Friday, June 21, 2013

More on MOOCs

The discussion on MOOCs is heating up. There is an issue of the Boston Review dedicated to the topic.  The five papers (here) are all worth reading if you are interested in the topic, which, as you may have guessed, I am. For what it’s worth, I suspect that the MOOCs movement is unstoppable, at least for now. The reason is that various different elite groups have reached a consensus that this is the elixir that will energize pedagogy at the university all the while reducing cost, enhancing the status, influence and coffers of leading private institutions and making excellence available to the masses. So exciting, cheap, “quality” led, elite enhancing and democratic. Who could resist?  Well, as you know, beware when something sounds too good to be true.  Here are some of my reservations.

First, I believe that there is an inherent tension between cheap and pedagogically effective.  There is a large group of powerful people (e.g. politicians, see the Heller here) who see MOOCs as a way of solving the problem of overcrowding (a problem related to the fact that public funding of universities has declined over the last 20 years). But if you want courses with high production values that entertain the young it costs. The idea behind MOOC’s potential cost savings seems to be that a one-time investment in an entertaining course will pay dividends over a long period of time. I’m skeptical. Why? Well, old on line material does not weather well. If one’s aim is to engage the audience, especially a young one, then it needs a modern look and this requires frequent update.  And this costs.  Of course, there are ways of containing these costs. How? By reducing faculty and making them adjuncts to the MOOCs.  William Bowen, past president of Princeton, believes that cost containment could be achieved as follows: “[i]f overloaded institutions diverted their students to online education it would reduce faculty, and associated expenses.” It is of course possible that this will be done well and education will be enhanced, but if a principle motivation is cost containment (as it will have to be to make the sale to the political class), I wouldn’t bet on this.

Second, there is a clear elitism built into the system. Read Heller’s paper (p.9) to get a good feel for this. But the following quote from John Hennesy, the president of Stanford, suffices to provide a taste:

“As a country we are simply trying to support too many universities.  Nationally we may not be able to afford as many research institutions going forward.”

Heller comments:

If elite universities were to carry the research burden of the whole system, less well-funded schools could be stripped down and streamlined.

So MOOCs will serve to “streamline” the educational system by moving research and direct teacher contact to elite institutions. This will also serve to help pay the costs of MOOC development as these secondary venues will eventually pay for their MOOCs. As Heller notes (p. 13): “One idea for generating revenue [for MOOCs, NH] is licensing: when a California State University system, for instance, used HarvardX courses, it would pay a fee to Harvard, through edX.” This is the “enticing business opportunity” (p. 4) that is causing the stampede into MOOCs by the elite schools (As the head of HarvardX says: “This is our chance to really own it.”). So state schools will save some money on public education by (further) cutting tenured faculty and some elite players stand to make a ton of change by providing educational content via MOOCs. A perfect recipe for enhanced education, right? If you ansered ‘Yes,’ can I interest you in a bridge I have? Of course my suspicions may come from bias and self-interest, coming as I do from a public state institution, I am less enthusiastic about this utopian vision than leading lights from Stanford and Harvard might be.

MOOCs also have a malign set of potential consequences for research and graduate education in general. I hadn’t thought of this before, but the logic Peter Burgard (from Harvard) outlines seems compelling to me (Heller:14-15):

“Imagine you’re at South Dakota State,” he said, “and they’re cash-strapped, and they say, ‘Oh! There are these HarvardX courses. We’ll hire an adjunct for three thousand dollars a semester, and we’ll have the students watch this TV show.’ Their faculty is going to dwindle very quickly. Eventually, that dwindling is going to make it to larger and less poverty-stricken universities and colleges. The fewer positions are out there, the fewer Ph.D.s get hired. The fewer Ph.D.s that get hired—well, you can see where it goes. It will probably hurt less prestigious graduate schools first, but eventually it will make it to the top graduate schools. If you have a smaller graduate program, you can be assured the deans will say, ‘First of all, half of our undergraduates are taking MOOCs. Second, you don’t have as many graduate students. You don’t need as many professors in your department of English, or your department of history, or your department of anthropology, or whatever.’ And every time the faculty shrinks, of course, there are fewer fields and subfields taught. And, when fewer fields and subfields are taught, bodies of knowledge are neglected and die. You can see how everything devolves from there.”

