOC is essentially one-way--it is information delivery. If one thinks that all education consists of is delivering information, then a MOOC can do that. But education--real education--is (at least) two-way. Newspapers, magazines, music--these are all forms of one-way information delivery. So yes, the internet has dramatically changed them. Real education is not one way, and MOOCs, by virtue of their "massive" nature, are essentially one-way. That was my point.

  5. I'm not sure if I agree on that point either - I've enrolled in a number of MOOCs, looking to see what all of the fuss is about. In two of the four that I'm currently participating in, the amount of two-way dialogue is absolutely staggering. Hundreds and hundreds of posts in discussion boards, as well as feedback on assignments that I turn in. Granted, the feedback does not come directly from the instructor, and so it might be coming from individuals with absolutely no expertise or credentials in the subject at hand. On the other hand, I posted two discussion board questions that were related to a specific answerable question, and through the dialogue both questions were answered. Also, in many courses and for many instructors a large focus of their teaching is to spark dialogue among the students of the class - and in the Justice class offered by Harvard on EdX there is an enormous amount of student to student dialog - more than I could ever expect in any class I've ever taken. So I think that the classes can be (and many are) exceptionally 2-way - more so than a lot of in-person classes. The top-down-authority-delivering-information-teacher-reigns-supreme model of teaching might be impossible in that context, but that model is not the only way to teach, and in a lot of classes it is actually an ineffective teaching method. So arguing that direct communication from instructor to individual student is not possible in a MOOC certainly might preclude certain courses from working in that format, but it might make other classes even more effective in the MOOC format than in a face-to-face class with smaller numbers.

  6. Additionally, the other two courses I'm taking are programming courses, and at this point the one-way communication method in those classes has served me completely well. There are discussion boards for those classes, but I have not yet needed to venture into them, as I am following the content well and haven't yet run into a single problem. So in some class formats a one-way communication method with discussion forums for questions might also serve adequately for the large majority of students.

  7. "Granted, the feedback does not come directly from the instructor, and so it might be coming from individuals with absolutely no expertise or credentials in the subject at hand."

    And that is no small point. I made note of the "peer grading" model in a subsequent post:

    This is not a good way to judge competency, but it is driven by the massive nature of the MOOC. Since there is no way for the professor to answer all the questions, or grade all of the work, that job is outsourced to the students. That makes sense as a business model, but educationally it is absurd. Discussion boards may work quite well for a college professor sampling a MOOC--but is it effective for the 18 year old, or the 30 year old working a full-time job and MOOCing in her spare time? Those are the people ostensibly being served. And those are precisely the people who need the attention of the instructor--not the attention of random peers who may or may not have any idea what they are talking about.

    Instructors who use class discussion don't generally leave the room and go back to their offices. They are there to guide the discussion. If people say things that are wildly off, they are there to correct the record, and refocus attention on what is significant (and yes, I do believe that someone who has spent a career on a subject knows that better than someone just encountering the subject for the first time).

    Studies of MOOCs thus far suggest that they may be useful for well-prepared and highly motivated individuals. But those people are a small minority of those MOOCs purport to serve. I imagine those same people could get the CDs or DVDs from "The Great Courses" and also learn a lot from them. Or just from picking up a book.

  8. These arguments still come across to me as analogous to "You'll never get the kind of audio quality from earbuds and an MP3 that you could get from the highest quality hifi system and lossless digital files" - sure, ultimate quality might not be assured, but that hasn't stopped a mass movement into the direction of the lower quality result. As the providers continue to adjust to the issues that are most troubling, perhaps by hiring a number of teaching assistants to moderate discussion forums, or to interact directly with students (which seems to be the case in the Harvard Justice class) it seems like these types of classes are likely to take off. And if credit for a course were only given after a proctored exam was completed successfully, and if the course could be repeated over and over again for free, this might actually enable the less prepared and motivated individual the growth opportunity to rise to the challenge of completing the course successfully, rather than the Professor of a course having to lower him or herself to the position of whip cracker and pseudo parent. After all, in a college course we are working with adults. Motivation and preparedness are in their domain of control.

  9. If you conceive of education as a product one buys, that analogy holds. I'm rejecting that analogy. Education is an experience and a process, not a product. I do not interact with an MP3. I listen to it. I may only want it as background music, and not care about perfect quality. That makes sense.

    But if I want to *learn* about music, I would need someone with knowledge of music to guide me in learning to understand it. Posting my unsophisticated instinctive reactions to a discussion board and hearing other people say "it has a great beat" may make me think I'm learning something, but have I learned? I'd say no.

    In a MOOC, there is only one aspect of education with real quality control--the lecture. Everything else is either reduced to what can be done technologically, or farmed out to people without expertise. Any given individual may learn something from it, but without evaluation by someone in a position to legitimately evaluate it, it is not education.

    If a MOOC has over 12,000 students signed up, then how many TAs would be needed to moderate discussion and grade? Even at 100 students/TA you would need 120 TAs. Pay them all something, and the cost rises and the MOOC ceases to be viable. That's why they are moving toward peer grading. In my experience, peer grading is no substitute for instructor grading. By relegating it to the students, the MOOC effectively says "grading is not important." I reject that. Grading is integral to education, I believe. Without legitimate evaluation you do not have education.

  10. I also find it rather ironic that at a time when colleges and universities are under increasing pressure to "assess outcomes," so many people seem eager to embrace the MOOC, which has virtually no ability to "assess outcomes." What we do know is that completion rates are around 10%, which would get any college or university decertified in a heartbeat.