A Cautious Word about MOOCs

By J.M. Anderson


MOOCs are all the rage. Not a day goes by without someone extolling how they will transform and rescue higher education: they will democratize it; they will revolutionize it; they will make it more affordable. In an essay here yesterday, Richard Vedder outlined their promise of positive impact.

At the same time, critics question their effectiveness and fear that they will harm American higher education. For instance, Lester Lefton, president of Kent State University, goes so far as to claim that they will devalue what colleges and universities have been especially good at creating–“a real diversity of thought.”  Whether colleges and universities promote genuine diversity of thought is questionable, as readers of this site well know, but the current debate about the quality, cost-effectiveness, and viability of MOOCs is misguided. It’s simply too soon to say.

What we can say is that MOOCs–whether you love ’em or hate ’em–undermine what has traditionally constituted education at the college level through the Massive Online Outsourcing of Courses.

Workers Running an Algorithm

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If most professors still think that teaching means standing before their classes and reading lectures from notes or PowerPoint, it only makes sense to post them online or let students read them for themselves instead of subjecting them to such tedium in a lecture hall.  When they simply give students True/False, Multiple Choice, or Fill-In-The Blank exams, it’s more efficient–and cost effective–to have students take their exams online (or someplace other than on a campus) and to have computers grade them.

Writers like Thomas Friedman (The World Is Flat) and Daniel Pink (A Whole New Mind and Drive) have forcefully argued over the past decade that when work becomes routine it can be automated or outsourced.  We’ve already seen this happening in such fields as accounting, law, and computer programming, where “workers essentially run the algorithm, figure out the correct answer, and deliver it instantaneously from their computer to someone six thousand miles away,” writes Pink. Even the medical profession, he adds, “has become standardized” and “reduced to a set of repeatable formulas for diagnosing and treating various ailments.” Some physicians call this “cookbook medicine.”

When professors resort to “cookbook teaching,” there’s no reason why their profession shouldn’t be outsourced too.

Outsourcing the Faculty

Ironically, though, MOOCs perpetuate the “sage on the stage” syndrome and cookbook methods of teaching and learning that have been the bane of higher education and the chief reason for poor student-learning outcomes.

The on-line classes that Vedder previewed (and was impressed by) were, he admits, “rather cookie-cutter in nature.” Apparently neither he nor other advocates of MOOCs, such as economist Alex Tabarrok, think that there is anything wrong with that for college-level courses. In a recent essay, Tabarrok describes his 2009 TED talk that drew 700,000 viewers. “This 15 minutes of teaching I did at TED,” he writes, “dominates my entire teaching career: 700,000 views at 15 minutes each is equivalent to 175,000 student-hours of teaching, more than I have taught in my entire offline career” (italics added).

A little later he compares teaching to a stage play, which can be seen by a few hundred at most in a single setting. The problem from an economic standpoint is that the hundredth performance is just as labor intensive and expensive as the first. In contrast, if you filmed the first performance you could save the repeated cost of producing it, and it could be viewed again and again by countless numbers of people. 

More like a Movie

That’s what online education does. By making a lecture “more like a movie,” it allows millions of viewers to see it while lowering the cost per viewer. And don’t worry about quality, Tabarrok argues. The “average movie actor is a better actor than the average stage actor.” MOOCs can similarly “leverage” the best teachers, making it “possible for a single professor to teach more students in an afternoon than was previously possible in a lifetime.”

Of course, the movie actor analogy is both self-serving and subjective (he offers no evidence to support it). It is also patronizing and condescending because it suggests that only the “best” teachers can be found on TED or at places like Harvard and Stanford–and let’s not forget George Mason University, where Tabarrok teaches.  

But even if Tabarrok’s model makes good economic sense, it makes bad education sense and misrepresents what genuine teaching is and what the “best” teachers actually do. For starters, unlike TED speakers, they don’t simply deliver lectures and profess. They also work with students to help them become better thinkers, readers, and writers. How?

Through personal attention (such as tutorials) and classroom interaction (such as discussions and the guided close reading of texts). By constantly testing their students’ minds against theirs, forcing them to ask the hard questions and to explain them with significant answers. And by giving them appropriate personalized feedback.

The result of this kind of attention and interactivity is they get to know their students and can empathize with them–understanding their longings, their genuine abilities and interests, their true needs. These aren’t merely ineffable qualities of teaching and learning; they are real, significant, and personally meaningful attributes to anyone who has ever experienced them from his or her teacher.

More than Transferring Information

What Vedder and Tabarrok and other advocates of MOOCs either overlook or simply ignore by focusing on the economics of education is that teaching–genuine teaching–is a heuristic activity that involves more than simply the transfer of information to student-consumers.

Neither Tabarrok in his TED talk nor any sage on a MOOC stage can divine the emotions of their student-viewers and make them feel, as Allan Bloom put it, excited and satisfied, that they are doing something that is independent and fulfilling, and that they are getting something from the college experience they cannot get elsewhere, including online.

True, most professors in colleges and universities don’t deliver on this either. A colleague once told me about the time as a freshman he received a D on his paper in an Introduction to Biology class at the University of Illinois that had about 500 students in it. Naively, he sought out the professor to find out what he did wrong, and was surprised when the professor told him, “Young man, do you really think that I graded your paper?” He told him to find his TA and not bother him again.

But that’s the heart of the problem, and the chief reason why higher education is being outsourced. It’s not simply a matter of cost effectiveness or economies of scale–anyone who doubts that the kind of interactivity I’m describing is possible, even in large classes, should watch professors at the Harvard Business School teach upwards of 90 students using essentially the Socratic method and no technology except chalk and a blackboard.

Rather, for too long colleges and universities have cared more about expansion, sports, and prestige than they have about inculcating character and good habits of living in their students.

For too long professors have cared more about research than they have teaching.  Throw technology into the mix, and you’ve got the perfect conditions for the Massive Online Outsourcing of Courses.


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