MOOC meltdown!



I assume you’re all familiar with Sebastian Thrum’s “ooopsie–my bad” last week on the argument that MOOCs can educate the uneducated masses and at the same time make money for his deluded investors.  I haven’t had the time or energy to say “I told you so,” especially because Jonathan Rees has a nice round-up (with a bonus Monty Python joke and clip) of the issue.

However, I’ll chime in this morning to note this survey of MOOC users at the University of Pennsylvania:  80% of them already hold advanced degrees!  This makes perfect sense in terms of what Jonathan, I, and every other critic of MOOCs has pointed out from the very beginning, which is that the people who really need college educations also–unfortunately for the edupirates like Thrun and Daphne Koller–need human beings to teach and guide them.  Professors like Jonathan and me who actually know and teach non-elite college students have known this all along, which is why no one ever asked our opinions.  It’s the professors at Princeton, Harvard, and the University of Virginia who were consulted, not us, because EdX, Coursera, and Udacity pushers just knew that we’d be wet blankets!

Trust me:  I have to teach up to 123 students in a U.S. history survey next semester, and I’m desperately trying to cook up tricks and treats to keep them coming to class, keep them engaged, and get them to do the reading and writing assignments.  It’s hard enough teaching my first- and second-year college students at this (admittedly ridiculous) scale, especially because most of them take the course to satisfy a distribution requirement and are newly enthralled with the notion that their attendance in class can no longer be impelled by Johnny Law.

I’ll say it again:  MOOCs may be a nice PR tool & maybe something that can be deployed to generate alumni interest and financial support, but the notion that they’re useful for educating the uneducated is just ridiculous.  Somehow, though, I’ve got to come up with something else to say other than a big, fat raspberry at the panel I’m on (at Jonathan’s initiative and invitation) at the American Historical Association annual meeting in Washington, D.C.  Maybe I’ll just read Scott L. Newstok’s article, “A Plea for Close Learning” in the latest issue of Liberal Education published by the American Association of Colleges & Universities out loud on the podium.

Better yet, I think I’ll just declare victory and invite the audience to join me, Jonathan, and the other folks with Nostradamus-like powers of prediction in the hotel bar.

13 thoughts on “MOOC meltdown!

  1. Historiann,

    I’m definitely a “yes” for the hotel bar, but I still think we have work to do before the cocktail hour begins. Although you’d have to have been brain dead not to see that MOOCs don’t work, a lot of really smart historians are still taking the corporate bait. While I suspect few would admit it, it’s probably because they want to become famous.

    On the good side, based on my informal survey at least, there are still far fewer history MOOCs out there (at least those taught by historians) than in any major discipline. I think that’s because most of our colleagues know that it is impossible to teach 30,000 students at a time without reverting back to a definition of history from the 1950s. I also think we historians are more politically aware (in the “academic politics” sense of that word) because our job market is so bad.

    So perhaps we might think of our AHA panel as an inoculation against future flare ups rather than a battle against a raging epidemic.

    PS I just got accused of spiking the football at a link to my Dead Parrot post. Wait until that guy reads this!


  2. Don’t celebrate too early people. The specter of blending learning is still out there and it’s far more insidious because the early results on blending learning are pretty good (my own school’s early experiments on blended learning have been really successful) but… the potential for abuse is horrific. If you think MOOCs were bad faith actors, just wait until the combo of common core-blended learning hits.


  3. Time to cause upheaval, who says that MOOC doesn’t work? Academics are great examples for the success of MOOC. We study for decades by ourselves from dis-joined and ill-defined sources. Never heard anyone of you ask for a teacher and a classroom.


  4. There is a one fundamental problem with opposing MOOCs because they don’t provide education. What they do provide is money. They’re cheap. Cheap, cheap, cheap, cheap, cheap, cheap. And then there’s us pointyheaded eggs yammering on about “education.” Totally off-topic. No wonder we sound like crickets to them.


  5. koshembos, you keep coming up with the same points and the rest of us keep pointing out the problem with them. One more time, just in case it penetrates this once:

    Self-directed learning — by mail, by library, by internet, by carrier pigeon — works IF you already expert and need to add to your knowledge.

    Basic learning DOES NOT WORK at a distance. That’s been shown almost as thoroughly as the effectiveness of vaccines. The Australians who run the rural schools by radio and now web have the kids in to boarding schools for a couple of weeks at the beginning and end of semesters. Facetime is essential. The British Open University has years and years of experience. Go read up on it. Honestly. You’re advanced enough to teach yourself on this, right?


  6. Yes: that’s why the data from Penn is so interesting. I’m unsurprised that MOOCs, distance learning, library cards, and other forms of self-education work for people who already have college degrees. What doesn’t work is expecting people who have (in some cases barely) graduated from high school to self-educate like people who already have B.A.s or Master’s degrees (or Ph.D.s for that matter.)


  7. Well, it’s fascinating that Thrum decided that MOOC’s are great except for those pesky students with weak backgrounds and messy lives. I like Tressie MC’s take on it as an ethics question (

    Blended learning is — as Western Dave notes — in fact effective, and I think the key is that when done well, blended learning is not about the 30,000, or 100,000 students; if a large group watch online lectures, what it’s blended with is exactly what we’re talking about: face to face small group interaction with an instructor. (And yes, they can to some extent deskill the instructors, but not by much.)

    I have never been opposed to online learning, or blended learning; I taught for 18 years in a non-residential context, and understand the need for a variety of learning modalities. But every effective teaching method I know about involves interaction of an instructor and students in small groups.


  8. I teach at an institution in Europe which for many years has operated on the premise of self-directed learning – with the result that students ended up with a very helter-skelter education and many sank out of sight rather than learning how to swim in academic waters. Now, with the introduction of the Bologna reforms (intended to create comparable degree programs across Europe, but which was designed by politicians rather than educators), the complaint is that higher education – now with new requirements that work actually be completed in the semester a course is taught and that there be uniform ways of assessing performance such as papers and exams – is turning all too “school-like.” My impression is that the students actually rather like having the structure: it gives them purchase. Self-direction is a tall order for the disorganized and weakly motivated…


  9. Pingback: MOOCs vs. House of Cards smackdown : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

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

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