Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Where have the MOOCs gone?

I was reading the latest (February 9/2017) issue of the NYR and the lead article is a review of The revenge of the analog (by David Sax). The reviewer is Bill McKibben and it discusses a mini revolt against the digital world that is apparently taking place. I have no personal experience of this, but the article is a fun read (here). There is one point that it makes that I found interesting and comports with my own impression. It's that MOOCs have disappeared.  There was a time when that's all that we heard about, at least in academia. How MOOCs would soon displace all standard teaching and that everyone had to find a way of translating their courses into web accessible/MOOC form or they would be left far behind, the detritus of the forward march of pedagogy. This coincided with the view that education would be saved if only every student could be equipped with a tablet that would serve as conduit to the endless world of information out there. MOOCs were the leading edge of a technological revolution that would revamp our conception of education at all levels beyond recognition.

I was very skeptical of this at the time (see, e.g. here and here). Sax tries to explain what went wrong.  Here's McKibben on Sax.
The notion of imagination and human connection as analog virtues comes across most powerfully in Sax’s discussion of education. Nothing has appealed to digital zealots as much as the idea of “transforming” our education systems with all manner of gadgetry. The “ed tech” market swells constantly, as more school systems hand out iPads or virtual-reality goggles; one of the earliest noble causes of the digerati was the One Laptop Per Child global initiative, led by MIT’s Nicholas Negroponte, a Garibaldi of the Internet age. The OLPC crew raised stupendous amounts of money and created machines that could run on solar power or could be cranked by hand, and they distributed them to poor children around the developing world, but alas, according to Sax, “academic studies demonstrated no gain in academic achievement.” Last year, in fact, the OECD reported that “students who use computers very frequently at school do a lot worse in most learning outcomes.”
At the other end of the educational spectrum from African villages, the most prestigious universities on earth have been busy putting courses on the Web and building MOOCs, “massive open online courses.” Sax misses the scattered successes of these ventures, often courses in computer programming or other technical subjects that aren’t otherwise available in much of the developing world. But he’s right that many of these classes have failed to engage the students who sign up, most of whom drop out.
Even those who stay the course “perform worse, and learn less, than [their] peers who are sitting in a school listening to a teacher talking in front of a blackboard.” Why this is so is relatively easy to figure out: technologists think of teaching as a delivery system for information, one that can and should be profitably streamlined. But actual teaching isn’t about information delivery—it’s a relationship. As one Stanford professor who watched the MOOCs expensively tank puts it, “A teacher has a relationship with a group of students. It is those independent relationships that is the basis of learning. Period.”

The diagnosis fits with my perceptions as well. One of the problems MOOCs would always face, IMO, is that it left out how social an activity teaching and learning is. This is not so for everything, but it is so for many things, especially non-technical things. The problem is not the efficient transfer of information, but figuring out how to awaken the imaginative and critical sensibilities of students. (Note: these are harder to "test" than is the info transfer). The MOOCs conception treated students as "consumers" rather than "initiates." Ideas are not techniques. They need a different kind of exploration. Indeed, half of teaching is getting students to appreciate why something is important and that comes from the personal relation established between teacher and student and students to one another and student to teacher. This, at any rate, is Sax's view and if he is right then the failure of MOOCs as general strategies for education makes sense. Or, this would be a good reason for their failure.

BTW, there is a nice version of the relevant distinction in the movie The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie where Brodie notes that 'education' comes from the latin 'ex ducare' (to lead out) where much of what goes on is better seen as 'intrusion' as in 'thrust in.' Information can be crammed, thrust, delivered. Education must be more carefully curated.

Like I said, I wish this were the reason for the end of MOOCs, but I doubt it. What probably killed them (if they are indeed dead) was likely their cost. They did not really save any money, though they shifted cash from one set of pockets to another. In other words, they were scam-like and the fad has run its day. Will it return? Almost certainly. We just need a new technological twist to all for repackaging of the stuff. Maybe when virtual reality is more prevalent it will serve as the new MOOC platform and we will see the hysteria/hype rise again. There is no end to technological utopias because of their sales value. So expect a rise of MOOCs or MOOC equivalents some time soon at a university near you. But don't expect much more the next time around.

BTW, the stuff on board games was fascinating. Is this really a thing?


  1. Different strokes for different folks, I guess. I learned almost all the formal stuff I know from books or papers, never enjoyed classes much except for two, and actively dislike "engaging" lecturing techniques --- I'll pick the info dump any time of the day. Engineers probably have a similar mindset, so they don't see why MOOCs aren't the best thing ever for everyone.

    Anyways, I still think that online courses serve a purpose at least for very small and niche areas. For instance, very few linguistics departments offer courses in mathematical linguistics, so if you're not at one of those you're pretty much out of luck. No online courses, no textbooks that could take you from 0 all the way to reading the primary literature, heck, not even a good bibliography --- it's a very inaccessible field, unfortunately, so you have to be incredibly dedicated and devoted to get to the point where it becomes really fun and insightful.

    On a completely different note, could you maybe explain that board game part for those of us who aren't NYR subscribers and thus only get to see a very brief snippet of the article?

  2. It seems that there has been a resurgence of board games being played in board game venues of late. Here's what the article reports:

    Board games are the clunky polar opposite of the shiny digital experience. But Sax demonstrates that even as the Web has risen and the revenue from video games comes to rival the profits from movies, there’s also been a striking renaissance of people pushing little figurines around the tops of tables. Hundreds of new titles emerge yearly (which is why board game parlors like Snakes & Lattes have game sommeliers, who try to figure out which of their thousands of games you’ll most enjoy playing), and some of them, like Settlers of Catan, become huge hits. The reason, Sax suggests, has only a little to do with the games themselves, and more with the desire to do something with other people:

    With analog gaming, whether it is an intricate board game or a child’s game of tag, all the players need to work together to create the illusion of the game. It requires a collective investment of your imagination in an alternate reality to believe that you actually own Park Avenue [Place], and the colored slips of paper in your hand are worth something.

    When we play video games “we share ownership of that experience with the software. The program and device restrict our ability to shape the experience of play to our imagination.” Whereas analog games, requiring as they do a table full of people, are very different. Sax quotes an academic who coedits the journal Analog Game Studies, a man named Evan Torner:

    I can’t invite five friends over to my house and say, “Let’s all play starship!”…But I can invite them over to play a game my friend designed on one card, called Vast and Starlit. It’s just this little piece of cardboard that lets us all pretend we’re on a starship together easily.

    Some games were explicitly designed as mere social lubricants: the best-selling Cards Against Humanity, for instance, whose creators wanted something “so stupidly simple, ridiculous, and juvenile” that any group of people could “pick it up and start laughing in seconds.” The game, says Sax, “distills the appeal of the analog gaming experience down to its essence: human contact.”

    1. Well that's a very peculiar interpretation of what happened with board games. I'd rather attribute the recent upwards trend to the increased mainstream appeal of nerd culture, which has always had a soft spot for war games, tabletops and PnP RPGs. In particular the latter has become much more newbie-friendly after the late 90s saw a move away from simulationist RPG mechanics with tons of number crunching to storytelling systems with extremely streamlined rules. You can map a direct trajectory from DnD/Pathfinder to World of Darkness and eventually Fate, with corresponding decrease in rule density. Another factor is the decline of local multiplayer in video games since the end of the 6th generation (PS2, Gamecube, Xbox, Dreamcast). Conventions are also more of a mainstream thing now, as are video game using typical mechanics of card games and board games (e.g. Hand of Fate), so both can act as a gateway drug for audiences that usually wouldn't consider tabletops. No need for some metaphysical analog VS digital dichotomy.

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