Sunday, March 17, 2013

Willie Sutton and the MOOCS

A recent issue of Scientific American reprints a story from Nature (here) by Mitchell Waldrop (who wrote a nice book on complexity several years ago) that featured linguist + university bureaucrat Juan Uriagereka in the opening paragraphs.  The story concerns MOOCS (massively online open courses) and the hysteria that they have generated in universityland. Here are the opening paragraphs:

When campus president Wallace Loh walked into Juan Uriagereka’s office last August, he got right to the point.  “We need courses for this thing – yesterday!”

Uriagereka, associate provost for faculty affairs at the University of Maryland in College Park, knew exactly what his boss meant. Campus administrators around the world had been buzzing for months about massive open online courses, or MOOCS: internet-based teaching program designed to handle thousands of students simultaneously, in part using the tactics of social-networking websites. To supplement video lectures, much of the learning comes from online comments, questions and discussions. Participants even mark one another’s tests.

The story goes onto describe how MOOCS have been sprouting all over the place and how different universities have been trying to cash in on what they see as the next big thing (btw, it stands to reason that they can’t all cash in for how many duplicate/triplicate/4-plicate/n-plicate internet courses does one need?).  It got me wondering, and not in a good way. I am a seriously cynical person.  A new fad hits town, one that gets administrators (university presidents no less) all aflutter, and I cannot resist wondering why? Why the sudden interest (panic)?  As the latin phrase goes “cui bono?” A good rule of thumb is to follow the money. Thus the suggestiveness of the phrasing in the second paragraph above “designed to handle thousands of students” (my emphasis). 
This suggests that administrators see MOOCS as cash cows (hence ‘MOOCS’?), ways of cutting costs at a time when education, at least in the US is getting ever more expensive.  And this is what worries me. Why? Before I tell you, I want to go on record as being a big fan of online stuff (duh), especially online course material. On line courses are great (though, like very large lecture classes, often boring (and for the same reason as they are often just videos of large lecture classes)) and some are unbelievably terrific (I love the Khan Academy stuff).  I would welcome lots more of this being available to use and enjoy. However, what I am not at all crazy about is the thought that MOOCS are money makers/savers, the main reason, I believe, for all that hyperventilating by university provosts and presidents.
What’s the problem? The advertised thinking behind MOOCS violates the Willie Sutton Principle (WSP) (he of the famous quip “That’s where the money is” in answer to the question: “Why do you rob banks?”).  The WSP favors technology that cuts costs where they are high. The problem with MOOCS relates to how they are being sold. Whereas they might be reasonable substitutes for big courses (say over 100 students in a classroom), these courses are already very cost effective, as Atrios (aka Duncan Black) observes at the blog Eschaton (here).  As he notes, the large intro courses (the big ones) “really don’t cost anything,” even taking into account high senior prof salaries and TA support. Thus, there aren’t cost savings here “because the costs are really low…for these kinds of students.” If this is so, the WSP kicks in and you have to ask yourself where the cost savings actually are? It’s the small courses stupid!  When you realize this, you begin to worry that the fascination with MOOCS can have very bad consequences.  Especially for a discipline like linguistics.
Most of the important teaching in linguistics goes on in small classrooms with lots of student participation. At UMD, our undergrad courses have 20-25 students in them. Were it possible to MOOC such courses it would be possible to save serious money. So, I predict, that whereas the evangelists are selling MOOCS by pointing to the large intro classes and observing that they would not be substantially changed by moving to a MOOC format, this is not where MOOCS will earn their keep for there isn’t enough money lying fallow there.  The pressure will develop to MOOC the non intro small courses for following the WSP that’s where the money is. And this will impact disciplines like linguistics where heretofore most of the important teaching has taken place in small class formats. 
I’m not sure that MOOCS can be stopped. Fads usually can’t be. I am sure of one thing: when university presidents get all hyped up about some new fangled idea beware.  The BS is about to flow.  So, when you hear the hype remember Willie Sutton, the patron saint of bank robbers and reformist bureaucrats.


  1. Indeed. Another problem with MOOCs is that they are likely to become 'perfect', whereas, at least past the intro courses, an important aspect of university courses is watching the lecturer stuff up and having an opportunity to correct it (even in math, people get their wires crossed and the wrong stuff comes out). So that 'knowledge' becomes something you can participate in the making of yourself, rather than something delivered by Experts from Elsewhere.

  2. Another concern with the 'Experts from Elsewhere' aspect of MOOCs raised in the Faculty Senate here at UW-Madison, is that it is extremely common for the instructor to learn from the direct interactions with their students. This type of learning for the instructor can be 'wow, I taught that very ineffectively and this other way works better' or 'wow, I just realized this insight into the material after having to explain it 5 different times to these kids'. With MOOCs removing the direct personal interaction between the instructor and the students both sides are left with an impoverished learning experience.

    1. Totally agreed about the insights for the instructor that come from direct interactions with students. I supplemented my undergrad course on language acquisition with podcasts for the first time this quarter, and the difference between explaining the material to a screen for the podcasts vs. explaining the same material to a live class was significant. It's very much the "whoa, good question - I hadn't thought of it like that before, but this is a *way* better way to explain what's going on here..."