Happy MOOC Year (or maybe not)!

While most people spend the start of the New Year looking forward, I’ve been looking back at my old MOOC posts today, trying to think of something new to say for the book chapter that I’m drafting.  Luckily for me, there have been a few good MOOC-y (or at least MOOC-ish) posts showing up in my Twitter feed lately that have helped get all those happy, happy memories flowing.

Apparently, David Wiley and I are re-reading David Noble at the same time.  However, I think he’s using the original articles and I have the published book, Digital Diploma Mills, permanently perched on top of my desk with a bunch of Post-Its popping out of the edges. I think the differences between the two texts are minimal, but this still confuses me:

I use these quotes to further reinforce the point that there really is very little difference between traditional online courses and MOOCs. What difference there is – the free auditing difference, with its accompanying brand inversion – is a very small delta, but one that moves the field significantly closer to the state that Noble foresaw over 15 years ago. If anything, Noble’s old warnings about online courses are even more important now than they were in 1998.

I agree that Noble’s old warnings about online courses are even more important than they were in 1998, but how those warnings prove that there is no difference between MOOCs and traditional online courses totally eludes me.

The giant, obvious, glaring difference between MOOCs and traditional online courses is scale.  In a traditional online course, particular back in the last century when there were far fewer online students, it was possible for a single professor to supervise the learning of an entire class.  In the MOOC age, students have to win raffles in order to get join a Google Hangout with the superstar they know only from video.  As online education has matured, some such courses have gotten much better than what Noble described. Others have gotten much worse.  MOOCs, on the other hand, have to function on the “you’re on your own” kid pedagogical model – otherwise they wouldn’t be MOOCs.

Or at least xMOOCs.  Daniel Lemire takes us back to the difference between cMOOCs and xMOOCs in explaining why MOOCs are probably doomed.  Without the interaction between professors and students, universities with MOOCs are simply pushing content. As Lemire describes it:

What colleges do not do, at least on campus, is to make money off course content. As it is, you can easily order all the textbooks you could possibly read on Amazon. You can join discussion groups about them. You sneak into lectures, or find tons of them online. There is simply little value in the course content.

Do not believe me? Run the following experiment. Make all courses tuition free. Students can enrol for free and if they pass the exam, they get the credit. However, they must pay $20 for each hour of lecture they choose to attend. You know what is going to happen? Nobody but the instructor will show up. How do I know? Because, as it is, with free lectures once you have enrolled in a class, most students never show up for class unless they are compelled to do so. Why would anyone think that it is going to be somehow different with pre-recorded lectures online? You know, the lectures colleges like so much? The truth is that there is only value at the margin for course content.

Not only that, contrary to what Koller et. al. tell us at every opportunity, plenty of college professors never lecture at all.  It’s as if they think they can create an entire college education made up entirely of survey courses.  That’s like trying to understand American cuisine by only eating fast food.

Of course I still hope Lemire is right about MOOCs being doomed, but what if the MOOC purveyors succeed in redefining education as nothing but selling content?  Here’s the disruptors’ playbook as summarized by a report out of the University of Denver called Unsettling Times: Higher Education in an Era of Change:

While a disruptive technology may not perform as well as established products or services, the new, less expensive innovation is “good enough” for those in markets that have been ignored or priced out of mainstream providers. Over time, however, the quality of the innovation improves and it becomes more broadly accepted.

Online education, delivered by respectable institutions, has indeed improved and become more broadly accepted as a result. I’m not saying it’s all good, but it’s certainly not all bad either.

MOOCs (or at least xMOOCs), on the other hand, can never improve because of the scale at which they are conducted.  Superprofessors will not suddenly clone themselves so that they can be there to help everyone in need of help.  Universities will not reach out to troubled students at risk of leaving their MOOCs because those students simply stop logging in to watch the lectures.  They have no skin in the game, and should they be asked to provide that skin the number of students involved will hardly be massive anymore. At that point, your MOOC becomes nothing but a conventional online course and if the total number of students involved is higher than what one professor can follow it probably isn’t a good one.

Those of you have read all (or even most) of the posts that I’ve written about MOOCs have seen me constantly vacillate between optimism and despair as to whether the kind of education that I’ve invested my career into will ever be “disrupted.” Sometimes I’m optimistic that the students will never accept higher education on autopilot. Sometimes I’m convinced that administrators only care about money and our students only really care about getting a degree so therefore we’re all doomed.

Looking back on what I’ve written, this is the best I can do now with respect to offering everyone something new: This issue is too important to leave to chance. Every professor, online or in-person, needs to make it abundantly clear what they bring to the table when they’re doing their job.  That list should include, experience, insight, knowledge and inspiration, among other traits.

Without those things, education will become a chore and fewer students will succeed.  When potential students see what’s headed down the road at them and opt not to pay tuition in the first place, then the real disruption will begin and faculty will not be the only ones getting disrupted.

