Monday, October 1, 2012

MOOCs in the News

MIT's Technology Review has one of the best survey/reviews I've seen of current MOOC programs, and also pointedly asks if they might be a temporary fad. The article opens with a fascinating comparison to the correspondence-course craze of about a hundred years ago, which made similar promises of widespread and personalized educational opportunities, and saw millions of prospective students enroll – culminating in very low outcomes and success rates, and ultimately the collapse of those programs.

American Educator magazine has a powerful “Notebook” column assessing Khan Academy, and pointing out the relatively poor quality of the lessons made available there. Quoting a profile from Time magazine, “Sal Khan... explains how he prepares each of his video lessons. He doesn't use a script. In fact, he admits, 'I don't know what I'm going to say half the time'... 'two minutes of research on Google'... is how Khan describes his own pre-lesson routine.” Note that this observation is identical to my #1 criticism of the Udacity Introduction to Statistics course, here.


  1. Some of the points in these articles actually favor the MOOC:

    Perhaps " the essence of a college education lies in the subtle interplay between students and teachers that cannot be simulated by machines, no matter how sophisticated the programming."
    Anyone who has experienced the freshman mega-class with 100+ students knows that there is no interplay between students and teachers in that context. The class consists of the professor copying his or her notes on the board.
    The potential of MOOCs is that they have the potential to provide very personalized instruction. Its not there now (and may not be for some time). but the potential is there.

    "MOOCs have a high dropout rate.."
    This by itself doesn't say anything about the quality of the courses (or anything else). I actually consider the dropout rate to be low when considering *anyone* can sign up for free. What is more important is the number of students completing the course.

    In the American educator notebook, the author compares Khan's videos with their informality and lack of rigor with the ideal of a well-planned and executed lesson and class. And finds the videos lacking.

    That's not an appropriate comparison. Better to compare the videos with the academic wasteland that exists across the country in many public schools where the math teacher spends half the class talking about football, and the history teacher runs filmstrips the entire class so he can sit in the back and take sips from the bottle he has locked away in his desk. (I'm sure I'm not the only one who's had that experience).

    We can't compare the MOOC to a classroom ideal that often doesn't exist in reality.

    1. Your comment is challenging and nontrivial, and it took me a day to think through the following response:

      (a) Your description of common classroom environments doesn't match anything I've ever personally seen (in either a full student career at a public high school or state university). I know there's bad teaching out there, but outright fraud of that nature being common is a claim that demands extraordinary evidence. Even the one 100+ person freshman class I took (in folklore) I found to be fundamentally interesting and engaging.

      (b) Comparing bad video lectures to some possibly worse classroom environments itself overlooks the fact that the proper comparison is to a mass-market textbook, which is almost assuredly better, clearer, and more carefully put together than any video lecture I've seen. For $20 you can get an off-edition used copy of a great book and learn from that, so why use a throwaway video lecture with admittedly little or no pre-planning?

    2. "Your description of common classroom environments doesn't match anything I've ever personally seen (in either a full student career at a public high school or state university)."

      I've seen teaching that bad. Multiple times actually. I had a history teacher that never taught anything and his class was quite literally just nothing but videos he put up for us to watch. He made frequent "bathroom" breaks that he was always came back from with sniffles and bloodshot eyes. I'll let you draw your own conclusion as to what he was doing but I doubt he had a runny nose the entire year. I once saw him in the parking lot drinking from a flask. I don't think it was water.

      I took a linux class where the instructor announced on day one that he knew nothing about linux and had never used it before in his life. That he was going to be learning along with us. He, like many of my other professors just read the the Thompson Course Technology power point presentations that were provided to them by the textbook publisher. This is the norm for this University. And in this particular instance he skipped over a few of the more challenging chapters because he didn't want to learn it. He also gave us a study guide for every exam that was basically the exam without questions. I would have rather just gone to the library rather than spend hundreds of dollars for these classes.

      In most of my college classes the instructors just read from pre-prepared notes. They may be excellent notes, but there is rarely any real teaching going on. I can do that myself, and I do.

      One school I attended was different and had excellent teachers, but my Army reserve unit mobilized and when I returned I discovered that they dropped their Computer Science department completely, so I was forced to find another school. Now I attend WGU where I'm responsible for my own learning, and I rather prefer it this way.

    3. I forgot to add, one of the things I most like about video lectures is the ability to pause and rewind. I hate it when I'll miss something because the instructor is just flying through the material because he knows it already like the back of his hand. Being able to stop it for a second lets me operate at my own pace, which overall means I learn new things faster and more thoroughly.

    4. I'm beginning to wonder if a key characteristic of education is the clustering of good and bad teaching at particular school environments. That is: management that's dedicated to hiring good teachers, versus management that wants to spend as little time as possible on the issue. Because I keep hearing people online who swear all college teaching is like this, when I can't even find any in-person acquaintance who ever says they saw such a thing.

    5. I would agree with that. When I was attending USAO the teaching staff as a whole was excellent. There was a whole lot of emphasis placed on the quality of education, more so than other Universities I attended. I'd also submit that good teachers are probably difficult to come by. Being knowledgeable in a subject does not mean your effective at teaching it. And in IT I think most qualified people go on to get jobs that pay better than what teachers are paid. So the ones who end up teaching a lot of the time are ones who were less successful in the corporate world. At least it seemed like that was the case from my limited observation. Very few of them seemed to be there just because they loved to teach. The ones who loved to teach made better teachers.

    6. Really good thoughts. I did have a high-school physics instructor who had been successful in business, but quit late in life and went to teaching because he enjoyed it so much more. And of course he was by far one of the best teachers any of us ever had.