Hard Times, indeed.

“Clearly you need to restrict the dimensions to things that more or less have a right answer or several right answers.”

So says Daphne Koller on the challenges of adapting MOOC technology to teach humanities courses. (Many thanks to Jonathan Rees of More or Less Bunk for alerting me to this story. While you’re there, don’t miss his post on “This is How MOOCs End.”)

What Koller really means is that we need not adapt MOOCs to the humanities. We need to adapt the humanities to the limits and demands of MOOCworld, which operates on the assumption that everything we need to know about student progress and achievement can be effectively measured by essay-grading software and multiple-choice quizzes and exams. Who knew that some people read Charles Dickens’s Hard Times not as a critique of the industrial era and the notion that everything (including education) can be automated, but rather see it as a blueprint for modern educational instruction?

I guess they’re the kind of people who didn’t learn in humanities classes about little things like “satire” and “irony.” I don’t know about you, but that ain’t the humanities that I know, and that sure as heck isn’t the way we teach them in face-to-face classes. I haven’t given a scantron quiz since 2004, and I’ve never in my entire career administered a midterm or final exam that had multiple-choice answers. That’s what a humanities education looks like, friends.

Why is it that every time I read or write about MOOCs, the other famous film clip that came to mind is this classic from The Twilight Zone? It’s a cookbook! That’s how MOOCs are serving education! OK, now it’s your turn.

58 thoughts on “Hard Times, indeed.

  1. What Rees is wrong about, is that he underestimates the extent to which–through “public-private partnership” (also known as corporate lobbyist-driven plundering of the commons coupled with socialization of corporate losses)–the children of the proles will be *forced* to take MOOC courses while their non-elite public universities will be *forced* to offer them for credit. Of course, the children of odious technodouches like Daphne Koller will be taught by real professors in real classrooms at elite private universities that will never in a million years offer course credit for MOOCs.

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  2. I’m not that despairing.

    MOOCs are a bubble, and Koller & co.’s aim is just to get out before the bill comes due. No one makes money by building or making anything of actual value anymore. They make money by pumping up bubbles & letting capital-intensive institutions (banks, the U.S. government, universities) invest the money & assume the risk, and then pull out before the house of cards collapses. Ka-ching!

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  3. I agree both with CPP and you, Historiann. I think these companies (Coursera, Udacity) are going to go the way of the dot.com boom. But having (at the behest to faculty of our BOG chair) read Christensen’s odious “The Innovative University”, I think as usual with our contemporary form of capitalism the brief bubble of speculative fleecing will be accompanied by grim and permanent disciplinary measures of the Gradgrind kind. Christensen describes the transformation of what seems to have been a sort of humble Mormon community college into “BYU-Idaho”, complete with *obligatory* MOOC components. That is, for certain majors (or all majors? I’m forgetting the exact details) students had to take at least two courses on-line before they could graduate. That’s what they are going to propagate at public universities: consumers won’t choose the choice that will line your pockets? Force them to. Say you can’t “afford” to replicate Biology 101 and English 101 across campuses, it just makes sense to automate the lower levels (for the plebes at public institutions, of course) and so students will have to squeeze themselves through that part of the tube to get access to the real classes they want.

    That’s how the business is done: spin a pretty picture, make the big and fleeting profits possible from that; press down the disciplinary yoke, make the small and humble and incremental and long-term profits possible from that.

    Look at the gutting of pensions, of home ownership — they always work both ends of the deal.

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  4. Hmm. . .I tend to think I’m doing it right (where it=designing assignments) when I *can’t* predict the students’ answers (including all the ways they’ll manage to go right, or wrong, in the course of following my guidance through their own processes of discovery). And the greatest difficulties I have in pushing students beyond their comfort zones stem from the formulaic teaching they’ve received at lower levels (whether from NCLB-inspired mass testing, even mass testing that uses essay exams, or from rhetorical formulae that sometimes rule English 101, and do *not* need to be set in stone via MOOCs. Some of the textbooks are bad enough; if there’s anything that needs real disrupting, it’s some of the formulaic stuff that’s already there).

