Hot and cranky: and yourselves? Mooks pushing MOOCs.


I just can’t wait to take an online course!

This story is why I just can’t take seriously the claims that online teaching is teh awesumm future.  Nobody pushing this crap knows the first thing about much of anything beyond their own disciplines plus some $hit they read about in Wired magazine back in 1998.

First of all, we have the Stanford University professor and student who clearly have no idea that American higher education is enormously diverse and has evolved over the past two hundred years with little things like the Morrill Act, and that there are things like liberal arts colleges (secular and sectarian), community colleges, public directionals, state flagships, and Agricultural and Mechanical colleges like my employer:

In spring  2005, preparing for that autumn’s Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Grand Challenge, Sebastian Thrun, a Stanford professor of robotics, and David Stavens, his undergraduate protégé, arrived in the desert for several months of off-road testing. In tow was their Volkswagen Touareg, “Stanley,” a vehicle that can drive itself.

The Grand Challenge called on American university students to build robotic cars and race them, unassisted, across 131 miles of unforgiving desert scrub, over salt flats and down the treacherous Beer Bottle Pass. The contest was sponsored by the US department of defence, which hopes one day to send driverless vehicles into battle. Thrun and Stavens were counting on Stanley, more than a year in the making, to take home the $2m cash prize. But Stanley—its trunk packed with computers, sprouting radar and GPS antennae from its roof rack—needed a careful debugging.

“We happened to be in the car a lot, doing nothing else but waiting,” Thrun said recently. “Then something would go wrong and one of us would code like crazy. And during those times often there was really nothing to do, so we chatted a lot.”

Bouncing around the desert with their $150,000 toy, Stavens recalls, privilege was a frequent topic of conversation. “It would come up at night, in the hotel rooms of these very small towns we were staying in. ‘This has been a great system for us, higher education, but it’s kind of broken. What can we do?’”

It’s to their credit that they talked about privilege–after all, how many undergrads (or even professors!) get to tool around in the desert for months at a time with a robotic car?  I suppose that’s the kind of bubble of privilege that would make you forget–or believe that it’s irrelevant–that American higher education is not Stanford or nothing.  But doesn’t this make online courses sound like the dream of Judy Jetson’s flying car?  Read the whole article–I’m sure you’ve read at least nine other versions of the same article.

Of course, there’s the ridiculous claim that there hasn’t been any innovation in higher education since the University of Bologna got it all started back in the eleventh century:

As Thrun observed in his Digital Life Design talk, the world’s first university appeared in Bologna in 1088. “At the time, 350 years before Gutenberg, the lecture was the most effective way to convey information.” Then came the printing press, industrialisation, celluloid, the web. “And miraculously, professors today teach exactly the same way they taught a thousand years ago! The university has been, surprisingly, the least innovative of all places in society.”

Why do guys like this get the cushy jobs from which they get the national press to lecture the rest of us scrubs who are actually educating the demos about how to do our jobs?  To what extent is the online teaching fantasy a multimillion dollar for-profit robot car crashing around in the California desert?  Why do clueless elites like this drive all of our conversations about this?

Because the rest of us are too busy teaching our classes and helping our non-Stanford University eligible students read, write, and think, I guess.  Over to you, Jonathan!  (If you haven’t been reading Jonathan Rees, then I can’t help you much.  He is our vox clamantis in deserto.)

17 thoughts on “Hot and cranky: and yourselves? Mooks pushing MOOCs.

  1. Thrum sounds kind of clueless, but the article was good – it mentioned the dropout rate, the lack of a financial model, etc. You could tell the article was not written in the US, and I loved that Oxbridge says, what we offer is the tutorial. And talking about the ecology of the university… What those two guys talking in the desert forgot was that they were *actually* talking to each other: that was the privilege. In expanding the lecture classroom to the world, Thrun is more wedded to the medieval model of education than some of us.

    Idol ove the fact that history would be easier to teach with his model than poetry, because it’s “fact based”. He hasn’t hung out with his colleagues in the Stanford history department!


