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. @ARO 11:10 –

    Oh yeah, and last I checked, I think most people agree that MOOC’s deserve their place next to teach-yourself-Hungarian CD’s, …

    You might want to check beyond the cozy confines of the denial central echo chamber…


  2. CIP: you’ve got your own blog. Why don’t you bother people over there from now on?

    I wonder how many humanities proffies go on your blog and bray on about how pointless you are and what a waste of time your job was? You’re a jerk, and you’re no longer welcome here.

    (In case you hadn’t noticed, I stopped responding to any of your comments on Rees’s blog weeks ago. I am sorry if you took those comments to be an invitation to continue the discussion over here. Very sorry.)


  3. There is in fact interesting research regarding effective online learning. You could look it up if you really care, CIP. For the most part what it says is that effective learning is a community activity and this puts an upper limit on online class size between 15 and 20. Giant live lectures don’t do that either, and I would argue that they are not very effective for learning. At my current university, large lectures are accompanied by small group tutorials so that learning community is cultivated.

    I read the online learning literature when my last university department got interested in how to make legitimate use of online tools for teaching in our particular scientific discipline. In the real world we want all of our students to succeed (if possible) and that’s just not the MOOC way. Our analysis did lead to some online teaching: hybrid courses intended to work for as many students as possible, not the lucky few.


  4. @Aro:

    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.

    Me, too. In both my math classes and my math-heavy chemistry and physics classes, there are a lot of ways to get confused about how to solve a particular kind of problem.

    It seems to me like you would have to have someone — maybe the professor in office hours or during a discussion of the homework problems that people had the most trouble with, or maybe a TA in a recitation — see how you try to solve the problem, so they can tell you what you’re doing wrong and what to do instead. I have heard the claim that MOOCs can provide this kind of one-on-one attention, but this post I read recently by a math professor taking a Coursera econ class says otherwise.


  5. As somebody who only scraped through two required semesters of college physics with a tutor, I would like to third this. I was lost during lectures (giant halls of 200) — and really, really quickly lost. Sitting down and doing problem sets with a physics grad student saved my bacon. He was cute, too.

    come to think of it, something else MOOCs can’t replicate 😉


  6. @CIP “in music performance you can either play the notes or you can’t” … so if you really think that’s all there is to it, why can’t they coach the football team via MOOC?


  7. Lindsay,

    What they want is this: the university buys access to the prerecorded MOOC lectures from the school that makes those.

    Then, students watch those lectures on their own.

    Then, in class, a T.A. works on homework problems with them.

    See? So, it is almost *exactly* like having a large lecture and then discussion sections to work on problem sets, except that the large lecture is a recording.

    So, *if* you have a class that is taught in this way, then the MOOC allegedly replicates this at a much lower cost since you are only paying for the recording of a professor, not the actual professor.


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