    I, too, am doubtful that MOOCs will catch on in any big way. The dystopia CPP describes may manage to take over some community colleges (which is a real shame, since community colleges are one of the places where the American Dream, particularly the immigrant/up-from-poverty version, survives in some recognizable form), but I don’t think it’s going to make it even as far as the R2s, mostly because tuition at those places has gone up significantly in the last few decades, students and their parents are aware of that fact, they want value for their money, and they equate value with a mostly face-to-face college experience. With any luck, the ease of getting across “online is a ripoff” as a message will also protect most community colleges (while dooming the online for-profits, or at least the ones with egregious graduation rates and student debt numbers).

    Oddly, the tricky part may be getting a more nuanced message to the more privileged part of the population, because they are the ones who are most likely to have had a *positive* only education experience, either in a well-crafted, narrowly-targeted Masters or similar professional program, or in making professional and/or recreational use of MOOCs. The very people who are in a position to make good use of online education (and whose kids, being well-prepared and well-supported, may well be able to do so as well) are, unfortunately, the ones making decisions for those in very different circumstances.

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  5. Comradde,

    I used to be right there with you, but here’s what you’re missing:

    They’ll try to cram, but students won’t put up with being treated like widgets. They’re uneducated, not stupid. That attempted cram will destroys lots of jobs and more than a few colleges and universities, but it won’t work. MOOCs will fail sooner rather than later.

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  6. Shelley–agreed. And that’s why the fantasy of Professor Pushbutton–automating education–is so popular and so seductive.

    Contingent Cassandra makes loads of important points, but I especially liked this: “The very people who are in a position to make good use of online education (and whose kids, being well-prepared and well-supported, may well be able to do so as well) are, unfortunately, the ones making decisions for those in very different circumstances.”

    Plus what Kathleen says. She’s obvs. on top of this stuff way more than I am!

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  7. Let me be the bad cop here. If you want to stay relevant, and employed, I think you need to think hard about what your classroom (and office hours, etc.) presence brings to education.

    What I see looks more like whining and wishful thinking. Where is the realistic analysis of what is happening? The reality is that traditional universities are priced far beyond the reach of many students. Another reality is that well constructed MOOCs work very well for some students and some subjects. No amount of juvenile dissing of Daphne K’s skills and motives will change that.

    Right now I’m taking Gautam Kaul’s Finance class at Coursera. It’s a pretty good class, and I’m taking it for free. If I was in the real-classroom version at U of Michigan Business School it would cost me $50,000 a year plus I would need to give up my job and move.

    Maybe MOOCs won’t work for humanities. If so, humanities MOOCs will fade away. But if you are so sure your personal presence is the magic elixir that leads to student learning, I suggest that you dig a bit deeper and figure out exactly what the value is that you add to education. That would be useful analytical thinking.

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  8. If MOOC is a bubble, a fade and and an endangered species member, why all the hot air?

    Certainty is great although I am considerably less clear and less secure. Personally, I have no dog in the fight (too old), but shouldn’t we a little more careful here?

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  9. CIP writes as if there is no scholarly literature on pedagogy, and claims that because I don’t detail it all here, I am not engaging in “useful analytical thinking.” Maybe you could find a MOOC to educate you on everything you’re missing, a literature that goes back at least to Rousseau.

    (Actually I’m not engaging in “useful analytical thinking” in this post–I’m making fun of Daphne Koller’s notion of what the humanities are. If you think she is a model for “useful analytical thinking,” then I can’t help you.)

    And finally, this cracks me up: ” If you want to stay relevant, and employed. . . “ Oooooohhhhh! I’m so scared, anonymous random commenter. In case you can’t tell, in my RL I have a day job and I’m tenured, so I’m not particularly worried about my employment status. (Just click on “about Historiann” at the top left of the page, if you haven’t yet already.) I don’t know your story, though–you comment on Rees’s blog all the time with an attitude like we should care what you think as a dabbler in a few MOOC courses, when we have no idea who you are or why we should take you seriously.

    So, how about this? You comment under your verifiable RL name, and state your credentials. You can see mine (and yet still make condesending remarks on my blog), and you know who Jonathan is. So do ya feel lucky, punk? Well, do ya? (And BTW: running Daphne Koller’s astroturf organization is not an authorizing credential.) I’d love to know what your beef is with hardworking, obscure liberal arts professors like me and Jonathan Rees, and why you frequent our blogs.