Jonathan Rees

Professor of History, Colorado State University - Pueblo.

This Post Has 7 Comments

  1. I agree this is too important to leave to chance.

    Wiley and you both miss one aspect: peer grading. It might exist in traditional online courses, but as far as I understand this was populatised by MOOCs. I see it as the first step in building collaborative tools to teach more efficiently (in a metric-oriented, cost-saving way), but might also be used creatively by teachers in online courses at all scales. And really, one can imagine relatively complex workflows that would truly help students learn, if those tools are taken at face value: as tools and not brands.

    Happy New Year to you, and I wish you to be more at peace with the MOOC (d)evolutions of 2015.

      1. For me, it is a bit further down, seventh in the Google rankings. You might be interested in this very recent interview of Koller, second question. She agrees with you on the quality of the grading:

        Still, peer grading is a very first step, and was enough to sell the whole MOOC machine and con many into this brand inversion. I do believe more is possible, and only possible at scale. There are many options: iversity for instance is experimenting with a grading cloud. One could have paid graders grading the graders, for instance (a bit like comment moderation on big platform: “flag – voluntarily – as inappropriate so our underpaid, outsourced moderators can review the flags”).

  2. Pat

    “In the MOOC age, students have to win raffles in order to get join a Google Hangout with the superstar they know only from video…….”

    Students /can/ win a raffle – our MOOC featured public lectures students where free to attend, or watch online. I know of a lot of MOOCs where lecturers have taken steps to answer most of the questions asked.

    We had a weekly forum in which the most popular 10 or so questions got an answer from the Professor. I would say this was around 60 percent of the questions asked.

    ‘MOOCs, on the other hand, have to function on the “you’re on your own” kid pedagogical model – otherwise they wouldn’t be MOOCs.’

    They don’t though. A brief analysis of our MOOC data showed most users don’t touch the forum. Could I prove forum usage was linked to better grades – not really. So they may well be on their own, but that might be because they don’t need help? Do we expect every student to talk to a lecturer?

    We put in place email and forum support, and responded to everything (either myself or the lecturer). Would I say we left people without support. In a word, no.

    The problem with the xMOOC / cMOOC distinction, is like all of these weird us and them arguments is it says more about the desire for self-representation and individual politics than it ever did for making useful taxonomies (some sort of Oppenheimer self-hate post event?). I know of MOOCs with a smaller cohort than some first year Uni Courses I’ve helped with.

    I would place MOOCs at the far end of the industrialised Professor / Assistants course structure – where contact is mitigated through all manner of proxies and FAQ lists. I think perceived as a scalable structure coming from that model it makes more sense which Unis have adopted MOOCs.

    I commented on one of Tony Bates’ blogs about how it wasn’t possible to respond to every student. Which translates as “Well no one has even tried to”, and I didn’t really think academia was 1) that lazy and 2) that lazy it would make such an assumption without trying first. If I only do stuff people tell me is possible, then life might grind a little.

    Hypocrisy hat on what you have is bad industrialised education built to be as low cost as possible, and people trying to reach out and teach as many as might have an interest. Is it content dumping? No, because that’s just OER and OCW. It is giving people a challenge. I think if you have no challenge, no one would come.

    1. Jonathan Rees

      Actually, every student would be better off if they could (no anti-online discrimination here) communicate with a lecturer. Then the faculty can help with things the students didn’t know they needed help on and the dropout rate wouldn’t be so bad.

      1. Pat

        That was my entire philosophy round making the support explicit and visible – if you offer the help, realise how they saw things, address problems, the course only gets better.

        This is as true on pretty much everything educational though

    2. David Mazel

      FWIW, during my 17 years at Adams State I met one-on-one with every one of my students, multiple times in the semester. When we met I was able to clear up misconceptions about the subject matter, help them improve their thinking and writing, etc. I could help struggling students get back on track, and help strong students get stronger, in ways not possible in a peer-feedback environment — in fact, in ways not even possible with a face-to-face tutor.

      This level of attention is not that hard to maintain, nor is it that expensive (our tuition has always been at the lower end of the scale).

      It’s not that hard, it’s just a matter of giving a sh*t. The xMOOC is the darling of those who don’t give a sh*t.

      I still think the best political strategy here is to play the class card. xMOOCs are what the elite want for the masses but will never accept for their own kids. Too many rich people don’t want to help subsidize the education of their inferiors, and to this “problem,” xMOOCs are the solution. Doubly so: instead of subsidizing the education of the poor, investors can make money off of them! All those billions of dollars flowing from the federal treasury into the pockets of college students and their professors: the urge for Wall Street to insert its proboscis into this vein of money is irrestible, pedagogy be damned. Look at what’s been going on in K-12. Higher-ed is now in the crosshairs as well.

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