Wednesday, November 14, 2012

What's the matter with MOOCs?

I've ranted about this before, but it's only gaining more traction, so I find myself unable to not comment on the trend yet again. What trend? MOOCs, or massive open online courses, which I'll happily lump together with any online courses, though at least the open ones don't require you to pay (so far) and have professors from prestigious universities teaching there. Still, the pitfalls are the same.
  1. A narrow student body. MOOCs claim to be open to everyone, and sure, anyone can sign up. But how many students can succeed? What does your educational background need to be? How about your motivation level? The creators of MOOCs are themselves highly successful highly motivated people who have excelled in the traditional classroom. I believe they have themselves in mind when they create MOOCs. Perhaps the vision of themselves extends to "what if I had grown up in a remote part of the world without access to great educational resources?" But it is still a narrow vision.
  2. Limited pedagogical views. Online courses, because of technological limitations, have a limited number of ways that students can interact with each other and the teacher. These are typically videos, online chat rooms, and forums. There is nothing to mimic in-class group work; working with your peers while asking questions from the professor. There is nothing to mimic in-person immediate interactions; the ability to gesture wildly and draw pictures and receive hints, not answers. To give credit where it's due, the Udacity courses apparently stop the video frequently for quick "check that you're following" quizzes. I do that in my own classes, and it's great - no class should be a lecture. But what if the students can't answer the question on the short quiz, even after they rewind?
  3. Emphasizes the mind / body split. bell hooks writes about the mind/body split in teaching. How teachers are viewed purely as minds and lacking in body and lives outside of the classroom. I believe this is frequently true for students as well, and MOOCs make this split harder to overcome and potentially more permanent. There is nothing to mimic longer term mentoring; asking your professor how to get a job, talking about what you should do with your life, or asking for a recommendation. There is no mentor who knows you, in the context of your community and in the context of the class. There is no teacher to determine if you're doing poorly because you're not working hard enough or because you're sick or because you're working three jobs just to pay the rent. And there's no teacher to make sure you get through that, by being lenient or tough, depending on what you need.
Despite all this, the American Council on Education is considering awarding AP credit for courses taken online. Perhaps this will be fine for AP students. In fact, despite my objections, online courses provide a valuable service for many students; they allow motivated, dedicated, intelligent students who have the passion and determination to learn on their own, or have spent years in the workforce learning material on their own, the chance to gain recognition and official acknowledgement of that determination and knowledge. But let's be clear, they learned that information on their own, organizing study groups on their own, watching online help videos on their own, posting to online forums for help on their own. They've gotten help, and perhaps a class helped to organize these forums, but these students are determined individuals who deserve credit for going the extra mile to get an education. They are not the norm.

And when we consider awarding AP credit for online courses, we bring online courses into high school. High schools are not filled with dedicated intelligent students who are determined to get an education no matter the intellectual and emotional difficulty. Yet the right to an education, the right to be taught, is, I believe, a fundamental civil right. Let's not chip away at it.


Glencora Borradaile said...

Whao - easy there on lumping for-credit online courses in with MOOCs for a second. I (initially, before I had really thought about it/heard convincing cases) was not a fan of online courses.

(For-credit) Online courses offer increased access to education. They offer far more flexibility for students - particularly non-traditional students who may not be able to up-and-move to a college town or big city to walk into the ivory tower. They offer a means for retraining. They are often more affordable, and if they aren't, they certainly are if you don't have to move or quit your job to take them. Good online courses provide *better* access to one-on-one help via online TA access (24 hour access at Oregon State University for CS courses). They offer a means to education for those that may not feel socially comfortable in a traditional educational environment.

"There is nothing to mimic in-class group work; working with your peers while asking questions from the professor." I disagree. There is. Group chats, in fact, help shy students to interact more. My colleagues who have taught online and onsite versions of the same course say hands-down they hear from their online students far more often than onsite students.