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  10. Right now I’m taking Gautam Kaul’s Finance class at Coursera. It’s a pretty good class, and I’m taking it for free. If I was in the real-classroom version at U of Michigan Business School it would cost me $50,000 a year plus I would need to give up my job and move.

    I’m sure that is working out great for a middle-aged college graduate who wants to amuse himself with on-line mental masturbation. But how is it gonna work for young people who haven’t already been to college and need to learn how to read, write, and reason?

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  11. I, too, would like to know more about CIP’s background *before* embarking on a MOOC, since I’m pretty sure, as I said above, that prior educational experiences (formal or informal) matter a lot. MOOCs work well for those who have already learned how to learn.

    In the meantime, I’m pretty sure I can describe at least one part of the value I add to my students’ educational experience (face to face *or* non-massive online; I do both): I’m part of an ongoing feedback loop adapted (and constantly re-adapted) to my university’s student population. I provide detailed feedback to individual students and to the class as a whole (the most visible part of my work, at least to the students), and I also regularly revise and/or recreate assignments and activities, small and large, to fit the needs of the current crop of students (which change gradually over time, and also can change much more quickly and unexpectedly, often as the result of curricular change earlier in the educational pipeline). While I don’t discount the value of larger-scale assessment of students’ needs, abilities, and outcomes (and try to keep up with that literature), there’s no substitute this sort of regular familiarity with and response to individual students’ work.

    And yes, it’s expensive, because it involves the mental labor of individual human beings. But so does, for instance, medicine, and I don’t think any of us is ready to trust diagnosis of our ills to some sort of automated multiple-choice test yet (even if we think such a tool could be useful to doctors in checking that they’re asking all the right questions and considering all the possibilities, we almost certainly want a well-trained, experienced human looking at the results and thinking “okay; yes; that fits” or “hmm; that doesn’t look right”).

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  12. Let me at least tell Historyann who this hitherto nameless punk is: My name is Edward Measure, AKA CIP. I have a PhD in physics, and am a couple of months short of retirement and age 70. If you visit my blog, you will see that I have posted about 4500 articles on physics, education, economics, evolutionary biology and psychology and anything else that strikes my fancy. I have taught at universities and community colleges though never on a tenure track, including courses in physics, mathematics, astronomy, electrical engineering and mechanical engineering.

    I bother you anti-MOOCers because I think you spread misinformation about MOOCs and have very mistaken ideas about how they work. I have rather broad interests and MOOCs are perfect for me.

    I have a nodding acquaintance with the literature of pedagogy from Plato and Aristotle to Dewey and Piaget, as well as some mostly forgettable more modern authors whose names I don’t recall at the moment, but I only claim expertise for my own learning – and that’s well suited to the MOOC.

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  13. CIP, I grant you that MOOCs are perfect for 70-year old Ph.D.s! But that’s not the population that I serve as a professor, nor is it the modal student imagined by Coursera, EdX, etc. Those are the students whose interests I serve in through my work and my critique of MOOCs.

    You prove Cassandra’s point even more perfectly than I could have hoped for!

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  14. PS – The only relation I have to Coursera, edX or any of the other MOOCs is as a consumer of their products. I have no financial or other interest in any of them.

    HTH

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  15. If you want to stay relevant, and employed, I think you need to think hard about what your classroom (and office hours, etc.) presence brings to education.

    Way to be a troll, man. If you look (you know, do your research) you will find plenty of discussion on just this topic here and at countless other academic blogs. We carry on such conversations a lot in real life too. Turns out that’s what faculty who care about both teaching and learning do.

    Where is the realistic analysis of what is happening?

    All over the internet.

    The reality is that traditional universities are priced far beyond the reach of many students.

    Perhaps, though historiann made an interesting comparison on that point a few weeks ago. Did you read it? To the extent that the cost of university is rising beyond the reach of students, thank your state legislature, tax-averse rich folk/corporations/banks, and the crappy economy they have conspired to create.

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  16. I was just this week, by the department chair at my summer adjuncting gig, ordered to give a final exam that consists of only multiple choice questions- for a history class. I’m forbidden from giving the students essay questions, because open ended questions “make them anxious.” So…yeah. In this scenario, I could be replaced with a MOOC and a scantron, and no doubt I soon will be. My students will be learning some superficial facts about the past, and nothing about history.

