Debating the MOOC Backlash: Notes from A Primitive Screwhead

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Recently, one of my favorite titles of a blog post has been “Listen Up You Primitive Screwheads” – I like when righteous indignation is given a full-throated expression. And that is despite the fact that, at least up to a point, I am one of those primitive screwheads myself. Timothy Burke used the pop-culture reference to vent his frustration with the recent hype surrounding the MOOC. Burke’s not wrong. Pinning all hopes for the future of Higher Education on a single innovation – particularly one that is simply an iteration of distance learning going back several hundred years – is not a winning strategy. And he’s not alone. There seems to be a bit of a MOOC backlash going in the edu blogosphere. And most of it is not coming from technophobe dinosaurs including many of the MOOC pioneers and others who are at the forefront of fields like the Digital Humanities. I don’t disagree with the sentiment. Companies like Coursera and Udacity have appropriated the MOOC concept and taken it in directions that are much more traditional and corporate than the MOOC founding fathers intended. But despite all of that, I think the MOOCs are worth a bit of the hype, particularly if they disrupt the monolith that is Higher Education. This blog post pulls together some of the comments I made on a few blog posts criticizing MOOCs.

Let’s start with the comment on Timothy Burke’s post. In it, I was focusing on the problem facing any educational reform and the overall limits of what can be reformed.

A very enjoyable rant. But sadly it obscures the validity of the central point. Opening access to knowledge and knowledge networks is a good things. In fact, I have often pointed out that the only educational reforms to ever succeed were ones of open access (Chinese imperial examinations, universal primary education, GI bill). But their successes were not educational but political. They opened up opportunities for engagement and discursive legitimacy for more people than had them before. There is no straightforward utilitarian link between access and success. The argument is and should be a moral one.

So while MOOCs are kind of fun pedagogically their potential for transformative change is in widening access to increasingly (financially) inaccessible institutions. This not going to be a neat process (sorry, but quality has nothing to do with any of this). And this access will change the institutions (as much as those accessing them). And that’s a good thing. They wouldn’t pose an existential threat to existing institutions until a new generation of employers would start saying, show me your MOOC portfolio. But by then the existing institutions would be different enough to either be irrelevant already or be ready to provide the version of the MOOC of that time.

So are MOOCs the same as old time correspondence courses? Yes and no. Contrary to the popular definition of madness, if you try often enough to do the same thing over and over again, maybe you’re eventually do it differently enough or in a different enough context that you will finally get a different result. It’s not guaranteed (like monkeys typing Shakespeare), but it’s possible. The example is educational video. It kept failing and failing for more than half a century until YouTube and Skype came along. And lo and behold. I’m learning as much from videos as I used to do from books. So MOOCs have a chance to be different from correspondence courses because of their scale, the technology available and slightly different metaphors. But, they could just as easily fail. Only time will tell.

Timothy responded mostly affirmatively, the gist of his response being:

My ranting here is that this history, and its lessons, is being completely obscured in the current pundit-level conversation. What all the MSM pundits and reporters are focusing on is the use of MOOCs as a way to save money, which is almost certainly not what they’re going to do, unless they’re used as a crude wedge to force further adjunctification, which won’t in the end have anything to do with the technology OR the objective of democratizing or distributing higher education.

Before that, I waded in on edwired’s Mills Kelly’s post “The Online Course Tsunami“ warning that the benefits of MOOCs are unproven and we are in danger of replacing proven ways of higher learning. My point is that it is by no means guaranteed that the current system is a proven way of making sure learning happens:

I don’t believe a “serious assessment of the learning that is happening” in traditional course has been done. In fact, what has been done indicates that it’s not worth all that much. Since the 60s there has been one major sociological/anthropological study of the university a decade starting with “Boys in White” and the latest being “My Freshman Year” and it consistently showed that “teaching” is more of a side activity at universities and “learning” is at best a happy byproduct. So if “learning was the goal of teaching” the last time you checked, I don’t think you checked very carefully.

That doesn’t mean that students don’t come across transformative and profound courses like yours but the evidence shows that that is the exception not the rule.

You need to compare the new models with an honest assessment of the current models – not the best examples.

I recently taught a similar course as classroom-based and fully online and the learning happening online was much more in depth as the results showed – students couldn’t hide behind attending classes. All their engagement was learning.

But that was because the online course was designed to be high engagement to compensate for the lack of classroom interaction. There were no efficiencies of economies of scale. The only purpose was access, not savings.

A system aimed at savings will produce predictable results. The mode of delivery most likely has relatively little to do with it.