I can't speak for MOOCs, but online courses in general? I think it is a move in the right direction. I don't suggest completely replacing onsite education, but not everyone can sit in my classroom, but everyone can visit my webpage, where I will, by New Year's, post all my teaching materials that I've put more hours into developing for my online algorithms course than I have into my onsite versions.

Glencora Borradaile said...

(But thank you for opening up the discussion!)

sorelle said...

I see what you're saying, but I still think that falls under helping motivated, dedicated students. Which is great, and needed. But I see it as a similar jump as libraries were - a great advance in access to resources, but not a way to make sure that everyone (or most people) get a quality education.

I also think that often online courses force professors to re-examine their teaching styles (as I believe happened with Udacity) and I think that's great and should be happening more without online courses forcing it. So in your example, I'd say, great, the online course helped them realize that the students needed more access to TAs. They could set up that access for non-online courses as well. There's no need for access to TAs and professors to be *only* in person (I certainly get plenty of questions via email - groan), but I do believe that access to professors in-person is critical.

For some "where I'm coming from" perspective, though... I'm teaching at a small liberal arts school. The intro class that I'm co-teaching has about 80 students in it, and that's considered huge. This means that I can know all my students, how they're doing in the class, and help them individually when they have trouble. I have no TAs (though we do have graders). I think it works well, though I recognize that it's not the norm (and is a luxury). And I think that it *should* be the norm. And it should *definitely* be the norm in high school. (It's the consideration of these types of things for high schools that really set off the rant... this time. (; )

Suresh Venkatasubramanian said...

I'm impressed that you can know all your students when there are 80 of them.

sorelle said...

Ha. I see how that was unclear. I meant that I can generally get to know all my students, and while that's definitely true in the 25 person class I'm also teaching this semester, it's less true for the 80 person class. I know most of them by this point, but there are a few (mostly the ones who are doing well and so don't come to office hours for help) who are slipping by. Which is again, just to emphasize that we need smaller classes, not bigger ones. (;

GASARCH said...

If a student takes an online course on
AP material (especially if he or she
is i a High school with that course)
and then gets a 4 or 5 on the AP exam...
what is the downside of that? While there may not be that many dedicated High School
students to do this, acrossthe entire country there maywell be.

Anonymous said...

You're assuming that professors are interesting in helping (babying?) students who are not "motivated" or "dedicated" in the first place. I'm not, and I assume most professors are the same.

To be clear: I'll go out of my way for a motivated student who's having trouble with the material. But I'm not interested in hearing students' excuses about how they have a job interview this week so need an extension on their homework, or in "inspiring" students who are just there to get a passing grade so they can get credit on their transcript. If you are, that's great, but you're the exception not the norm.

sorelle said...

When thinking about educational resources (in this case, that's paying teachers) I think the question isn't "what's the problem if it works" but rather "will it work?" Will as many people get 4s and 5s on the AP exams if they take classes online as if they had in person teachers? Will school districts feel like they don't need to hire an extra person to teach the AP class (or train an existing teacher) if they have an online option? Will we get to a point where in order to take an AP class you must take it online?

One of my large objections to the online education trend is that there hasn't been any comprehensive education research (that I know of) that shows that it's as effective (or more effective) as in-person education.

alex mcferron said...

I love online classes. However, I do admit that I already have a masters degree and perhaps am very ready for them. 1) I take them anytime i want 2) Honestly, i was usually too shy to interact with my professors one on one as an undergrad anyway
3) I can stop the recording, try out a few things, return to the recording so that I can go at my own pace. I can style my learning for a tactile learning strategy, which i need.

the biggest obstacle i have to learning now is time. I really work so hard that it is hard to find time and energy. I'm sure this is true of a lot of people who want to learn. I used to be supported by student loans and some help from my parents. That went a long way in making time to learn. Without time, you can have all the online classes you want but it won't matter if you are too busy delivering pizza.

Darakhshan Mir said...