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  17. rustonite, that’s terrible! Adjuncts I know want to use multiple choice because they don’t want to earn 7¢ an hour grading, but are forbidden.

    That said, although I agree 100% with Historiann on the MOOC fad, swiftly may it vanish, I wouldn’t dismiss multiple choice. Questions don’t have to be “In which of the following years did the Glorious Revolution start?” If you eschew weasel answers like “None of the above” and “A and C only,” and give your students a chance to show you their prose, you can play fair on your final and widen what you cover.

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  18. Some multiple choice questions can be good–my dropping them even on quizzes has more to do with the fact that 1) those kinds of questions take a LONG time to formulate, and 2) I had concerns about student honesty & the temptation to cheat on the quizzes in our lecture halls, where the students are packed in pretty close together.

    But, wow rustonite: how discouraging that your department chair has clearly just given up. Why the hell does he care about student anxiety? Shouldn’t effective teaching, like art, provoke discomfort and anxiety at least sometimes? Shees.

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  19. Question 3. The American Revolution was caused by:

    a) the tyranny of English government;
    b) threats to the colonial social order by rebellious frontiersmen;
    c) creole businessmen believing they no longer needed the protection of the crown;
    d) Gordon Wood.

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  20. Question 18. Benjamin Franklin met “Voltaire” in:

    a) A London pub when both were stranded there at (relatively) young ages in the mid-1720s;

    b) At a broadsheet “app” developers conference on Guernsey in the late summer of 1742;

    c) In Paris in 1778, when Franklin put the Revolution [see Question 3] at risk by taking a day off from negotiating a French treaty to introduce his grandson;

    d) On page 283 of the textbook _American Moments_, by Mikkleson, Blancaster, and Hicks, et. al., Dynaster Education Partners, LLC, combined brief edition.

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  21. As long as we’re doing pop quizzes, how about a good old SAT analogy?

    Procrustean bed: real bed::____: real humanities.

    a) Koller’s vision of MOOC humanities
    b) squirrel
    c) none of the above

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  22. Undine–how about d) The History Channel?

    Indyanna: I had no idea that BF ever met Voltaire, but then, they were rough contemporaries, no? (And everyone who was anyone in Paris in the 1770s knew everyone else.)

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  23. The more or less right answer is c), Historiann, when Louis XVI allowed Voltaire to return to Paris once more before he died, and Franklin was finalizing the Franco-American treaty of alliance. But they theoretically might have met as youngsters in London, when Franklin went there, tricked by a mean Pennsylvania governor, and Arouet was lying low from political trouble in France. I believe they overlapped there by a few months. Be a hell of an article if someone could ever document it.

    Voltaire at some point wrote that if not for fear of seasickness, he would go to Pennsylvania and lay his bones down there. (At least I think he wrote this; I’ve been unable to lay hands on the actual citation–if there are any Enlightenment scholars out there…)

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  24. BTW, my point about analytical thinking was that I don’t think live lecturers, at least in large classes, can outdo MOOCs, and they probably can’t do better teaching facts. What they can do better is teach students to write about what they have learned. I expect that that will be become a much bigger part of the teacher’s role.

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  25. Well, the MOOC I am in has:
    – a professor not in field, not trained in it and not current in it
    – very poorly constructed assignments
    – peer grading, where peers are poorly informed
    – no access to materials outside what the prof posts and you can find yourself, and his materials are popular materials he got off the Internet
    It is a freakin’ travesty.

    CIP’s talking points indicate he doesn’t have the faintest idea what a humanities or social sciences education is, and I would frankly be disappointed in a science class that had me watch canned videos, memorize facts and then had “teachers” showing me how to write up the canned material. At the outside, you could teach basic math that way; at one point UCSD was teaching foreign languages that way (or trying) but I think they gave up.

    Note that I am not criticizing the online or DE aspect of it here, it’s the massive-open concept that is a joke and also the idea that these professors are necessarily “stars”.

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  26. I actually find this notion that if anything could be taught via MOOC then it would be basic math at best to be totally ridiculous. I took two courses of math in college before switching to history, and boy THEY WERE HARD (and I was pretty good at it too). And sure the lectures were held in a 200-head hall and could have just as easily been recorded, but had it not been for two killer TA-s, I and many others would have flunked that class three times over. Sure, every question only had one correct answer, but getting to that answer was hella hard.