So, a plausible consequence of the success of MOOCs is a massive reduction in graduate education, and this will have a significant blowback on even elite institutions. Note that the logic Burgard outlines seems particularly relevant for linguistics. We are a small discipline, many linguists teach in English or langauge departments, and we tend to fund our grad programs via TAships. Note, further, that according to Hennesy (above), this downsizing is not a bug, but a feature. The aim is to reduce the number of research institutions, and this is a plausible consequence of MOOCing undergraduate education.

It gets worse. Were MOOCs to succeed, this would result in greater centralization and homogenization in higher education (imagine everyone doing the same HarvardX course across the US!).  Furthermore, to extend MOOCs to the humanities and behavioral sciences (linguistics included) will require greater standardization. In fact, simply aiming for a broad market (Why? To make a MOOC more marketable and hence more economically valuable) will increase homogeneity and reduce idiosyncracy. Think of the text book market, not a poster child for exciting literature.  Last, if the magic of MOOCs is to be extended beyond CS and intro bio courses to courses like intro to linguistics, it will require standardizing the material so that it will be amenable to the automatic grading, an integral part of the whole MOOC package. Actually one of the things I personally find distasteful about MOOCs is the merger of techno utopia with BIG DATA. Here’s Gary King’s (the MOOC guru at Harvard according to Heller) “vision” :

We could not only innovate in our own classes…but we could instrument every student, every classroom, every administrative office, every house, every recreational activity, every security officer, everything. We could basically get the information about everything that goes on here, and we could use it for students (9-10).

Am I the only one that finds this creepy?  Quick: call Edward Snowdon!!

As I said at the outset, I doubt that this is stoppable, at least for now. This is not because there is a groundswell of popular support bubbling up from the bottom, but because there is a confluence of elites -educational, technical, political, economic- that see this as the new big thing.  And there’s money in them thar hills. And there are budget savings to be had. And MOOCs can be sold as a way of enhancing the educational experience of the the lower classes (and boy does that feel good: doing well by doing good!). In addition, it is an opportunity for elite institutions to be come yet more elite, always a nice side benefit.

Let me end on a slightly optimistic note.  I personally think that the benefits, both educational and economic, of MOOCs is being oversold. This always happens when there is money to be made (and taxes to be shaved).  However, I suspect (hope) that what will sink MOOCs is their palpable second class feel. I just don’t see Harvard/Princeton students taking MOOCs in place of courses taught by high priced senior faculty (certainly not for $65,000/year). But if it doesn’t sell there, then it will be a hard sell in universities that serve the middle class. It will seem cheap in an in your face sort of way. And this, in the end, won’t play well and so MOOCs will run into considerable flak and, coupled with the fact that cost savings won’t materialize, the MOOCification of higher Ed will fail. That’s my hunch, but then I may just be an incurable optimist.   


  1. Yes, but, one interesting property that the MOOCs have is the possibility of much more systematic and careful investigtions of whether they are successful than is practical for traditional lectures, and what kinds of changes make them better.

    This would I think be most successful for difficult things that are widely 'taught' but understood by a relatively small percentage of the addressees, such as for example how limit-based proofs in basic calculus work.

  2. That will depend on the kind of "testing" being done. Right now, the controls are simple questions that are no labor intensive to check. The more labor intensive they are, the less economical the system will be. So, yes, the feedback feature is good (note something we could already do). The question is whether it will be possible to devise economical ways to check on the understanding of 100,000 students. In CS perhaps. In other areas, I'm more skeptical.

  3. I probably didn't express myself very well, I wasn't thinking of assessing the achievements of everybody taking a MOOC in a given year, but of evaluating how well the material works on presumably selected audiences, so that it can be progressively refined. Since the MOOC is the same unless you actively change it, the effects of changes should be easier to track.