MOOCs, Public Policy and Historical Ignorance

The due course of education in America is linked to public policy. This has existed on the state and federal level for over 100 years (well over); however, it is only in the last 30+ that there has been a federal department dedicated to education. Too often it seems that people within their own disciplines ignore societal factors and stressors when debating the merits of their discipline. This happens in education, an enterprise subsidized by governmental monies (to a shrinking degree, however). We cannot debate movements in education without looking at politics.

At the same time, politicians and policy hawks need a firm understanding of education if they are going to pitch for a model or debate a movement. Rhetoric and hyperbole only go so far, and ignorance of the theories, pedagogies and history of learning can cause great harm.

My Twitter network shot out an education article published by the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank in Washington, D.C. Written by Alex Tabbarok, it’s title, Why Online Education Works, foreshadows a lack of historical perspective of both online and education (#cfhe12). The artifact is an important representation of existing thought in the political world, and with that I will dive in:

  • Quoting the article: Other than religions, few institutions appear to have maintained their existence or their relative status for as long as major universities. And few institutions, notably again other than religions, have seen so little change. Oxford in 2012 teaches students in ways remarkably similar to Oxford in 1096, seated students listening to professors in a classroom. Where have we seen this before? This is the predominant ideology of folks looking at xMOOCs as not only the next big thing, but the first new thing. I’ve argued it before and I will again…this argument is a structural one rather than an educational one, and ignores the last 80+ years of research and writing in the education field. But I want to go just a touch further…if this article is going to advocate for MOOCs, then the model becomes seated students listening to professors from their computer. So all that changes is the place where the chair is. If that’s innovation…
  • Tabbarok tells an anecdote about his experience talking at TED, and how that talk has been watched 700,000 times now. This teaching has had a substantially greater reach than he has had with face-to-face students (complete with pie chart). He then looks at the productivity of teaching face to face versus what can be done online. Quoting: Teaching has remained economic only because the value of each kilobyte transmitted has increased due to discoveries in (some) other fields. It becomes clear later that Tabbarok does not see value in education beyond content learned, referring to classroom teaching as having, according to those in favor of it, an ineffable quality. This ignores mastery theory as basic as Bloom’s Taxonomy, as well as learning theories like cognitive theory, constructivism or social learning. Of course, if you are looking at kilobytes transmitted, education is like in the Matrix, where you can plug Neo into the computer and he learns Kung Fu, critical thinking and cognitive dissonance be damned.
  • An aside from me, but am I the only person who is sick of TED? If there were application after the lecture, great…but the system has gone Hollywood (confirmed by a professor of mine who recently gave a TED talk) with speech structure along the lines of Syd Field’s screenplay structure. There’s an anecdote, a shocking statement, information, and a return to the anecdote in a new way. We listen, happy that we were a part of it, and then go on with our lives for the most part not changing based on what we gained, but feeling a lot better about ourselves. It’s navel gazing to an extreme, As a resource, it’s fantastic, but as a complete system, it is sorely lacking. So if you look at putting yourself on TED as being a real teacher, I have problems with believing that you understand what teaching is.
  • Another quote: Quality can increase by increasing the number of students taught by the best teachers and by substituting substantial capital for labor in teaching. The assumption here is that 1) lecture is the best way to teach (to see my disagreement with that, read basically any other blog post here), and 2) the best teachers are going to be at the most prestigious universities. There is solid proof against the first, and no proof for the second.
  • Quoting again: Teaching today is like a stage play. A play can be seen by at most a few hundred people at a single sitting and it takes as much labor to produce the 100th viewing as it does to produce the first. And here is the ideological difference between Mr. Tabbarok and myself — teaching is not a stage play. Bad teaching, perhaps. Teaching is, if we want to stick to theatre, an active workshop with the audience involving improv exercise, character development, historical understanding of the craft and trade, and the production of several small plays based on the experience. Learning is best if it is active. Whether Mr. Tabbarok wants learning to be a stage play or a movie, it’s still passive, still the sage on the stage, and still a poor outcome…though easy to measure via kilobytes.
  • Tabbarok is one of the co-founders of Marginal Regional University, one of the first MOOCs I referenced on this blog. I have not been back in a while, but I should see what’s going on over there.
  • Tabbarok then gets into the benefits of online teaching: streamlined lecture, access at the convenience of the learner, and personalized learning (which Tabbarok doesn’t even put in sheep’s clothes…he immediately goes to computer-adaptive learning). Quote: Computer-adaptive learning will be as if every student has their own professor on demand—much more personalized than one professor teaching 500 students or even 50 students. That might be true if your method of teaching is the lecture, but if you are in a constructivist classroom with students engaged in workshops and projects and research, computer-adaptive learning looks like an awful replacement for the real-world, hands-on experience that has become the predominant teaching theory of researchers and scholars in the field. Having a teacher is like having an expert, psychologist and motivator at the same time. How the computer can do all three is something I have yet to encounter.
  • Tabbarok then gets into the importance of Big Data, and how this will help us make better systems for learning. Again, this argument ignores the field of learning (whether it be theory or pedagogy). I’m not saying Big Data is not important, but it should not be ignorant of the multitude of educational advances over the last century.
  • Have I mentioned that this article reads like online education is something brand new, and that distance ed hasn’t been around for over 200 years? For Tabbarok, the problem with online ed before was that the videos looked like recorded stage plays; it was a matter of production values and bells and whistles (maybe that sophisticated interaction they all talk about).
  • He then gets into the success of online education, based on the 160K in the Stanford AI course, as well as University of Phoenix and Kaplan University. That seems like cherry picking to me, though — The dropout rate in MOOCs is at 90%, and the debt and dropout rate of for-profit colleges is alarmingly high, too. If online learning is this great advantage, those will have to be met.

To finish, I don’t have a problem with MOOCs or this movement. I do have a problem with ignoring history, theory and pedagogy when discussing it. Teaching is much more than a lecture. It’s too bad none of the best and brightest teachers seem to realize this.

Disclaimer: I am not a libertarian, and I disagree with a great deal of libertarian ideology. This blog post is a breakdown of an education article published via a libertarian think tank. While bias exists everywhere, I think my breakdown is fair of my POV and would have been much the same had such an article come from conservative or liberal organizations.

One thought on “MOOCs, Public Policy and Historical Ignorance

  1. Pingback: MOOCs, Public Policy and Historical Ignorance | MOOC's |

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