MOOCs as torture.

White man’s neo-liberal techno-fantasy. These are not the kind of words designed to get me to read a book, yet these are the terms that keep appearing in my Twitter feed with respect to Kevin Carey’s The End of College. Honestly, though, I didn’t need to rely on all these mini-reviews in order to decide that I’d rather get a root canal than read this book.  All I needed to do is read this New York Times excerpt:

The failure of MOOCs to disrupt higher education has nothing to do with the quality of the courses themselves, many of which are quite good and getting better. Colleges are holding technology at bay because the only thing MOOCs provide is access to world-class professors at an unbeatable price. What they don’t offer are official college degrees, the kind that can get you a job. And that, it turns out, is mostly what college students are paying for.

This paragraph is just so wrong-headed that it’s hard to know where to begin. I guess I’ll start with the first sentence.

The failure of MOOCs to disrupt higher education has everything to do with the quality of the courses themselves.  xMOOCs (the only kind of MOOC that a techno-fetishist like Carey acknowledges) are bad educational experiences by definition. This is a function of their scale. With so many such classes coming from elite universities, the content in the vast majority of them is obviously world class, but if education were only about content then we wouldn’t need college, would we? We could all go to the library and learn everything we need. What I’m talking about here is the overall educational experience.

I’m sure I’ve written this before, but it bears repeating:  If I broke up my lectures into ten minute chunks and started assessing students mostly with multiple choice quizzes based on each of those parts, they’d put me away.  Actually, my students would flee my classes in droves before they’d get around to locking me away. I think this is where the xMOOC experience blends beautifully with the techno-fetsihist experience at its opposite scale: namely Minerva. I used this quote in my post on Saturday, but it bears repeating here too:

To gauge whether students understand a concept, flash polls and pop quizzes are given throughout the class, and students use emoticons to answer yes/no questions from the professor.

Why is that a good idea? Because techno-fetsihists think education is like conditioning. Learning through suffering.  Then they can show the marks education has left on your psyche as proof that their methods really work.  Students can then take their micro-credential and join the unemployment line a few places in front of all those ordinary schlubs.

Actual educators, on the other hand, have a different model entirely.   They understand that the best way to teach someone anything is to establish an actual relationship with them rather than just showing them flashy bits of ultraviolets.  Indeed, the best way to assess learning is to have students do what you want them to do themselves or in groups.  Then you can comment on their work and have them do it again if necessary.

Actual educators also understand that THIS PROCESS CANNOT SCALE. If you think it can then you know absolutely nothing about teaching.  As the irreplaceable Erik Loomis put it yesterday:

Carey just wants to offer badges that simply replaces the college degree without replicating any of the skills students learn there. Disrupting the college means disrupting the skills college builds. If that’s a problem, we’ll just claim those skills are unnecessary or pretend like they don’t exist!

People of means will still get those skills in a world controlled by techno-fetishists.  MOOCs simply offer an opportunity to give up on teaching everybody else what they’ll need to compete with the elite.

Yet the elite will still be the superprofessors nominally teaching these classes.  I think there’s something of class deference assumption build into this kind of techno-fetishism.  “We know what’s good for you,” the elite tell its MOOC students, yet every good teacher knows that it is easier to catch flies with honey than with vinegar.  Nobody should go into teaching if they harbor fantasies of controlling other human beings because it simply won’t work.  To students, we’re more like Mrs. Othmar from the old Peanuts television cartoons than that guy from The Paper Chase.  What that means is that in order to have any effect on students’ lives they have to let us in.  If you have to pry their eyes open to look at what you want them to see, then they’ll shut them as soon as that machine is gone.

That, my Droogies, is the God’s honest truth.  So help me, Ludwig Van!

Posted by Jonathan Rees

Professor of History, Colorado State University - Pueblo.

1 comment

[…] first is trivially easy (although implementing into a classroom setting in a disciplined way may end up being a form of torture); the second will vary from easy to unimaginably difficult depending on the […]

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