He lost me at “scale.”

I don’t know the historian Steve Mintz, but I do know he’s a pioneer in putting all kinds of historical resources online.  This means he was doing what we now call the Digital Humanities (to which I have some aspirations) long before it was cool.  Today in IHE, he describes his newest project:

This summer, I am designing a U.S. history survey course for online delivery at scale – maintaining chronological sweep while eschewing lectures and emphasizing active learning.

He lost me at “scale.” It’s a shame because if you read that whole blog post you’ll see there’s a lot of things there that I want to do online myself.  Unfortunately, the problems that I have with scale here is so massive, I think they’re insurmountable.  Let me explain why I think they should be non-starters for you too.

In the interests of space, rather than rehash the numerous parts of Mintz’s essay that I agree with I’m going to concentrate on where he lost me.  Here it is all in one paragraph:

One of my goals is to demonstrate that a writing-intensive course built around active learning can be scaled. But successfully implementing such a course won’t be easy. Even when the writing prompts are highly specific and the length of responses is limited, it will be difficult to provide students with the kind of prompt feedback they expect.  There are ways to address this challenge, but many inflict a cost. I can cut back on feedback, reduce the number of modules, or substitute multiple choice questions for written responses. I can also include some ungraded assignments, use some form of peer grading, or experiment with auto-grading.

So what’s he gonna do?  Mintz doesn’t say.  I think there’s a reason he doesn’t say – all those solutions stink.

Cutting back on feedback means that students will not get the kind of writing instruction they deserve. Yes, it’s a requirement for grading at scale, but the problem is that Mintz would be letting the scale engine drive the pedagogy train.  To maintain the integrity of the course would require doing it the other way around.

Reducing the number of modules would mean less actual history instruction.  This is certainly a feasible solution, but it also lacks integrity.  The funny thing about online instruction is that when you say a course is online all those accreditation-related  concerns about seat time just go flying out the window.  Self-paced?  No problem.  While I think it’s unwise to build an online course that resembles whatever your face-to-face course once was, an online course with less material is less likely to achieve whatever the professor’s goals happen to be.  That’s a sacrifice that’s not worth making.

Multiple choice tests?  That would set back history education about fifty years.  I wrote this about multiple choice tests in the history MOOC context way back in 2013:

If we judged the success of a history MOOC on the basis of multiple choice questions based upon the content of superprofessor lectures, then I bet MOOC students would learn a ton. However, no history professor in their right mind would ever define a successful history education this way. I define history education not as the accumulation of facts, but as promoting critical thinking, improving reading and writing skills and as a process of intellectual socialization based upon close interaction between a student, their peers and the professor. None of these things can be measured in numbers.

A regular online history class at scale is actually worse than a MOOC in some ways because it’s designed to replace the labor of living, breathing faculty members.  It’s a job killer by definition.

This is precisely why whatever good Mintz manages to eek out of this experiment will be far overshadowed by the bad.  Yes, I’m talking about the academic equivalent of featherbedding – maintaining jobs that could be rendered obsolete so that people can be employed fill them.  However (and this is a BIG however, so don’t anyone dare quote this paragraph outside its full context), unlike with typesetters during the 1962-63 New York newspaper strike, the people in question here do the job much better than the technology that management wanted to use to replace them.  Mintz’s laudable, unachievable-at-scale aspirations here actually demonstrate why scale hurts the quality of an online history class almost by definition.

The problem that all of us faculty face – whether we teach online or not – is that at least some people with the power to set curricula won’t care.  That explains why faculty keeping control of the technology that might be used to replace them is so important.

7 thoughts on “He lost me at “scale.”

  1. Thanks for pointing this out, Jonathan. My frustration here is with the *novelty* of the conversation from the perspective of Mintz. Some will say it is valuable to have the conversation, but this is not a new conversation, these are not new problems, and the lack of thoughts on solutions is frustrating. Seeing people celebrate their design as if it is unique could be more problematic than just having these scaled *courses* roll out. At some point those new to this topic need to realize that it’s new to them but rather commonplace in the domain. Until then, it’s more and more hype and eventually MOOC 5.0.

  2. Interestingly enough, I was just sitting down now to do some work on the “MOOC project,” as I call it, which is (hopefully) ultimately going to be a book-length work about MOOCs, particularly writing MOOCs (since I’m a comp/rhet scholar/teacher). A big part of this project is going to be based on some interviews of folks who ran large writing MOOCs, and I think there are two very short summary responses to the issue of scale generally here.