Mills’ response was to caution against too much pessimism but in agreement that  ”Far too often, the goal of teaching is to complete the course, not to expand learning.” However, he reiterated is skepticism in the final post of his MOOC series. I was a bit surprised by the vehemence of his claim that there is no good evidence of the quality of learning and I posted this reply. In it, I reiterated some of the points made elsewhere, namely about the importance of reforms aimed at access and my personal experiences with online and face-to-face education.

I’m a bit puzzled by this. For the past three years, I have been teaching fully online courses, face to face courses and mostly online courses with a brief camp-like component. In all that time, I have sent about a dozen emails to students. Most of the communication was done on forums and through brief messaging exchanges. I’ve also put webinars into the mix which were very popular. I recorded series of 20-minute lectures (screencasts with powerpoint) that the students found very useful. I did enjoy the ‘Induction Schools’ we ran but I don’t think they did that much for learning or for fostering a sense of community among the students (when compared to courses that were fully online or fully attendance).

I do like running seminars and giving presentations as well as attending the same. Just to see what it’s like I’m taking a Coursera course on SciFi and Fantasy literature and it is excellent. Exactly the right mix of lecture, activity and interaction (I could do more if I had the time). I particularly like their approach to peer assessment. Having taken and taught on courses on Czech literature, I have no doubt that the participants will get as rigorous an exposure to the genre as if they attended a large English lit course at a University. In fact, probably much much more. I have also read exam essays from courses that I and others taught and all they demonstrate is that not all that much learning goes on in face to face situations. Teachers are too easily seduced into thinking that interacting with a few active students means interactions with the whole group. In my experience, people saying things like “it’s so much easier if you can see their faces” are completely unreliable judges of what goes on in their students’ minds. I’ve been doing some teacher training on using computers in the classroom and the common question is, what if they’ll all go check their Facebook. My answer is that that’s no worse than the age-old technology of the Window or the even older daydream.

I agree that there online lectures are no more learning than is a movie or a book but most importantly, they are NO less. But in some ways they can more. They force a small chunked delivery that books or traditional lectures cannot do. As someone who almost flunked math, I went to watch a few Sal Khan videos and they actually made things clear for me that reading books had not. They are not the complete education, but neither are schools.

But I’d also like to make a political point. I’ve been searching in vain for an educational reform aimed at content or pedagogy that made a transformation of the education system in accordance with its goals. And I could not find one. But reforms aimed at widening access are typically more successful (the GI Bill) if only because they are easier to measure. So I think large, cost effective courses are, in fact, potentially a very good thing. With the caveat, of course, that the knowledge education provides is a relatively small part of its power. Signalling is a big part but access to resource networks is probably the greatest. So I do think MOOCs need an offline component but this could be well served by camps and summer schools. In fact, these might be more effective at promoting inclusion because they would moderate the creation of exclusionary ingroups.

So, I think, in the long-term, the vision should not be flipping the classroom but flipping the school year. Have most of it online in MOOC like settings intermixed with weekends away and a long summer learning camp. It works pretty well for distance education but with the new technologies, it could be harnessed much more successfully.

Slightly earlier, I had  a bit longer exchange with Martin Weller on the “Value of Education“. Martin was making some comparisons about the cost of a post-graduate course as compared to other “leisure” activities. My response was about the different types of value in education.

This is an interesting list but I think it only partially compares with real value judgements people make.

As you say, when you’re buying a holiday or season tickets, you’re buying them for the reason of enjoyment (and I was shocked to read how much that would cost). And you already have a view of how much of your budget you spend on enjoyment. But a degree is not only not advertised as enjoyable nor is it structured as anything other than a job prospect building activity. You have to find all the other values in it yourself.
Plus I think learning is not nearly as enjoyable as the current propaganda makes out. I am continually amazed at how little many people enjoy being a part of an academic community.

And anyway I doubt, the enjoyment is enough. I’d say that there is no course that is potentially as enjoyable as a good MOOC. Yet, their attrition rates are huge (I have yet to even properly start one). Even the university attrition rates are quite high considering the costs. I would imagine that the season ticket or holiday trip attrition rates are rather low. So in that analogy, education would be more like joining the gym or buying DIY tools.

We could also look at this from the perspective of knowledge/skill acquisition. Because, at a certain point, what do you need a course for? I spend a lot of time listening to history lectures (LSE podcasts, the Teaching Company, New Books in History) and reading history books (plus I have some prior training in the historiography). And I’m writing this while on holiday at the Dutch Summer School of Linguistics. I’m willing to spend money and time on both and I know exactly what I’m getting from it (all the items above except job prospects).

But I’m pretty sure taking an OU MA course would drive me crazy. (Having designed and taught on courses like these.) It would seem like I could collate all the content and activity of learning on my own so most of the money would be spent on pretending that the OU content is worth more than publicly available content (which it isn’t – but neither is anything at Harvard or Berkeley) and that the degree is anything but an arbitrary piece of paper.

