MOOCs and the longue duree

In a recent e-mail conversation with a friend who’s a few decades older than me, he reassured me that online education was a fad that will pass soon enough.  He has seen these predictions before with correspondence courses, then with TV in the 1950s and  1960s, and then with distance learning via closed-circuit TV and cable in the 1980s and 1990s.  Via Jonathan Rees, Nick Carr runs down the “Prehistory of the MOOC,” from the 1880s to the present:

Mail: Around 1885, Yale professor William Rainey Harper, a pioneer of teaching-by-post, said, “The student who has prepared a certain number of lessons in the correspondence school knows more of the subject treated in those lessons, and knows it better, than the student who has covered the same ground in the classroom.” Soon, he predicted, “the work done by correspondence will be greater in amount than that done in the class-rooms of our academies and colleges.”

Phonograph: In an 1878 article on “practical uses of the phonograph,” the New York Times predicted that the phonograph would be used “in the school-room in training children to read properly without the personal attention of the teacher; in teaching them to spell correctly, and in conveying any lesson to be acquired by study and memory. In short, a school may almost be conducted by machinery.”

Movies: “It is possible to teach every branch of human knowledge with the motion picture,” proclaimed Thomas Edison in 1913. “Our school system will be completely changed in 10 years.”

Radio: In 1927, the University of Iowa declared that “it is no imaginary dream to picture the school of tomorrow as an entirely different institution from that of today, because of the use of radio in teaching.”

.       .       .       .       .

I wonder about this recurring motif of “ending education as we know it in ten years,” more or less.  Is that a reflection of the brevity of the human lifespan and our lack of imagination in theorizing a future in which we won’t play a role?  (Quite frankly, I think it’s also due to people refusing to learn the lesson over and over again that new technologies only succeed when people figure out how to turn them into entertainment, because–go figure–it’s easier to make money selling entertainment than selling education.  Once technologies are successfully monetized by making them vessels for sharing or broadcasting entertainment, then gone is all talk of the utopian teacherless and school-free world in which all citizens of the demos will use technology for education and self-improvement.)

In his conclusion, Carr makes an important (and usually overlooked) point:

But, despite more than a century of hope and hype, the technologies of distance learning have had surprisingly little effect on traditional schooling. Colleges, in particular, still look and work pretty much as they always have. Maybe that’s because the right technology hasn’t come along yet. Or maybe it’s because traditional classroom schooling, for all its flaws and inefficiencies, has strengths that we either don’t grasp or are quick to overlook.

I think the significant difference today with online education is that there are for-profit companies who have decided to make a fast welfare buck off of the somewhat-improved technologies of Web 2.0, but only time will tell if this will become yet another technology that fails to transform education.  Here’s my prediction:  if online ed ends up killing F2F teaching at most public universities, it’s not because the technology is so awesome.  It will be because our shallow and craven political leaders have almost entirely given up on the notion of higher education as a public good rather than a private possession, and because of the triumph of neoliberal values over intellectual and educational values.  Neoliberal values had already eaten away a great deal of our public universities and colleges.  Will we permit the greedy masters of online ed to slay the goose in search  of yet more golden eggs?

Go read Jonathan’s latest post on his experience as a MOOC student, “in which [he] waste[s] [his] time.”  Heh.  He identifies one of the key ingredients that makes classroom education essentially un-replicable even with Web 2.0:

I think a lot of those strengths [of face-to-face classrooms] involve the effects of proximity. I would argue that the intensity of the urge to play with your phone while someone is speaking correlates directly to their proximity to you. If there’s fifteen people sitting in a circle, you won’t do it even if you’re sorely tempted because you don’t want to be rude. If you’re at the back of a room with a hundred other people, you’ll do it because you know the speaker will never see you. If it’s Jeremy Adelman in Princeton speaking to 70,000 plus people around the world a week and a half ago for a course in which the students aren’t really being graded, most of the audience will open up a new tab on their browser and check their e-mail before the first multiple choice question ever flashes before their eyes.

Professors aren’t just educators, they’re enforcers. If they leave the room in the middle of a college class, it won’t be like 3rd grade or an AOL chat room, but little learning will occur. When the professor never leaves a studio in Princeton, the result is similar.