Hi Sorelle,
Landed up here through twitter, thought I should act the devil's advocate! Here's a link you might be interested in

I am in agreement with you when you say what education SHOULD be like, but the fact is that for a vast majority it isn't like it should be. And while I don't agree with the Mathbabe all the way, I think she has a point. Most students don't get enough attention from their professors. In state schools, where a lot of students go, research and not teaching is the priority. The system is just set up in a way that really makes it difficult for professors to also be good teachers. Yes, liberal-arts schools have the right focus, but how many people go to such schools? Don't get me wrong, I am highly appreciative of and excited about a good teaching environment, enough to want a job in such a place, but the fact is such an education is out of reach for most people.

To illustrate where I come from, I think of myself as a young curious girl in a sleepy, small, conflict-ridden town in the Himalayas, and how hungry I was to learn but had no access to expertise and good professors, even in college. I taught myself everything I found interesting through books and watching some videos in the college library. Something like this would have completely changed things for me. I would have had exposure to a wider variety of things that people study before I went to earn my Masters, which is when I really realized that I should continue to study CS and get a PhD.

There is a danger here, however, something that you're trying to articulate as well. That we will be complacent. That we'll give up on fixing our shortcomings and decide that since we can't educate people well in-person anyway, let us just bring in the MOOCes into high schools. The focus should be on teaching the vast majority of students, and teaching them well, on training, hiring and "creating" good teachers, not cutting corners by declaring that since the MOOC has it "figured out" already, why bother. Yes, we have to be really careful about the arguments we are making. I am with you on that!

Also, not sure if you follow Mark Guzdial, but he raises the kind of education research questions you talk about.

Have a good holiday!

CSProf said...

I think part of the discussion is that the (non-online) courses come in such a range of flavors. There are the 12-25 person courses in liberal arts colleges, the 40-80 person courses with TA help, and the 120-800 person theatre spectacles with armies of helpers. And, naturally, there is a similar spread among universities in their rigor, the commitment of students to learning and their preparation.

Learning is complicated. It is clear that the ability to get questions answered quickly--more generally, interaction with others--is a big plus. Some of this is not impossible to get in online settings, with software help, but it is a lot easier to do it in a small in-person class.

Another huge plus is inspiration. Again, this is easiest in person, but not impossible at a distance. Some of my big inspirations in college were books: Feynman's Lectures on Physics, and the Landau-Lifschitz Physics texts, the latter printed on horrible quality paper, subsidized by the Evil Empire....

I should add that I also was lucky to receive a lot of personal attention from superb scholars, who were happy that motivated students sought them out.
This is, at the moment, very difficult to get online
(although some blogs and websites work well at the graduate level for a small set of aggressive readers)

The final difficulty is reproducing online the advantages of working in a community. You get not only help, but role models. Again, a lot depends on the community itself: an elite undergraduate program often has a culture and a tradition of work and scholarship that can be immensely helpful. It is not obvious that such standards and traditions cannot be created online, but seems very difficult.
Glencora's data is interesting, but the fact that online students seek out faculty more than traditional ones may also reflect that they are desperate for human contact ....

Finally, there is also the question of what is being learned. I have no doubt that one can teach facts and techniques as well online than in person. The problem is that in my view these are the least important things to learn. One would like to engage the minds of students and challenge them to think.
This is extremely difficult, unless the students are already doing it....

Some institutions, some courses manage to help many students take this path. Some of the things that seem to work include inspired teachers, small classes, lots of contacts, a culture that values learning (not grades), and sufficient time that students can dedicate to learning. It is unclear how to translate these into an online environment.

Tina at Online PhD Programs said...

I have been writing blogs about PhD, but this is the first time I encountered MOOCs. Although I’m not an anti-PhD, I still believe on the effectiveness of getting the best education onsite. Getting PhD at physical classroom could be a lot better and give you much education than in a virtual classroom.

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