    At the end of the day, the only experience a MOOC can more-or-less competently replicate is the traditional lecture – the kind CIP refers to. As it stands, there are few fields out there where that is the *sole* method of instruction, and as most people have noted, few people lecture “traditionally”. Ironically, the one field I can think of where that is often true is the first two years of med school, and only in some places, and from what I understand, it’s fast on the way out in favor of things like case-based learning etc. All of these other things – forums, peer-grading etc. are basically jokes which are structurally not capable of replacing the things they’re intended to replace – face-to-face contact with a trained expert in the field. And the thing is, anyone with a high school education (get it?) has the experience to see this from a mile away.

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  27. @Aro I took more math in college than that and these were the only courses with “traditional lectures.” The professor would get up and read out of the textbook he had written, and put slides of it up on the wall. There was no need to go to class since nothing was said there that was not also said in the book. You could just go to the section meetings with the TA. That’s what they want us to do with MOOCs exactly — it is what CIP is alluding to — have recorded lectures as, essentially, talking textbooks, and then have the professor function like a TA.

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  28. More on (allegedly) “traditional lectures” … I took them in History, French, Philosophy, with really famous people that were brilliant lecturers. Not being there in person, seeing recordings of that, or seeing recordings of them talking at other schools, would not have been the same.

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  29. @Z

    Why not be explicit about the MOOC you don’t like? Generalizing one or two bad experiences in a course you won’t name hardly qualifies as a brilliant analytical critique of a whole technology. One beauty of the MOOC is that it’s very easy to vote with your feet – to drop out if you don’t like the course, the teacher, or the whole technology.

    The last MOOC I completed had one characteristic of yours – Eric Lander got his PhD in math before switching to molecular biology. He is a brilliant lecturer, an extremely accomplished scientist (human genome pioneer, head of a joint MIT, Harvard lab, advisor to the President, etc) and the assignments were brilliant examples of ingenuity and technology. They were very challenging, at least for this elderly scientist, but they actually took first term molecular biology students to the frontier of molecular biology and got us useing some of the same tools used by top professionals.

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  30. @ARO,

    You may be right that MOOCs are best at teaching courses where there are “correct” answers but that’s a lot bigger field than just basic math. Computer programs either work or they don’t, physics, engineering and finance calculations are either correct or they aren’t, and in music performance you can either play the notes or you can’t.

    Almost every humanities I’ve discussed this with seems to think that MOOCs are lectures online period. Nothing could be more wrong. The key to a MOOC, and to learning more generally, I think, is interaction with the material. Properly designed, MOOCs are really good at that in computer science, some parts of math, engineering, many sciences and others.

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  31. This whole argument is one that ought to be very familiar to historians. The Luddities, as Paul Krugman recently noted, were the highly skilled workers of their day. The arguments (other than violence) that they advanced have very direct parallels in those most of you advance. There is no substitute of the skill of an actual artisan, the new mechanical weaves will never be accepted, etc.

    You might recall how that worked out.

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  32. Historians are also aware of the hype surrounding any new technology and the ways it was supposed to “disrupt” education in its day. You might recall how all of those technologies turned out.

    The story of why the public library, phonographs, radio, TV, and closed-circuit cable networks failed to put universities out of business in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is that it’s far easier to monetize these technologies by turning them into mass-produced entertainment, not mass-produced eduation, for which people will pay little to nothing at all (as Aro points out.) Americans also believe that they get what they pay for, so *not paying* for a “certificate of completion” means that the certificate is worth less than the paper it’s printed on.

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  33. @Historiann 9:36

    You left out at least one crucial educational innovation that did catch on: the textbook. It drew the same kind of critique as the MOOC when it was pioneered early in the nineteenth century.

    The other’s didn’t really fade away until replaced by something better – last I heard language CDs and software were still selling – even if they never did displace much of traditional education.

    Perhaps MOOCs won’t get big either, but your logic seems a bit fragile. Those of us who only care about the learning aren’t concerned about the market value of the certificates we get. Those who just want credentials with market value probably aren’t focussing on the humanities anyway, but MOOC credentials with market value will be here soon, if they aren’t already – there are already stories of Indian high schoolers who parlayed a couple of Coursera certificates into an MIT admissions. I know another person who was promoted to leader of a new technology team on the strength of what he learned in some computer MOOCs, including the very first one, taught by world experts.