  2. So, having “qualified students” “peer-grade” each others’ work as an evaluating model is not going to be *about* “privilege” in every sense of that word?!? Let’s review: Thrum co-developed “Street View,” Google’s data-stealing utility. He privileged getting nine cool new tools to work together in one webture over his life, sleep, marriage, etc. Ng and Koller are “sourcing” content from actual universities that seem happy to be tearing their libraries apart while getting in on the ground floor of next new thing–the academic CEO’s version of being invited to sit at the cool kids’ lunch table at the cafeteria. (Not that the next new thing will have anything as prosaically boring as floors, grounds, or probably even tables).

    One thing different between the ancient U. of Euphrates and today is that students then paid the instructor directly for the lesson while sitting under the proverbial vine and fig tree, cutting out all manner of associate vice hominids from the revenue stream. And while many of the instructors may have carried one, none of them were named “Staff.” o.k., that’s *two* things.


  3. Good post, Historiann! Like Jonathan Rees, I’ve been a voice crying in the wilderness about MOOCs so much lately that I forced myself to stop, fearing terminal MOOC fatigue on the part of readers; his latest post is fantastic on this subject. Let’s just say that Thrun sounds . . . woefully misinformed.


  4. As a matter of fact, Historiann, I feel like I read nine other versions of that same article every time I turn on the computer. What I don’t read enough of are posts like yours here in which the author is willing to tell the emperor that they have no clothes.

    There are a few people around. If you haven’t seen it yet, I want to recommend this epic post by our mutual cyber friend Leslie M-B at the Clutter Museum. Me, you, Leslie and Undine are not the only voices of reason out there, but it sure would be nice if there were a few more.


  5. Online courses are even less a replacement for the tutorial model than they are for the lecture model. Why change to something that’s going to ditch the best features of the current instructional model and amplify the worst ones?


  6. Much as it has ever been, the rich shall dispense their pearls to the poor, at arm’s length, and without much concern for the actual effects of their charity.

    When the day comes to hand over the keys to the darkened classrooms of the public university, the children of the elites will still be sitting in small classrooms where the lights glow warm and bright, participating in lectures/tutorials/labs given by other elites.

    Paraphrasing Susan; talking to each other: that is part of the privilege.


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  8. So many unexamined assumptions in the tech guys’ thinking… (something that a sharp seminar would challenge at every step). That all knowledge can be packaged into little units and evaluated automatically and cleanly. No murky maybes in the answers! That all students have the attention and discipline to teach themselves with no outside pressure (as the article writer discovered). That real learning can be divorced from social context and interaction (back to talking to each other). And that a “crack team” of graduate assistants can be found to do the scut work for free!

    I love the phrase “associate vice hominids.” Will have to figure out how to use that some time in conversation with an actual human being.


  9. so here is what gets me about the hubris behind MOOCs:

    “Massive online courses provide disruptive competition to the status quo,” Russ Whitehurst, director of the Brown Centre on Education Policy at Brookings, said. “Would you rather listen to a lecture about Shakespeare from not only the world’s best Shakespeare scholar but one of the world’s best teachers and do it online, or, you know, listen to the third-rate person that’s provided by your community college?”

    Why is there this assumption that the person teaching at the community college is ‘third rate’? My grad school cohort has placed people all up and down the ladder in terms of prestige and privilege in higher ed. Some of us are at Princeton or other Ivies while others are at Big Ten, Liberal Arts Colleges, or State Colleges like myself. We are all pretty damn good, but the ones who ended up at community colleges did so by choice, and are committed to being excellent teachers. I see nothing third rate about that.


  10. Thanks for all of your responses. I’m traveling, still, and so haven’t been able to engage the way I’d like to.

    Matt L.: the 40+ years of the (tenure track) “job crisis” is why I’ve argued that we actually live in a golden age of humanities scholarship. Even underfunded unis like mine, whose priorities are completely a$$-backwards, are able to recruit hires who are truly outstanding. CCs, which tend to be in urban areas & so can probably compete pretty well for high-quality faculty with partner employment concerns especially, are probably in the same position.

    I can’t remember if I’ve shared this with the lot of you before or not, but my department was in the completely unprecedented position this spring of interviewing on campus *four* outstanding young scholars, although unfortunately we could offer only one job. All four were as terrific in person as they had been in their Skype interviews. All four gave very good job talks, and all four made convincing cases for why we should hire each one of them. (How many searches have you faculty types been in on where that’s happened? I’ve never seen it before.)