You betcha!  Now, if you will excuse me, I must go and be proximate to a classroom full of students.  I know:  how dreary.  How utterly devoid of imagination!  And yet, how effective.  (A stray thought:  most of what is accomplished in meetings called by administrators can be done by circulating information and memos via e-mails.  So how many administrators pushing online ed are comfortable going to all-email or chatroom meetings?  Not too many, huh?  Gee I wonder why not?)

21 thoughts on “MOOCs and the longue duree

  1. How old fashioned of you. But I always find being proximate to students oddly energizing (which is lucky, because I teach late afternoon).

    Having taught for some time at a non-residential (but very high touch) institution, I am sure that some aspects of online education will succeed. But they will succeed because they are focused on education, not profit, on how students learn something they need/want/should learn, not on playing with technology.

    I’m also sure that in time all of us will incorporate elements that have been developed in online classes as part of our F2F classes — just as we have incorporated books: remember, the original reason for lectures was so that students could memorize the material in the books, which were all manuscripts,and few people owned… The printed book was the first new technology!


  2. This post shows why we need historians (and Historianns). Great perspective – I love the 1878 vision of future students taking dictation from phonographs!

    And this, too: “Here’s my prediction: if online ed ends up killing F2F teaching at most public universities, it’s not because the technology is so awesome. It will be because our shallow and craven political leaders have almost entirely given up on the notion of higher education as a public good.”

    Amen sister.


  3. Some disjoint thoughts:
    – Technology may make a huge difference. Compare the car to a horse and buggy. I doubt opposition to the perception that the car change way more than transportation exists.

    – Car says “technologies of distance learning have had surprisingly little effect on traditional schooling.” He also says “maybe it’s because traditional classroom schooling, for all its flaws and inefficiencies, has strengths that we either don’t grasp or are quick to overlook.” Logically he miss a wide variety of other possibilities: We are not using a better solution because of a strong opposition of the schooling establishment. Or, we do have better methods, but so far they have not added enough to overwhelm the current way. There are many other possibilities.

    – What the hell is proximity? Eye contact, 50 feet, same stadium, in this country? How much proximity do you get in a 300 student class? My sister and I keep a weekly Skype contact; she is 8000 miles away from me. It feel very comfortable, we look each other in the eyes. The are many ways to skin proximity. It doesn’t have to be the same classroom.

    In the past I stood accused of admonition. Well let me try it: how about getting serious about technology, education and the future instead of bouncing Romney/Obama crumbs at each other.


  4. practical uses of the phonograph

    Hey! We had arithmetic drills by record player when I was in elementary school. It was more interesting–to me–to learn the patterns of the drills (which where mimicked by the tests) than to learn the math facts. Thus, while I tested very well, I did not learn to add in first grade.


  5. As someone who now teaches at a place that blends online into onsite courses, one of the things I have noticed is that a number of students who take courses online actually live here. Some are at a distance — because they travel, are performers, or are temporarily/permanently living elsewhere. But students who are resident take a few online courses because they are cheaper and they don’t have to leave home (many of my students work full time, and thus, being home can be important to child care schedules and whatnot.)

    That said, you heard it here first: I think on-line ed is going to go through a huge re-set, in part because of what Historiann has said above. But also the debt these courses are being paid for with is going to create another melt-down; and one huge population — the military — is going to go through a radical downsize over the next 2-3 years.


  6. Like TR, I suspect that a hybrid approach (both hybrid classes and degrees earned through a combination of online, hybrid, and face to face classes) is the actual wave of the future. Such an approach solves some real problems having to do with time and physical space, but allows individual classes to be taught in the most appropriate environment, and, where there are multiple viable options for teaching a class, both students and professors to choose the approach that works best for them.

    The other reason for a major reset: the cheapest way to create an online course (and one which is being heavily promoted to bricks-and-mortar schools which want to increase their online offerings) is to buy a pre-packaged online class “solution” from a major educational publisher (apparently the need for a university to offer a class is a problem. Who knew?). Of course, these packages are sold to a number of schools, which then end up with essentially identical classes, which can be taken from anywhere. A great many schools seem to be hoping to solve budget problems by wooing students from outside their traditional catchment areas (students who won’t need dorms or parking or food services or other expensive on-ground structures and services) to take these courses. But the pool of students is finite, and the schools simultaneously hatching these brilliant, cutting-edge plans all want to charge full tuition, perhaps even with an additional online fee. And the supply of students, especially given the likelihood that loans will (properly, I think) be increasingly harder to get, is not infinite. I just hope the limitations become clear *before* a lot of schools pour ridiculous amounts of “startup” money into online programs, while continuing to starve traditional approaches.


