Kooks and MOOCs

[The kind folks at Educational Technology Debate have posted a more sober, unjesterly version of this article.]

The other day, someone the Jester will call “Shabnam” mailed him the following question: Do you have any thoughts, for or against MOOCs? Thank you, Shabnam, for waking the Jester from a long slumber. As he shakes off cobwebs, the Jester can almost hear the squeaking of his creaky bones.

MOOCs – massively open online courses are all the rage these days! If it’s not MIT and Harvard deigning to grace the world with EdX, it’s Stanford celebrity professors exposing themselves on Udacity. Meanwhile, Bill Gates and others are going crazy over the Khan Academy. Perhaps most bizarre is the story of University of Virginia president, Teresa Sullivan, being ousted and then invited back within a couple of weeks. It seems some trustees were impatient with the pace at which she was initiating MOOC-ish offerings at the university.

Before the Jester jests about the impact of MOOCs, it will help to categorize MOOCs into three categories. The first type of MOOC is the MOOC as educational material. The Jester dubs them MOOC’EMs. These are MOOCs that consist almost solely of educational content placed online. They make no serious attempt to take attendance, administer proctored tests, provide call-in numbers for human tutors, give certified grades, or otherwise do anything that goes beyond providing just the educational material. (By “serious attempt,” the Jester does not mean issuing of printable certificates upon clicking the “Finish” button.) The content may be fancy – interactive simulations, educational games, adaptive problem sets, videos of uproariously entertaining professors giving lectures, etc. – but if no attempt is made to do anything other than provide this educational content, it is a MOOC’EM. One characteristic of the MOOC’EM is that proponents like to highlight how many gazillions of users have enrolled for the courses, while in fact, the actual number of people who have actually completed a course can be counted on one thumb. (By “completed,” the Jester does mean having randomly clicked on all the multiple-choice tests, the way he once passed an online driver’s education course.)

The second type of MOOC is the MOOC+ (pronounced MOOC-plus). As cleverly implied by the name, the MOOC+ is a MOOC’EM plus some elements. Those elements attempt to provide some aspects of the regular school experience beyond mere educational content. There may be real-time online chat with tutors. There may be some way to take proctored exams. There may be an office that issues certified transcripts of students who have taken courses. In any case, MOOC+s are an attempt to be more like a real school, with the content delivered as a MOOC, but other components, such as grading, or help from a real person (heaven forbid!), provided in a way that requires human administration. MOOC+s vary greatly in exactly what they offer, but most like to emphasize that they do more than just offer content online. They know that MOOC’EMs aren’t enough, so they’ll talk about the warm, fuzzy side of their work, such as how they have paid proctors remotely view recorded videos of online test takers to make sure they aren’t cheating. (The Jester is not making this up!)

The third type of MOOC is not really a MOOC at all. It is an OC – online course. These are real courses that are organized, taught, graded, and certified by real educators, but which just happen to use online channels to engage with students. They include regular distance-learning courses, and are rarely either “massive” or “open” in the sense that the material is offered free to the entire galaxy. One way to tell that a MOOC is an OC is that it will usually charge a hefty fee for a class – after all, someone has to pay for the teachers, the graders, the administrators, and the infrastructure.

The brilliance of the Jester’s classification into MOOC’EMs, MOOC+s, and OCs is that it simplifies the analysis. To wit, MOOC’EMs are useless; OCs are as good as the institution behind them; and MOOC+s will tend over time to become MOOC’EMs or OCs.

As always, it helps to keep in mind the Jester’s mantra: technology amplifies human intent and capacity. In education, human intent and capacity includes both pedagogical intent and capacity of teachers and administrators, and individual intent and capacity of students.

MOOC’EMs will certainly not solve any real problems in education. Why not? Because real problems in education require serious human effort, and MOOC’EMs, by definition, do not provide that. MOOC’EMs are just collections of educational material sitting online, and educational material sitting online is no better than educational material sitting in a textbook. As the Jester has implied in other guises, the real problems of education are not problems of educational content, but of student motivation. And student motivation is a problem that content alone, however entertaining and gamified cannot easily solve. (The Jester promises a future post on games and how they won’t save the world, either.)

Wait, Mr. Jester, what about that rare student who has a lot of self-motivation? Yes, it’s true that the rare student who has the curious combination of…

  • good access to the Internet, but not access to good textbooks,
  • good Internet skills, but an inability to find good educational content online apart from MOOCs, and
  • good motivation, but no motivation to scavenge the plentiful educational content already available on the Internet in non-MOOC form,

might very well benefit from MOOCs. But, that student is so rare that she (the Jester has verified that she is a she) can also be counted on one thumb.

At the other end, there are OCs. According to the Jester’s Law of Amplification, an OC amplifies the pedagogical intent and capacity of the institution running it. And, there is always an institution running an OC, because OCs are real schools first, online gimmicks second. OCs will certainly allow schools to reach a larger set of students, and the clever bits of technology used to run them are likely to lower some costs so that someone in the system will benefit from greater revenue or lower prices. Cost is the OC’s best selling point, but the cost reduction will be scalar – each student will cost some non-trivial amount that will likely not shrink below an order of magnitude of regular tuition.

Also, OCs will never quite be as good as the real thing. At physical schools, warm bodies can engage in lively face-to-face discussion; feel the responsibility to attendance and assignments that physical classes impose; get a boost from the camaraderie of shared struggle; create long-lasting friendships that become valuable social networks; etc. As a result, there will always be a place for the physical school – and here, the Jester will predict that however popular MOOCs become, and however many experiments there may be to replace real schools with MOOCs, physical schools will not only survive, they will (continue to) prevail. At the very least, the world’s elites will always pay good money to hoard the best social capital for themselves.

And then there are MOOC+s. MOOC+s are where the most interesting action will be, but they are inherently unstable. They will tend to slide down to MOOC’EMs or climb up to OCs over time. MOOC+s will have to charge someone for the plus that they provide. And whomever gets stuck with the bill will demand the two critical parts of formal education which are, of course, real learning by students and certifiable sorting of students. So over the long run, MOOC+s will either get paid to deliver the full package, or forego pay and the plus components that bump them above MOOC’EMs. (Half-clever readers will imagine that ad revenue is a viable possibility; yes, and let’s also poster our physical classrooms with junk food ads to generate revenue for public schools.)

The best test of MOOCs (or of any educational concept, for that matter) is to see where their strongest proponents send their children. The Jester wagers that anyone making good income off of MOOCs will send their own kids to the best physical school they can afford (or otherwise ensure that qualified adults are deeply involved). At best, MOOCs will serve as a supplement.

Ultimately, the Jester expects that MOOCs will come and mostly go, like television-for-education came and mostly went. In a few years, there will be some other techno-fad driving today’s MOOC fans into a tizzy. Meanwhile, the world of the future might have a few more people learning online, but very quickly a new equilibrium will be reached, and things won’t be all that different from today: students from underprivileged backgrounds will continue to lose the educational race; parents with means will ensure the best (non-MOOC) education for their kids; and most students won’t learn that much more or less than they learn today.

…unless, of course, we make the hard social and political decisions to pay for excellent adult guidance in education for everyone, by which the Jester does NOT mean buying every charter-school student a laptop loaded with Khan Academy videos and educational video games.

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One Response to “Kooks and MOOCs”

  1. MOOCs Will Come and Mostly Go Like Other EduTech Fads « Educational Technology Debate Says:

    [...] The ICT4D Jester originally published this as Kooks and MOOCs [...]

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