Tuesday, January 29, 2013

MOOCs and Egos

Thomas Friedman wrote a recent column in the New York Times on MOOCs (Massive Online Open Courses), which is good enough, with its emphasis on educating the poorest, but didn't really contribute that much to the discussion, and also downplayed the massive attrition in these massive courses: 2-3% of students at best finish their courses online. The really good technology news from this column was that it seems like the New York Times comment filter and recommend structure is working well, because  the comments are even more worthwhile than the column.

Here's two insightful pro-academia comments I'd like to highlight that emphasize the unique qualities of academia:

zauhar from Philadelphia writes: "It is paradoxical, but as a college prof I agree with many of the remarks above that criticize modern higher ed. College has become an expensive extension of high school. All but the most selective schools admit students who can barely write a coherent paragraph - otherwise there won't be enough tuition coming in to cover the budget (and the bloated budget of the modern university is a story in itself).

"But the commentary I have read largely misses a more important fact - the value of the university is less in teaching, more in supporting research and scholarship. There has to be a "place" for research in theoretical physics and history (to pick two disciplines that our corporate-dominated world as no interest in supporting). More importantly there has to be a place that stands outside of current cultural and political assumptions.

"In fact, what I see happening is this: A few faculty at prestigious schools who see themselves as "stars" are being used by commercial interests happy to undermine the university as we know it. [my emphasis] They can make a big profit, and at the same time eliminate the last places in America not yet totally dominated by free market philosophies and wage slavery. (Edit: the free market philosophy is already here, but as a tenured professor I have the right to criticize it without retribution - for the moment, that is.)"

Frank Bannister from Ireland writes: "We have been before; and not just once.

"In the 1960s there was similar enthusiasm about closed circuit television eliminating the need to employ large numbers of academics.

"In the 1970s there was the Open University in the UK (still around) which had superb lecturers (I even took an OU course in circuit design and it was excellent).

"In the 1980s we had computer based learning (I did that too; taught myself Cobol).

"In the 1990 we had courses on audio tape, then CD, then DVD (and now MP3). Some of them were (and are) great.

"Now we have MOOC.

"And with each new technology, the same hyperbole, the same evangelism. On-line education is great. MOOC is a wonderful concept. But most of the institutions in the world that are over 400 years old are universities and there is a reason for that. To paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of the impending demise of the traditional university may be much exaggerated."

Myself, I'm not one to see a corporate conspiracy behind every MOOC, but I do see a lot of value in the particular highlighted sentence above. Just like all Americans are above-average drivers and all American kids are above-average students, all professors see themselves as above-average teachers, except for the few research profs who truly do dislike teaching. (None of those work at a small liberal arts university like mine, by the way.) Why is the pitch for a MOOC always "you can take a course from Stanford/MIT/Harvard!"? I know that the way I teach, for example, is unique, and after putting my courses online I've gotten some nice comments from around the world that reinforce that impression. This is one of the ways profs get inflated egos (although required online evaluation comments have a way of taking the wind out of your sails -- it's a boom or bust thing). What if Coursera and other companies are trying to make money by playing on "star professors"'s own puffed-up views of themselves and also our society's puffed-up view of Ivy League schools? Is the MIT lecture really that much more valuable than mine? (Of course, I think mine's more valuable, but what's most important is that it's my personal product.)

This very human factor must be considered when discussing MOOCs. I predict that there's a niche for MOOCs but it is a niche that expands, rather than contracts, the value of a true college experience. My job is to make sure that the experience I offer is worth it, and not to be distracted by the whispers that a "star teacher" can mass produce teaching on a computer screen, so I might as well let the "star" teach. Who made this person the star anyway? I get to make my teaching worth it by doing a local, unique research project with my students, and by looking them in the eye and grading their exams by hand. I get to practice a craft. If someone else wants to try to televise something similar, more power to them, but I am convinced that in person, in the lab, with the ideas of both teacher and student together driving real research, we can do something local, unique, and valuable.

So is the small liberal arts university like the "organic", local aisle at the supermarket? If so, my institution is closer to being Whole Foods than it is to being Amazon. Good for it.

For more on the value of keeping education local, see Stanley Haurwas's book on university education.

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