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  34. CIP: Maybe I could have been clearer in my earlier comment: My point was precisely that *even* in courses you would think would be MOOCable – like Calculus I – you lose out on a whole lot by taking it all online.

    Basically, there are a lot of things (hint: they all involve people) that do not have to do with a particular discipline but have to do with learning as a process, and MOOCs fail structurally at all of them. First, as Koller basically admits in the article, MOOCs are not very good at simulating recitations. Secondly, they are shit at giving you the socialization and networking you’d get from a brick-and-mortar university of /any/ “level”.

    But maybe most importantly,they are terrible at motivating people do the hard work – by being in the same room with people, by being inspired by a fellow student, a TA or a professor, by feeling embarassed for someone’s time when you don’t hand it a piece of work. This may not be crucial to PhD-s who spent years motivating themselves to work (and given the almost infinite variety of “dissertation camps” my university has, I think it’s safe to say even that does not happen easily), but it certainly is for first year college students. I suspect that many students realize more than they admit that these are things that are important – as Historiann points out, it’s why distance learning has never really taken off.

    The problem with the industrial revolution comparison is that clothes etc. are commodities, where as education is a highly personal process. These are fundamentally different – in that people actually tend to value their own personal time and mental/physical effort quite highly compared to other people’s. Maybe religion would be a more historically apt analogy, given that it involves personal interaction, effort and commitment? Last I checked, they hadn’t replaced priests with priestoids.

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  35. Oh yeah, and last I checked, I think most people agree that MOOC’s deserve their place next to teach-yourself-Hungarian CD’s, iPad apps that teach you yoga, and you know, other things that in no way changed the face of higher education as we know it. It’s just that’s not how MOOC’s are being sold.

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  36. Pingback: Grad applications, ca. 1961: Writer Phyllis Richman gets the last laugh, and a Harvard proffie remains clueless : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

  37. Aro: yes, exactly.

    CIP is afraid that a few humanities proffies complaining about the deficiencies of MOOCs is going to limit his access to MOOCs. I don’t know why, as no one (except for him, apparently) listens to us or cares. But for the record, I have no problem with MOOCs for retired 70-year old Ph.D. physicists. None whatsoever, just as I have no problem with yoga DVDs or apps, Rosetta Stone CDs, or My Froggy Stuff videos on YouTube. Self-improvement is terrific! It’s just not a plan for higher education.

    I believe that it was I who predicted several months ago on this blog that MOOCs would be terrific social media advertisements for universities, and for Elderhostel-type education.

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  38. This certainly explains why on most blogs, the dumb, pop-culture reference posts (or the drive-by insult posts) get loads of comments, whereas the more carefully researched and written posts get many fewer comments. (This blog, included!)

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  39. @Kathleen 7:47

    Now there are some who might suspect that 19 year-olds choosing among free posters might not be the perfect model for making decisions affecting that state of society, but even it were, it would just say that in the end the intuitions of humanities professors might count for less than what can be quantified in dollars and test scores.

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  40. @ARO 11:07

    Re: your para 1. I’ve actually taught calculus, and it doesn’t strike me as an easy course to MOOC, but I haven’t looked into the online ones yet.

    #2. Agree, and I would hate to see traditional U’s disappear, but I’m not impressed with the quality of defense I’m seeing.

    #3. Easy to say but tougher to demonstrate. MOOCs have been very good at motivating people to sign up – about 5 million have. Some people love them and have already completed 10 or more MOOC courses. They are by no means all superannuated PhD’s. There are plenty of people who don’t like going to class and listening to TAs. One national merit scholar I know, who went to one of the nation’s most elite schools, almost never went to class because he found them a waste of time. He graduated with honors.

    #4 Everybody wants to feel special, but when articles of manufacture were each created by an individual artisan, they were kind of personal too. It’s precisely those who value their own time and effort who have the least patience with sitting in a classroom with a bunch of people who ask stupid questions or waste time showing off.

    The reasons MOOCs are different from previous automated education, by the way, is that they harness the considerable power of artificial intelligence in educating people. Computers are already smarter than people in lots of tasks thought to require high human intelligence, from reading electrocardiograms to playing chess. Education is in the crosshairs.

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