Sure, I’d get interactions with lecturers and fellow students but not as much as I can get out there in the open world or could get during a week or two at a good summer school.

So basically, unless I can justify the expenditure as a direct job prospect, I can’t see what value an MA in anything at the OU would have for me.

Actually, there’s one value I can see and that is headspace. But a part-time course may not be as good for that as a full time attendance course. I did actually do something like this five years ago but I took a complete career study break so I was buying head space as well as content or degree (which I never even finished).

Going back to the skills, learning, etc. and what it has to do with the value of education. I believe I’m doing as serious and rigorous study of many subjects now as I was when I was a student. But there’s no way to get meaningful credit for that.

I’m vaguely excited by the badges idea which could provide small meaningful chunks of credit that might accumulate over time and mean something. But we’d have to build a lot of open mindedness into the system.

For example, I’d seen some serious literary criticism done on Fanfiction forums – and I’d like to be able to go and award a badge to that person (as I did when I graded essays in literature). Maybe even without their asking me. And I’d like it if somebody else did it for my blog posts (some of them are over 5000 words). Maybe extend your idea of metajournal (which I love, by the way) into some kind of a metadegree.

I am currently trying to design a MOOC-like course that would be both enjoyable, challenging, provide lots of learning from open resources, contribute resources back to the community and be worth paying for (a small amount but enough to make it sustainable).

So the question your posts triggered in me is how can we go out and convince enough people to join the course, pay a bit of money, stick with it and continue the conversation. Given all the competing forces for their attention and money out there.

Martin responded with some important corrections as to why people might want to pay for expensive higher learning. He was particularly giving a warning that we should not replace educated people with autodidacts. This was my clarification.

I agree with most your points Martin. In particular, I don’t think autodidacts are the way to go. The successful ones are far too rare and most of the ones I’ve come across are noticeably odd. But I did not mean to imply this scenario. I wasn’t even suggesting that people shouldn’t follow a course of study over some period of time or not participate in a community (although while professional communities are necessary, they can also have hugely detrimental effects on innovation – cf Kuhn). My complaint is that I don’t see why these courses of study and the communities should be locked away and cost so much money. I’ve long advocated Open Source curriculum and text book development (on as, I know, have you. In a way, what I’m proposing is the unbundling of assessment and individual support from curriculum and content.

But you’re right, I was too harsh on OU courses. While not for me, I’m sure many people find them enjoyable (though, as you point our not at every point), rewarding and useful.

But I think my first comment in defense of MOOCs was on Amanda Krauss’s Opinion Time. Amanda liked some aspects of the courses but was concerned that there was not enough “teaching” by experts going on. My view on expertise underlying everything on this website is very skeptical, as was my comment:

You make good points, but I’d like to take up one aspect that I saw tweeted:
“there’s basically no direct, individual instruction, evaluation, or interaction with anyone who knows what they’re doing. Period.”

1) You say that these are “limitations of MOOCs everywhere”. Up to a point, this may be the case, but many MOOCs focus more on the Open part than the Massive part. Certainly the original ones like DS106 or Connectivism did/do.

2) The current “massive” MOOCs focus on easy to grade basic subjects. They equate education with basic knowledge and skills. And that’s fine. But the original MOOCs picked subjects that are more open ended and the interactions by students are much more distributed and varied. In a way, they start from the assumptions that “nobody knows what they’re doing” and make the learning about a journey of discovery.

Again, that’s fine for certain subjects at certain levels.

3) There is an implied assumption that this statement doesn’t describe the university experience of many students anyway. Read “My Freshman Year” to see how disengaged students are from the “learning” part of university. Sure, the motivated ones have at least a chance of catching the professor or talking to a TA in a section. They also get some personalized feedback. But the grand total of that is a lot less than people imagine. Just having students sit in a class and watch a live person doesn’t do much more good.

Ultimately, individual students’ experiences will vary.

I have since started taking a Fantasy/SciFi literature course on Coursera and I’m pretty impressed with their approach to peer assessment. It seems that with the right set up, guidance and on the right subject, peer feedback can be just as effective (both in the giving and receiving) as expert feedback (also we should not forget the ability of students to not learn from expert feedback). I’m currently playing with the idea for a course I’m trying to design.

My thinking on MOOCs continues as I try to take, observe and design MOOC-like courses. I like the idea of openness and the possibilities of opening up access beyond the limitations of location and resource. And I think higher education needs a proper shake up. From the main theme of this blog – open research – to the big business that is higher education. MOOCs may or may not be the thing that brings the much needed change to the sector but they are certainly the sort of conceptual foundation on which such a change can be based.

There’s so much more on the MOOC bashing. I’ll continue keeping track of them on Storify.


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