Where is Professor Ludd when you need him?

It may be time to keep certain people away from computers, lest they corrupt the youth. The starry-eyed carny barkers for iTat have decided that no university is complete without a MOOC, a Massive Open Online Course. A number of British universities have joined Futurelearn, a consortium led by the Open University which will “offer a best-in-class educational experience that will delight students”. The main reason for offering MOOCs seems to be that they are popular, especially in America. The main feature of a MOOC is lectures, mostly by star professors, recorded and made available online as part of a course taken by `students’ who are not present at the university and who have no contact with the person who is `delivering’ the course.

The argument put forward in favour of MOOCs is that they allow millions of people who would not otherwise have the chance to `access’ higher education. By integrating tests of knowledge and understanding into the course, it is possible to assess students and give them something of the university experience, for free.

Clearly cost is an issue here. As Moshe Vardi, editor in chief of the Communications of the Association for Computing Machinery (so not an obvious opponent of the use of IT in education) puts it:

It is clear, therefore, that the enormous buzz about MOOCs is not due to the technology’s intrinsic educational value, but due to the seductive possibilities of lower costs. The oft-repeated phrase is “technology disruption.” This is the context for the dismissal (and later reinstatement) last summer of Theresa A. Sullivan, University of Virginia’s president, because she was not moving fast enough with online education. The bigger picture is of education as a large sector of the U.S. economy (over $1T) that has so far not been impacted much by information technology. From the point of view of Silicon Valley, “higher education is a particularly fat target right now.” MOOCs may be the battering ram of this attack.

Higher education is one of the few public goods yet to have been taken under private control and run for profit. MOOCs offer a cheap way of selling something which can be passed off as a university education, without the inconvenience of dealing with students or, probably, academics. Individual profit and loss accounts for teaching staff are already here. Once a university realizes that it only needs its star teachers to give one show, perhaps for a cut of the advertizing revenue, why should it bother hiring permanent staff?

The aim, in the pursuit of lower costs (i.e. profit), is to remove the essential elements of a university education and replace them with an inferior substitute for one of them, the ersatz lecture.

The first aim is to destroy the lecture as a communal, live experience. Lectures do not take place in theatres by some accident of terminology; they are a performance, to a particular audience, in a particular place, at a particular time. Even if the `material’ does not change over time, its context does: a lecture on the structural design of tall buildings, or on flight control systems, is not the same lecture on 12 September 2001 as it was on 10 September. A human being giving that lecture will be asked different questions, requiring a qualitatively different response than was appropriate two days earlier. The point of attending a lecture is the chance to influence the performance, to direct the action, and to participate communally. When we go to the theatre, or to the cinema, or to see a stand-up comic, we have that same experience, which we discuss with the rest of the audience afterwards. The problem with the filmed lecture as a medium is not that it is filmed, but that it is not filmed enough: video of a theatre production is not the same as a properly composed and made film. If no engagement is required of the student, beyond passively watching youtube in their pyjamas, something essential has been lost. When a respectable university can offer a course with no required reading, what case can be made for MOOCs as even an approximation to higher education?

On Naked Capitalism, Yves Smith has remarked that `I’m gobsmacked that no one is talking about how online education offers no socialization.’, commenting on a link to a story about academics at research universities preferring whiteboards for teaching. As Smith implies, one problem is that university education has a socializing function, quite apart from leaving the family home and being thrown into a new environment.

Part of this is learning how to engage with ideas. Universities use a range of teaching methods from large scale (reading, lectures) to small (seminars, tutorials, a chat with the academic in their office). On the whole, the complexity of the ideas dealt with is inversely proportional to the size of the group, and the more complex the ideas, the more the student is expected to bring to the class. In a university, the academic may well be an expert in their field, and can engage the students with the difficult concepts, and, especially, with the doubts, disagreements and uncertainties which are part of any thriving discipline. If a student leaves university with their original opinions and points of view intact, something has gone wrong. Without personal contact, with other students and with academics, this opening of the mind is impossible. Part of the process of higher education is learning to take the risk of looking stupid, rather than refuse to test your understanding.

Another element of this socialization, in engineering and science, is learning to deal with reality. Part of studying engineering is learning to deal with a thing, a product, an artefact, which you may well have designed, built, or modified yourself. If you get this wrong, there is a fair chance that you will have your mind opened by a broken con-rod. Primo Levi claimed that a chemist could be infallibly recognized by the perfectly circular scar on their hands where a piece of glassware had broken; physicists learn to be safe near lasers; biologists near pathogens; zoologists near spiders. There is a process of initiation into a world where you are responsible for yourself, for the people around you, and for people you will never meet who use your work. Without the possibility of a smack in the chops from a wrongly designed robot to concentrate the mind, this initiation never really happens. The MOOC carries no risk, not even a sanction for dropping out, which might be why completion rates are so low.

The process of MOOCification is even worse, however, than the absence of contact with students, academics, and captive bolts making a break for freedom. Under the cover of `peer assessment’ (a perfectly respectable method of assessing work, and of promoting critical thinking), there is a proposal for a magic rubric: not only will students assess other students’ work, they will do so “on issues of critical reasoning and grammar, thus solving seemingly daunting logistics problems.‘ ‘ Students who are watching videos of star professors might not expect to have those professors mark thousands of students’ work, but they cannot be expected to believe that having their work marked according to a script supplied to the whole class is the same as university-level assessment. Even if assessment is carried out by the university, the same pressure to reduce costs will act. Expect to see marking outsourced.

If MOOCs do become established as a form of university teaching, the future is easily predicted. First, the same small number of courses will monopolize teaching, a danger implicitly recognized by San Jose State University when it chose not to use a course from Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel:

When a university such as ours purchases a course from an outside vendor, the faculty cannot control the design or content of the course; therefore we cannot develop and teach content that fits with our overall curriculum and is based on both our own highly developed and continuously renewed competence and our direct experience of our students’ needs and abilities.

Like any technology which offers lower cost per customer, MOOCs will lead to uniformity and quasi monopoly. There may be many universities with different names, but they will all be offering the same courses.

Secondly, as in many sectors where cheap uniformity prevails, there will be a market for the differentiated niche product: the sourdough, or artisanal, degree, delivered directly by human beings, in some suitably antique buildings. Given that many professions are now effectively closed to those who cannot fund themselves through unpaid internships, why do we expect that students with mass-produced MOOC certificates will have a chance against hand-formed graduates? Quite apart from being inferior as education, MOOCs will reintroduce a social division which should have disappeared when universities were opened to anyone qualified to attend them, but in a worse form, because of the formal equality of status. The model for university lectures will be the TED talk where millions watch for free, but the people who matter pay $6000 to attend in person.

Academics who use, or produce, MOOCs are pulling up a ladder behind them, made no better by the self-delusion which lets them claim they are offering their advantages to more people. If we want more graduates, we should build more universities; if we want more self-educated people, we should stop closing libraries.

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2 Comments on “Where is Professor Ludd when you need him?”

  1. timhitchcock says:

    What strikes me about the discussion of MOOCs is the total disregard for 150 years of experience in distant learning. Between the University of London external degree and the Open University, we know where the problems and the real opportunities lie. And yet, and yet, and yet we discuss this like we have discovered some new phenomenon.

  2. […] research, but will mainly benefit those (business) who previously paid for data; and MOOCs, which as well as being criticized for their pedagogy, but which are also run by private bodies […]


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