“A MOOC is only about inputs, not about outputs.”


Where is your profit now?

Except maybe. . . profit!??!?!

Here’s a university administrator who apparently sees through the smoke, mirrors, and Thomas Friedmanesque rainbows-and-unicorns technofluff of the Lords of MOOC Creation, Vice-Chancellor Harlene Hayne of the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zeland (h/t to regular commenter truffula.  Maybe it takes an ocean of winds and a position outside of the U.S. and Europe to blow away the bullcrap and see them for what they’re worth?)  Hayne writes,

The University of Otago has considered the issue of MOOCs very carefully. Over this past January, I personally studied everything that I could lay my hands on about the subject. I sought specialist advice on the issue from international experts in distance education and online learning. I discussed the matter extensively with my counterparts in New Zealand and overseas. The conclusion from all of these quarters is that, although there may be a handful of opportunities in this space, the concept of the MOOC will not displace the traditional university experience and the business case for the future of MOOCs actually hangs by a thread.

Although the current enrolment in MOOCs is extremely high, completion of any given course is very low. In most instances, more than 90 per cent of the students who sign up for a course, never complete it. Given this, we have to ask ourselves two questions. First, why do so many sign up? That one is easy – the courses are currently free. Once this aspect of the MOOC system changes (and it will have to change if anyone is going to make any money), then I suspect that enrolments will plummet. Second, why do so many students fail to complete? There are probably many reasons, but the most parsimonious one is that the courses quickly get boring. Even when you place the best speaker in the world on the internet, the experience pales in comparison to face-to-face interaction.

Hayne cites three major problems with the MOOC scam:  first, “a university education is about much more than knowledge transfer. . . . Through their university education, students learn tolerance and compassion, they develop teamwork, oral communication and critical thinking skills, and they also learn the values of the world in which they live. All of this requires high-level human contact on a day-to-day basis.”  Secondly, “in a world that depends more and more on science and technology, it is vitally important that university students have more, not less, laboratory-based experience. . . . World-class universities are defined by the quality of their scientific facilities and by the opportunities that students have to spend time, hands-on, with passionate scientific experts.”

And finally, “a MOOC is only about inputs, not about outputs. At present, the work that students produce in MOOCs is marked by peers or computers, not by professors. Students receive no feedback whatsoever from the world-class leaders who appear in the videos.”

But the BEST PART (I know!) is when she calls bull$hit on the TED talk promotions that focus on outreach to the tweenage geniuses of the developing world as the justification for MOOCifying first-world higher education.  Just go read it.  Of course, there are other reasons that (for example) an intellectually gifted tweenage girl might want to live in Oxford, England or Palo Alto, California besides meeting her proffies and getting to know other students–like not getting shot in the face by the Taliban!–but it’s precisely this manipulative approach to pushing MOOCs that needs to be called out.

I can hear the complaints already:  “Historiann, How can you not be against shooting tweenage girls in the face?”  As Jonathan Rees always asks, can’t we do both?  Why is it always construed as an either/or choice?  Can’t we be against tweenage girls being shot in the face and in favor of preserving the value of a university education?

Besides, if MOOCs were in fact a solution for shooting tweenagers in the face, we could still deploy them without it having any effect whatsoever on university education in the rest of the world.  But I’m afraid that MOOCs are probably neither the solution to the defunding of higher education in the first world, nor to the deadly war on women in some parts of the developing world.

12 thoughts on ““A MOOC is only about inputs, not about outputs.”

  1. Brutally good post!! The one use I could see for something like MOOC technology would be for people who have already gotten an actual, um, education, in an actual, um, university. Those of us who are stuffed to the gills with tolerance, compassion, and critical-thinking skills, *do*, often, mostly need knowledge transfer. I could imagine open-engine fuel-burning server farms that you could see from Jupiter, with tens of thousands of what used to be called “professional students” standing by online, so that I could post a question about some impossibly-fine empirical question, in what the Nineteenth Century would have called a “Notes and Query” format. And even if ninety percent of these “prof-stus” had nodded off, or were playing Angry Birds, or drafting for their fantasy teams, or “liking” each other’s mongrel cur… I mean beautiful dogs, or debating what the word “twerk” means, that would leave at least ten thousand or so hard-core data hounds, any one of whom might know who lived at 1451 Camp Street in 1868, and off would go my proof sheets to the compositor. You could call that a “Mooc,” even if it functioned more like a mega-blog. **

    I’m being snarky here, but a lot of the people who really do defend MOOCS in non-commercialist terms, who write in as in this week’s _Chronicle_ to say “please don’t take your MOOC down,” are experienced scholars who *can* learn something from observing a “course” for as long as they need to ingest what they want to know. Sort of the way we used to do in academic libraries with books along the shelves, grazing from them and moving on, before they sent them to bunkers in New Jersey to make room for more coffee bars… oops, more snark.

    Those Kiwis are tough academic customers, who storm the beaches, take names, and count heads, at least in American Studies. I was at a big conference in Sydney a few years back, and when they landed and started moving inland even the hard-core “Australia School” guys started defining their terms, speaking more narrowly to the topic, and giving more precise citations and allusions. I was in awe and still am, and so am not surprised by where this good sense issues from.