    First, no academic-type I’ve talked to who has constructed and taught a MOOC (even along the lines of what I think Mintz is talking about) believes it is a substitution for a college class. There are a ton of things we can learn about teaching and writing and such based on MOOC experiences, sure, but as far as I can tell, the only people who seriously entertain the idea that MOOCs will replace small classes where we traditionally teach writing (think first year composition, for example) are administrators, venture capitalists investing in higher ed, and clueless newspaper columnists.

    Second, what MOOCs do for sure is put up for grabs a lot of the definitions and assumptions we have of the enterprise– what defines a “class” for “credit,” what’s a “student,” where is the line between a “course” and the “community” around it, etc, etc.

    Of course, not knowing a whole lot of the specifics of what Mintz is doing, he might be (ironically enough) ignoring the past history of distance education and attempting to do something that others have already demonstrated doesn’t quite work.

  3. I know you meant it sarcastically, but actually the perception that online classes can/should be self-paced is a major problem, since a self-paced course (unlike an asynchronous one with set deadlines) pretty much precludes any sort of effective structured student discussion/interaction (which is not, of course, a substitute for teacher feedback, but can definitely be a useful part — even, at least in the online courses I design and teach, the core activity — of a course).

    Scale and feedback (and what kind of feedback is worth spending money on) are definitely key factors — perhaps *the* key factor — in current debates over what constitutes high-quality pedagogy, and how much it should cost. Maybe I’m a luddite (albeit one with an ever-increasing collection of tech gadgets), but I just don’t see any way around the (to me) fact that good teaching is a labor-intensive activity, and simply doesn’t scale beyond a certain point (and I’d argue that many of us in academia, especially those of us whose work centers mostly around gen ed courses, have already reached or exceeded that point).

  4. Which of these mutually-incompatible features–“self-paced,” “writing-intensive,” “at scale,” “prompt feedback,” or “chronological sweep”–will Steve Mintz abandon first?

  5. I would be curious when this dreadful phrase “at scale” became part of the conversation. Did people ever describe big lecture classes as being something taught in the classroom “at scale”…? Are they using this dreadful phrase “at scale” for classroom-based classes now also? I’m really interested in what is gained by using this euphemism as opposed to just saying “on the cheap,” because what you gain by teaching “at scale” is a reduction in instructional costs by sacrificing learning opportunity. Yes, you get to decide just what form of learning opportunity you want to sacrifice; the teaching of writing is usually the first thing to go, as Mintz indicates, and that’s a problem in college classes across the board, not just the ones taught “at scale.” So, what we are looking at here is an economic strategy, not a pedagogical strategy, which is why the pedagogical discussion seems a bit beside the point. If the goal is to economize, then what we need to be talking about is whether this is the best way to address the problem of costs, of instructional costs in particular (because MOOCs with very expensive video production costs and unsustainable platforms are not, in the end, really cheap), and of college costs overall (of which instructional costs form only part; just how big or small a part is rather hard to say given the purposefully obscure process of university budgeting).
    Disclosure: I teach writing-intensive, asynchronous, online, small-ish, cheap classes (appx. 80-100 students per semester total across three courses as a full-time online instructor… crunch all the numbers, and the university is clearing a tidy overhead from my classes, and an even more tidy overhead on the out-of-state students – and don’t forget the $120 online course penalty/fee that they charge per student for another big KA-CHING at the cash register).

  6. Hi Dr. Rees,
    This is Martin from your Colorado History class. I find almost everything interesting, including your thoughts on the future of university so I find myself reading your blog from time to time. I suppose this is a petty criticism, but what is the purpose of the link to the wikki on the 62-3 NY newspaper strike? The article never mentions a change in technology, in relation to the strike or elsewise.
    Despite my little citric I think what you discuss here is important and enjoy reading it. While I think many of the maladies of university are self-inflicted I do not see moog’s and other online formats as a viable replacement, so the only solution must be to improve the “factory” and its product (educated youngsters) to the point that a “factory” degree is more desired by employers then the (I think you called it ) “pinkberry” variety. I could be wrong.
    See you in the not to distant future.
    Martin Lee Rose

    “Books are the quietest and most constant of friends; they are the most accessible and wisest of counselors, and the most patient of teachers.” Charles Eliot

    1. Martin,

      There aren’t links for every point, so I just offered that one as context. I first read about that strike in a good (very long) book about the history of the New York Herald Tribune. I’ll give you the title sometime if you care.

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