The Irascible ProfessorSM
by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
"For the more pedestrian MOOCs, the simple podium lecture captured and released, the difference between a real college course and a MOOC is like the difference between playing golf and watching golf. Both can be exciting and enjoyable. Both can be boring and frustrating. But they are not the same thing." ....Siva Vaidhyanathan.
Commentary of the Day - June 6, 2013. Why MOOCs Are Not The Answer. Guest commentary by Dennis Loo (with assistance from Ralph Westfall).
[Ed. note: For readers who are unfamiliar with the acronym "MOOC," it stands for "massive open online course." These are online course that enroll hundreds to thousands of students, have either no or very minimal entrance requirements, and either are free or available at minimal cost to the student. Typically, these courses are "taught" by a very well-known instructor in the field.]
Former hedge fund manager Adam Kessler has a June 2013 opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal entitled "Professors Are About to Get an Online Education." The article begins:
Anyone who cares about America's shortage of computer-science experts should cheer the recent news out of Georgia Tech. The Atlanta university is making major waves in business and higher education with its May 14 announcement that the college will offer the first online master's degree in computer science -- and that the degree can be had for a quarter of the cost of a typical on-campus degree. Many other universities are experimenting with [massive] open online courses, or MOOCs, but Georgia Tech's move raises the bar significantly by offering full credit in a graduate program.
He goes on to tout how inexpensive this MOOC-based degree is and laments that this "boon for students" is provoking controversy:
Sadly, MOOCs are not without controversy. Consider what happened at San Jose State after the university last fall ran a test course in electrical engineering paid for by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Students who worked with online content passed at a higher rate than classroom-only students, 91% to 60%. The course was so successful that the school's president decided to expand online courses, including humanities, which will also be rolled out to other California State universities.
You'd think professors would welcome these positive changes for students. Some teachers across the country are, however cautiously, embracing the MOOC model. But plenty of professors smell a threat to their livelihood. In an April 29 open letter to the university, San Jose State philosophy professors wrote: "Let’s not kid ourselves; administrators in the CSU are beginning a process of replacing faculty with cheap online education."
Kessler fails to note that this SJSU class on electrical engineering that had such impressive pass rates was in fact a hybrid course, not an exclusive online offering. There were actually two face-to-face courses, with one supplemented by online materials and extra in class activities: "a hybrid electrical engineering course where students used MOOC tutorials at home and participated in interactive problem-solving activities in class (emphasis added)." The details do not warrant any implication that totally online courses are better … or less expensive. Kessler's article also conveniently hides the issue of the low completion rates of totally online courses.
After bemoaning professors who think that their jobs are in jeopardy, Kessler neglects to mention that professors' reservations about the move to MOOCs are not mainly about possible job losses: professors who are deeply committed to teaching and learning are distressed that all of the mania for MOOCs conveniently overlooks a basic truth about learning. Learning is a mentor-student relationship that will not produce the same results if turned into what the MOOC maniacs wish for-- converting the teaching profession into a few "superstar" teachers on DVDs with thousands of students watching their canned lectures, "assisted" by people who are not qualified to act as teaching assistants and not even presented as doing anything other than holding students' hands.
What profession can be effectively taught in this manner? This form of teaching and learning resembles how well McDonald’s trains people to become chefs. The very idea that McDonald's model for food prep and delivery could be used to teach people how to become a chef is absurd. Why then should anyone expect that McDonald-izing education will produce students who are educated?
Giving out certificates of completion and conveying information can be done the way McDonald's does it, but information and thinking -- learning how to learn and learning how to figure out the answer to novel problems -- are not the same thing. MOOC acolytes treat the conveying of information and thinking/learning as if the two were the same.
The basic difference between information and thinking/learning is that the latter involve higher order thinking skills. You do not learn higher order thinking skills just by being exposed to a lot of information. Information presented compellingly is enjoyable, but it is not the same as getting a higher education.
Students are not en masse demanding online courses. Nor in general are the people advocating MOOCs and online classes as a panacea teachers. The people who are pushing MOOCs as a panacea -- note the difference here between seeing online courses and hybrid courses as a sometimes useful adjunct and seeing it as a panacea - are largely people in administrative posts or people in the business world. People who have become wealthy through selling people things and who are motivated by money might be forgiven for not being able to understand the motivation of those who take up professions principally for the non-material rewards of those occupations.
Those who take up teaching as their profession do not do so because they expect to get rich from teaching. The vast majority of teachers teach because they love helping others’ minds being opened to the wide world of learning. The vast majority of us who teach do it because we care a great deal about others, not because we are into money for its own sake and care only about ourselves. This is why MOOC acolytes do not ever delve into non-material motives of teachers and always talk about teachers as only being worried about money and job security because they themselves have a hard time understanding why anyone would do anything that did not benefit them personally with money and prestige.
The majority of students, if given a choice, opt for the traditional face-to-face classroom. Why? Because they know from their own experience that this is a much richer and productive experience. As we point out in "Cooking the Goose That Lays the Golden Eggs: California's Higher Education System in Peril":
In its essence, education has not changed fundamentally since the time of Socrates. It is a process of human, mostly face-to-face, interactions involving exploration, investigation, debate, and trying on and learning through trial and error. Education is not something to be simply bought like any other purchase. Education is something to work for, struggle for, and earn by hard effort. A meaningful diploma cannot simply be bought. It is not something that you can just be handed like a mass-produced hamburger and fries. You can no more become educated by your paying someone to stamp you as "educated" than you can become an accomplished musician, athlete or writer by having someone give you those abilities and achievements -- without your having to work extremely hard for them to become part of who you are.