  7. Historiann, you’re completely right, especially about administrators wanting f-2-f meetings. Every generation of technology is somehow going to displace teachers and revolutionize learning, and yet somehow it doesn’t: TV lectures in the 1960s through 1980s, MUDs and MOOs in the 1990s, SecondLife in the early 2000s, and now MOOCs. At a conference this week, we were discussing how even with digital scans and photocopies, there’s nothing like being in the presence of the real thing–a manuscript, an artifact. Teaching with real (proximate) teachers is becoming the desirable equivalent of the artifact.


  8. At least in the humanities (and likely in sciences which require students to do lab work), one of the issues with the new technology approach is that the way academics ‘do’ research has not changed in several hundred years. In the humanities, our main research output is books and articles. The main thing we want our students to do is read them, think critically about them, and then write those critical thoughts down, and ideally apply them to other contexts once they leave university. The purpose of lectures and tutorials and most forms of teaching in universities is just to aid students to be able to read critically and write well.

    It also turns out that in many countries, much of what academics write are available in at least state libraries, and many local libraries also allow many academic works to be ordered in for the reader. All that reading that is fundamentally what a humanities degree ‘is’ has been available to the public, without having to go through the academy, now for over a hundred years in some places. Yet, the public library has never been a significant threat to the university system, and indeed in many places has been key to encouraging people into the university system.

    In many ways, MOOCS are just an alternative to the public library – especially in those macro-courses where there is no interaction with academics. Why do we think they will do something that the library has not done? It’s not like you haven’t been able to buy books of lectures since the 18thC. Moreover, until the formats in which we produce research fundamentally changes, online learning will just be us trying to replicate the classroom experience online. And, we are yet to see whether that is possible and can be done effectively. However, to me the biggest threat of MOOCS is that it disengages teaching from our research, so that the only research that matters is some bigwig at Harvard. Once that is accepted, then universities might as well close up shop, and point students to the public library. The implications for the ‘type’ of knowledge that such institutions tend to reproduce (with their tendency to employ rich, white men, often conservative) is utterly devastating, especially when that alternative critique is no longer available to force the knowledge being produced in those institutions to be accountable.


  9. I think that with these CMSs and e-mail I have already hybridized. That is without having reduced amount of class time. I am, however, now comfortable with some scheduling things I would not have been: former MWF courses that now meet TuTh to save commuting and also energy use in buildings, same total amount of time but not meetings (I find number of meetings to be important), but there is all this virtual time bridging the gap. The same with two day a week undergraduate classes that now meet once for 3 hours, like a seminar; with students who are not seminar ready, though, I end up using part of class time for activities that would have taken place outside class normally, and then having some sort of virtual meeting later in the week. Oddly, I am comfortable with this and I am not entirely sure it is a workload increase.


  10. My sense is that at least lin the Humanities, Z’s approach will be most common – using CMS or other modes in a class that meets F2F but uses aspects of online. Or where you have the option of streaming lectures, but have to go to a F2F discussion section.

    I think the key is that the mode of instruction has to suit the content.. That’s the problem when it is top down. Also that online can be good, but then it’s usually not cheap.


  11. Sorry, meant to post comment here and instead posted on previous entry. To recap:

    (1) surely it is not lost on us that the enthusiastic proponents of the gramaphone, the projector, the film, etc. are the people who stand to make a lot of money off the adoption of these technologies. If there were no money to be made, I guarantee there would be no techno-utopianism.

    (2) it’s disturbing to me that, in the midst of the greatest crises facing the planet–the climate crisis, and the accompanying economic meltdown around the world threatening to collapse entire countries as capitalism destroys the very resources it depends on (including “human resources”, an Orwellian phrase if I ever heard one)– the current crop of techno-utopians push transitioning to a system that demands and wastes a tremendous amount of power. All these electronic devices drawing energy, the dataservers/clouds/whatever that have to run 24/7. Not to mention increasing evidence that these power centers themselves disrupt the environment, have deleterious effects on human health, and seem to affect animal navigation and so on.