    I guess this is what really grinds my (flying car’s) gears about these claims about how ridiculously out of date education is, and how we haven’t changed anything in the past 930 years, etc.: the people who make these sweeping claims have clearly not been involved in any graduate education nor in any faculty hiring over the past 20+ years, maybe 40 years.

    What we’re seeing is clearly a great deal of ressentiment that 1) education has not turned out to be something that is either infinitely scalable nor something that we can outsource to Bangalore, and 2) that not every last American worker can be roughed up, dis-organized, pension-robbed, and threatened with firing and/or outsourcing.

    What’s super-depressing is the fact that many of the sorts of people who are our nominal “leaders” have decided to drink the moustache-flavored Kool-Aid instead of trying to explain to people what the difference is between universities and high schools or trade schools, in that we are here to produce new knowledge, and we are the experts in our fields.

    Add to the list above the #3 ressentiment: this is more evidence that we live in the age of anti-expertise, where the expert is always the pointless defender of non-existent expertise and the World-Is-Flatters rule.

    For more rants on all of the above, in addition to Jonathan Rees, see Undine and also Leslie M-B at The Clutter Museum, who is taking on the Preznit of her own uni, for realz.

    Sorry to have missed these other critiques of the mooks and their MOOCs, but I’ve been on vacation. Even cowgirls get the blues.


  11. Having taken a number of online business courses from a reputable university (long story), I’ve come to the conclusion that they are utter garbage. First of all, they are made as easy as possible—which is their primary appeal to students. I took a second year course, and the entire grade was based on weekly reading of one textbook chapter and answering about 10 simple questions from the book. The amount of actual knowledge I gained from these courses was next to nothing, but I did manage to get As in almost all of them. Second, and certainly more important, the students that get the most out of online courses are the students who are already self motivated to learn. The difference between taking an online calculus class and simply buying a calculus textbook and teaching yourself is minimal. This of course puts students who need a bit of extra motivation—even just a professor’s disappointment at their missing class—at a distinct disadvantage. Third, the classes are usually overenrolled, and the part-time adjunct faculty (who I assume are making next to nothing to teach the classes) never seem to care very much. The whole thing is very rote and is a pathetic imitation of higher education.

    I doubt very much, even with technological improvements—always just around the corner—online education has much promise, other than to line the pockets of university administrators.

    (Also, the idea of students sitting and watching lectures never seems to work out. The whole TED talk paradigm simply doesn’t fit, because TED talks are by their nature the opposite of an academic lecture. They’re shallow and dramatic, and made for fun, not real learning. In many in-person lecture classes at my university, professors film and upload their lectures. Unsurprisingly, many students take this as a hint that they don’t need to go to class, and will just watch the lectures “later.” Those lectures rarely get watched, and when they do it’s in a last minute cramming session before an exam.)


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  13. Hellllllpppp!!! The _New York Times_ is cheerleading– shilling, really–for Coursera again today (Tues. 7/17). The tonality of the report is almost embarrassing, but if the gravamen of the piece is to be believed, “this is the tsunami… the potential upside for this experiement is so big that it’s hard for me to imagine any large research university that wouldn’t want to be involved…” I guess if you directed a university-based “Center for 21st Century Universities” there would be lots of things that would be “hard for [you] to imagine.” No university president ever got fired for establishing too many centers with names like that.

    Anyway, past the fold it also reports that “Professors say” [not *some* professors say] or “the *professors we contacted*, at various Centers for Pedagogic Futurity say”] their in-class students benefit from the online materials…” The “irresistable draw” for “many professors” of teaching and reaching hundreds of thousands of students in the fields with bread and fishes is dutifully noted. Even the slight speed-bumps that are noted, like “the cheating problem” or “peer-to-peer” grading, are largely swept aside. Thrun has a few quibbles, but he’s gone with another MOOC outfit.

    From a journalistic perspective, the imbalance of the coverage over time here is breathtaking. You almost wonder if the _Times Store_ isn’t trying to sidle into the Ng and Koller Coursortium. You could get a genuine Babe Ruth “game-used bat,” say, or an actual patent application file for a nineteenth century railroad locomotive with every course you enroll in. Other news in the _Times_ is that Margaret M. Sullivan, the editor of the Buffalo News, will become the _Times’s_ next Public Editor on September 1. She should perhaps be deluged with e-mails to open a file on this case now.


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