What is at stake is more than education, however, as important as education is. What is at stake is the kind of society in which we want to live. Education's impact is deep and wide: the kind of broadening that people receive through the educational system -- and more generally through media, art and culture, child-rearing, governmental statements and actions, and so on -- bears directly and substantially upon the way that young (and not so young) people learn to think, gather, evaluate information, recognize disinformation, and make choices about political, economic and social issues.
Life does not come with an answer key. The correct and best answers to all questions are not always definitively known in life at any given point before the fact, and incomplete and indirect information is the norm rather than the exception. Primarily due to the influence of the privatizers, the educational system is increasingly becoming one in which the main emphasis is memorization and giving back to the teacher what the teacher has dispensed in order to pass the tests. Students are not being properly and adequately taught how to analyze, weigh information, think holistically, decide between competing claims, and make wise choices based on frequently incomplete information. ....
Kessler claims that he has nothing against teachers and that thinking that online education as a panacea is a threat to teaching is silly, but then he goes on to cite his comments in Chicago before a group of K-12 educators:
I began by pointing out that in 2011 only 7.9% of 11th graders in Chicago public schools tested "college ready." That's failure, and it's worse when you realize how much money is wasted on these abysmal results. Chicago's 23,290 teachers -- who make an average salary of $74,839, triple U.S. per capita income and 50% more than median U.S. household income -- cost Chicago taxpayers $1.75 billion out of the city’s $5.11 billion budget.
Why not forget the teachers and issue all 404,151 students an iPad or Android tablet? At a cost of $161 million, that's less than 10% of the expense of paying teachers' salaries. Add online software, tutors and a $2,000 graduation bonus, and you still don’t come close to the cost of teachers. You can't possibly do worse than a 7.9% college readiness level.
When I made this proposal, only slightly facetiously, in a roomful of self-described education entrepreneurs, it was if I’d said that Dewey had plagiarized his decimal system. I was upbraided for not understanding the plight of teachers. The plight of students, as is too often the case in discussions of education, didn't seem to rate the same concern. (Emphasis added).
Mr. Kessler wants to have his cake and eat it too. He does not even seem to notice that he contradicts himself in his relatively short article. He says, on the one hand, that he isn't against teachers, but then he "only slightly facetiously" proposes to replace all teachers with iPads and Androids.
This is similar to a "joking" slide in a major slide show presented by Richard Katz advocating online education for the CSU system. Katz is a private consultant brought in by former Chancellor Charles Reed to advocate for CSU Online. In this show as his very first slide, Katz shows a picture by his toddler son of a cyborg that the son proudly presents: "I have designed the teacher of the future. Instead of using people I have chosen cyborgs because they don't need to be paid."
Kessler says that the Chicago educators who he proposed to get rid of brought up the plight of teachers. I suspect that this is not the only thing that they said and that anything else beyond this he could not understand and has a blind spot to. As a teacher myself I would have said that what Kessler does not understand and has no experience with -- being a hedge fund manager is very different from being an educator -- is that learning is not a widget that you can just hand someone like a product coming off an assembly line.
Teaching and learning have from the beginning and will always remain an interactive human relationship. It does not always have to be face to face, but it does need to be interactive between humans.
The vast majority of students consistently express a preference for face-to-face classes if they can get them. Why is that the case if online courses are supposedly, according to people like Kessler, cheaper and better? Online classes and hybrid classes have a place as part of a panoply of offerings, but the narrow cost-benefit analysis of those pushing online education as a panacea is not based on a) understanding what education is and b) hides their real agenda which is to turn education into a profit-making center for private companies in which students will be saddled with more debt and receive an impoverished version of a real education. We explore these questions at greater length in "Cooking the Goose That Lays the Golden Eggs: California’s Higher Education System in Peril."
2013, Dennis Loo.
Dennis Loo and Ralph Westfall are faculty members at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona.
The Irascible Professor comments: It's important for readers to understand the difference between ordinary online courses and MOOCs. Ordinary online courses usually are structured similarly to a face-to-face course. The typical online course is offered as part of a degree program at a college or university, is taught by an instructor who uses courseware that allows the instructor to have a high degree of interaction with his or her students. The number of students enrolled in a given section of a regular online course typically is similar to the number enrolled in the corresponding face-to-face course. While there may be some cost savings associated with a regular online course, that is not the driving force behind these course -- which usually is convenience. They are the modern equivalent of the old-fashioned correspondence course.
MOOCs, on the other hand, place the emphasis on "massive" enrollment in a course "taught" by a "super-star" professor. In such courses there is little or no interaction between the student and the person teaching the course. They are intended to be cheap and efficient, but they are not necessarily effective. Generally, MOOCs are just as easy to drop out of as they are to enter, and it's often not clear what the actual successful completion rate is for these courses. And, it's not clear exactly what "successful completion" means for a student taking a MOOC. Personally, the IP would be loathe to drive across a bridge designed by an engineer whose only education was a collection of MOOCs.
The IP taught a junior-level general education course (Energy and the Environment) in both a standard face-to-face format, and an asynchronous online format for several years. It turned out that the online section actually was more difficult and time-consuming to teach because interaction with the students was less efficient. The upshot was that an online section of 20 to 25 students took as much time and effort to teach as a face-to-face section with 40 to 45 students. In the IP's view it is possible for an online course to be as effective as a face-to-face course, but the effort required on both the part of the instructor and the student is greater in the online course for an equivalent outcome.
One of the few advantages of reaching one's dotage is that it provides a person with a bit of historical perspective. The current enthusiasm for MOOCs in education reminds the IP of the similar exuberance that accompanied televised college courses when they began to appear in the mid-twentieth century. As Yogi Berra might say "it's deja vu all over again."
The Irascible Professor invites your .