    In contrast, there has never been a more efficient technology than the book: it uses no power after its initial creation, can be reused almost endlessly (with care), one can hold onto one page while checking back and forth in other parts of the text; there is no “digital eye fatigue” (a new problem confronting techies and their ophthalmologists), etc., etc. The problem seems to be that most of the business people pushing these newer technologies so hard don’t actually read that much, or at least not works that require sustained attention to argument. The latest self-help tome probably can be read on the iPad without losing much – -it really wouldn’t be worth the paper it would otherwise be printed on. People whose exposure to difficult ideas is so limited are not in a position to judge how best to convey them.


  12. I taught a class to first-year PhD students this past week, and I have absolutely no doubt whatsoever that the intense back-and-forth that took the discussion in fruitful directions I could never have predicted would have been impossible to achieve except in a physical room containing professor and students.


  13. What VB said. The NYT had a piece a couple of weeks ago about the hideous energy-use from mile-square server farms. I said to a colleague, here’s something we need to enlist in the war over “distance.” Compared to a humming grid of servers that can be tracked from Saturn, there’s nothing cooler than a three hundred page book.

    I’m sure back there in about 8000 BCE there were people out west swearing they could work the bugs out of “content-rich signal fire” technologies, burning from hilltop to hilltop over hundreds of miles, carrying the latest nuanced insights in megafauna-stalking tactics to vast and eager cohorts of meat-hunting recruits. (The vendocracy has a deep pre-history). It might have worked, too, but as soon as early adopters everywhere signed on to the plan, the fire “team” announced it wasn’t going to “support” that version anymore, and that everybody had to “migrate” to a new fuel system. Since they didn’t even have webinars yet, the whole effing system crashed and burned, amid much acrimony.


  14. The other thing some bright neurologist needs to do is look at actual brain scans of people involved in lively f2f discussions requiring sustained attention, lively f2f that’s less mentally taxing, sitting in a lecture and taking notes, sitting in a lecture and texting, lively online chat requiring sustained attention, asynchronous discussions on difficult topics, etc., etc., etc.

    Judging by my own sense of (lack of) involvement in purely online classes, I’d be surprised if it didn’t turn out that crucial brain circuits don’t engage unless there’s some f2f interaction.

    Oh, and Indyanna? Brilliant! Seconded!


  15. I’m pretty sure that the one of the earliest known times that an instructor has freaked out over new technology taking over and destroying face-to-face interaction was when Socrates criticized this new-fangled technology of writing things down. Off the top of my head, I can’t remember which of Plato’s dialogues the conversation is recorded (or as much ‘recorded’ as Plato did)–but the substance is that Socrates is worried that students will read books instead of coming to class and talking to the teacher, and that that will seriously impede the free flow of ideas in a face-to-face setting. So the idea that technology is going to replace face-to-face teaching is at least 2500 years old, and it hasn’t happened yet–we just keep adding the new technologies to the old classroom instead.

    Of course, Socrates’ critique of writing is usually taught somewhat ironically in book history or print culture classes, for if Plato hadn’t written these conversations down, we would have no idea they ever existed…


  16. VB and Indyanna — hear hear! I think that much of the MOOC bandwagon, like its predecessors, is being driven by lust for new profits and lust for novelty. On Sept. 28 the New York Times ran a piece by Roger Martin on the struggle between “capital,” that wants to keep costs as low as possible, and “talent” (in this case NFL referees) that makes the enterprise possible but that also costs a lot. MOOCs as most administrators and pundits talk about them are tools to free institutions from the need to pay talented teachers. Except that f2f really cannot be replaced, by books or radios or signal fires (!).

    Teachers do this too — I just got back from a fun cross-border conference with my Canadian counterparts, where inevitably the biggest intellectual insights happen amidst animated talk over food and drink. We still refuse to be reduced to machines.


  17. Socrates? That means we can all put QED after this statement: We will “keep adding the new technologies to the old classroom.”

    Now we just have to get through to the educrats.



  18. Pingback: MOOCs vs. House of Cards smackdown | Historiann

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