    Not being snarky at all in this last para; American Studies is alive and well in the Southwest Pacific!


  2. In my continued role as the loyal opposition, I see technology as a friend and a partner. The current MOOC is not necessarily the future MOOC.

    The seven figures salaried geniuses who run our universities envision MOOC as a deus ex machina that will eliminate the need for faculty and allow them to increase their income to eight figures. That is a crappy idea. We should Occupy Mooc Street and make it into what we need.


  3. I’ve been involved in online ed since the 1990s, and when I get my act together to comment here, I’ve been saying the same thing over and over. Online: best for advanced students who already know their field and need only some added information. Less effective the closer you get to basic education.

    Plus, that’s obvious pretty quickly to anyone who spends time on the evidence, like Hayne. She’s obviously not just an educrat, but enough of a scholar to worry about things like learning. That “most parsimonious” explanation thingy gave her away.

    She’s lucky she’s not in the US. Here, she’d be fired for holding out for actual education, like that president of the University of Virginia.


  4. The response to MOOCs downunder has been rather mixed, and many of the top Uni’s are taking a similar line as Otago (and a few others, usually the higher ranking, are jumping on the MOOC train). Rather cynically, we might suspect that some of the resistance to MOOCs is a feeling that the universities downunder are not prestigious enough internationally to compete in that game – so that if a student has a choice between an Otago MOOC and a Harvard MOOC, there going to go with Harvard. No Vice-Chancellor can come out and say that, of course, but I think some of them are realistic enough to realise that this shift does not bode well for them in financial or pedagogical terms. It therefore makes better sense for them to situate themselves on the anti-MOOC side of the debate. My institution has situated itself mainly on the anti, in that it’s not going to create MOOC products (that’s not its vision), but it does want us to use MOOCs in our own classes to save us time and allow them to up our teaching loads.


  5. I hear you on the practical expedience of Hayne’s position, FA. However, if the end result is thoughtful resistance to the MOOC bubble, then it’s all good, right?

    She doesn’t beat around the bush, either. I like that.


  6. I’m in Michael Roth’s “Modern and Postmodern” MOOC now. He is an informed person, and an engaging and responsible professor, and he has designed a good syllabus and good assignments.

    Of course I have disagreements with his perspective but that is a different matter. The thing is, the video lectures are dull no matter how well done. I wish they were written down so I would not have to sit through the videos.


  7. Also: the peer grading is a big issue: you have to grade on rubrics alone and that just is not enough. And there is a lot of interaction, but with other student; Roth talks on the forums and on Facebook, yes, but still one is mostly floundering around with peers. It is interesting, but not the same as a real course, you don’t get a much. The whole MOOC theory is that (a) goodie! you get to work with a star! and at the same time (b) you don’t need a professor! It’s extremism at both ends. A tiny dose of a star is not nearly as good as a large-enough dose of someone who, if not a star, is competent or more than competent.


  8. I guarantee that nobody at Otago wastes time with meaningless comparisons to our northern hemisphere betters. We know who we are and we are what Hayne says. Historiann is right, our administrators are different: they still do research, advise students, and teach. That really makes things different here. If Hayne thought massive online classes were better for students, she would be making that case instead, but she doesn’t.


  9. Z, I love this: “The whole MOOC theory is that (a) goodie! you get to work with a star! and at the same time (b) you don’t need a professor! It’s extremism at both ends. A tiny dose of a star is not nearly as good as a large-enough dose of someone who, if not a star, is competent or more than competent.”

    What does it say about the many administrators who want to turn our teaching over to static, un-interactive, videos of so-called “stars?” The contempt for learning and for intellectual life it implies is shocking.

    Also, from what I’ve seen, you’re the modal student who is best primed to benefit from a MOOC: you already have a Ph.D., so it’s clear you know how to learn and to self-educate. Like I’ve said before, videos of proffies or a short course of lectures only might be a useful PR tool for recruitment, or an elderhostel-type offering for middle-aged and old folks who’ve already been to college. But they sure aren’t college in & of themselves.


  10. If “peer grading” is all-good, I’d like to see big companies go with “customer pricing.” The “rubric” would be that as long as you don’t do what UAL just did, and sell product for literally $0, you won’t get fired and you’ll get your bonus. You being the customers. If this does happen, I’m announcing a five hour blowout sale at King of Prussia this Saturday. Everything hasta go. Drag it in, bring it in, push it in, etc.

    Ditto “modal student… elderhostel-type,” supra.


  11. p.s. What happens when/if “peer grading” meets “grade appealing,” or is that another of the ancient English Liberties that we’re going to have to give up to enter the Brave New World of MOOCability? Sounds like a formula for all-night rioting on High Street.


  12. Why appeal a crappy grade if it’s for a not-for-credit course and/or a useless “certificate?” (See Jonathan Rees’s adventures in peer grading in Jeremy Adelman’s MOOC, as described on his blog last year.)


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