MOOCs – Sliced Bread, or the Ron Popeil Bread Slicer?

There’s a lot of hype about MOOCs (and when I put hype and MOOC together, I mean xMOOC), and with the hype comes a resistance from ed tech folks.  The arguments go something like this:  hype machine says MOOCs are the next big thing and the best thing to happen in ages, and resistance says MOOCs aren’t great, aren’t new, and aren’t making things better.  A prime example comes from some hype dished up by the MIT Technology Review entitled The Most Important Education Technology in 200 Years, countered by D’Arcy Norman’s terse reply whose tag line involves fertilizer.  What we forget when we enter a point-counterpoint frame of mind is that both points of view come from ideologies and histories that result in the digital artifacts I have linked to.  Studying those artifacts to find the encampment inferences and foundations can help us see the positives and negatives of both sides rather than following one full throttle.

Starting with the MIT Technology Review, my thoughts as I read:

  • The article starts by posing a question to the reader:  what is the biggest innovation in education in the last 200 years?  The author assumes that the reader won’t have an answer, and goes into the gambit of Anant Agarwal, “the computer scientist named to head edX.”  Agarwal’s point is that there has been little technological advance in how people learn.  Norman’s response (which I will cover later) questions this attitude, focusing on the various technologies, theories and pedagogies that have developed in the last 30 years, much less 200. I’d like to go a different route here.  The idea that education has not progressed is not unique to Agarwal; last week I posted about Salman Khan of Khan Academy holding a similar viewpoint (that education has been the same since 1892).  These PsOV are from a structural standpoint, looking at the classroom/cohort model of learning as the culprit (whether that be six year olds or college freshmen).  They ignore theory and pedagogy, much less history and policy, and that sort of narrow guise is what gets up the dander of the ed techies (#cfhe12).  But note the part I put in quotes:  Agarwal is a computer scientist.  Khan was a hedge fund analyst.  Neither have a pedigree in education; Agarwal teachers electrical engineering at MIT, Khan had no teaching experience prior to making his videos.  Both have extensive MIT backgrounds.  Someone with a background in education would immediately look at the last 200 years and discuss Dewey, the personal computer, Montessori, the Internet, civil rights, learning styles, knowledge construction, Title I, zones of proximal development, Lave & Wenger…people, thoughts and events that change the way people see learning develop and practice.  To these education folk, structure might be important, but not as important as any of that.  Outside the education theory world, the narrative seems to be a structural one.
  • This quote has me baffled:  it’s now possible to stream video classes with sophisticated interactive elements, and researchers can scoop up student data that could help them make teaching more effective.  My bewilderment is for a number of reasons.  First, sophisticated interactive elements provides definitions of sophisticated and interactive that I am not aware of.  Based on my knowledge of these systems, this gets into the ability for a student to take a quiz embedded in the video, or to practice some coding or comp sci through an auxiliary widget, the result of which turns the remaining video into a Choose Your Own Adventure of sorts.  From a tech standpoint, perhaps it is sophisticated, but from an educational standpoint it is the least sophisticated method of assessment; sophisticated technology would need to be more than behaviorism with bells and whistles.  That gets into what interaction is as well; via the embedded quiz model, interactive is moue clicking, no different than taking any sort of quiz online.  Last, and this is one I have put out there before, how will Big Data/Learning Analytics make “teaching more effective?”  This is the calling card of the data mining in the xMOOC world, but if there is a plan of attack, its contents are unknown to the greater world.  To me, it reads like the Underpants Gnomes of South Park:  Step 1)  Collect Big Data.  Step 3)  Improve Teaching.  
  • The idea of disruptive technology continues to emerge in hype articles.  Developed by Clayton Christensen, everyone has a bit of a different definition, but regardless his word is a driving force in the way the developers consider their product.  Disruptive tech comes into a market where there is no alternative and changes it, hopefully adapting to become a technological force of sustainability as it shifts the existing landscape.
  • Another quote:  (Disruptive Technology) accounts for why online learning is already important in the adult education market (think low-end MBAs and nursing degrees).  This is kind of a throwaway line in the article, but it speaks volumes as to perceptions of online learning.  Antonio Regalado does not get into the specifics of what a low-end MBA is, but one would assume University of Phoenix-type schools are where he is going here.  Of course, that ignores Northeastern University, the University of North Carolina, and Penn State, all high-level schools with a history of online education…not to mention the numerous top-tier schools that have incorporated graduate-level online education just in the past several years.
  • Regalado writes off Khan critics as people who “wonder whether (Khan’s) tutorials really teach math so well.”  That question removes the depth of teaching math, and that’s why most people aren’t debating whether Khan Academy does things so well, but rather what it is trying to do.  See Gary Stager’s initial thoughts on it.
  • I didn’t think I would still be on the Regalado article…and there are paragraphs left to go…but there is so much to analyze here.  Another quote:  At edX, Agarwal says, the same three-person team of a professor plus assistants that used to teach analog circuit design to 400 students at MIT now handles 10,000 online and could take a hundred times more.  Doing Agarwal’s math here, that would mean that a professor and two assistants teaching analog circuit design could handle 1,000,000 students (immediately I think of Dr. Evil here).  This brings up the question of what handle means.  Educators would initially question the learning (or handling) happening in a class of 400 with such a small number of experts…if you bring that to 10,000 (or go up to the 1,000,000 Agarwal says is possible) you severely limit interaction between novice and expert, relying more forcefully on the student to learn based on the instructional design (the video and the quiz) or the students in the course.
  • Regalado then cites a study of online learning showing that the number of students enrolled in online courses has nearly quadrupled in the last decade, calling this a major disruption.  He then tries to link this to the MOOC movement, even though 1) he took a backhanded shot at online education earlier, 2) MOOCs are not for credit, 3) the definition of student changes drastically when incorporating MOOCs, and 4)  90% of MOOC students are going to drop out.
  • The article then gives a paragraph on global access, nothing new there.  But we have the big finish:  Talk to Khan or anyone behind the MOOCs (which largely sprang from university departments interested in computer intelligence) and they’ll all say their eventual goal isn’t to stream videos but to perfect education through the scientific use of data. Just imagine, they say, software that maps an individual’s knowledge and offers a lesson plan unique to him or her.  The inferences in such an idea are astounding…worth several blogs on their own.  But again, there is either a naiveness or ignorance on the growth of education.  From reading this, it looks like the method of educating is right, and we need to first change the structure and then get into the details with software that can personalize.  This ignores the last 80 years of educational theory and pedagogical development!
  • It is interesting to note that the author, the magazine, and the cited individuals (Agarwal and Khan) all come from MIT, a school with an impressive digital media lab as well as some of the most innovative work in education in the world at the Lifelong Kindergarten institute.  Doesn’t seem like Mitch Resnick is talking with the edX folks, though.  It also ignores OpenCourseware, MIT’s 2001 and beyond initiative to get its coursework online for anyone interested.  How is that different from edX and MOOCs, other than the video aspect?

Okay, I had more to get into on that article than I imagined.  What about Norman’s response?

  • While I grew more and more frustrated with Regalado’s assumptions and inferences on what education is, there is no debate if the response is a two-word epithet.  I learned a similar lesson in theatre a while back:  if you are doing improv, never deny the other person.  Always provide some response other than a shutdown.  I might agree that Regalado’s piece substitutes rigor for fawn, but the piece is a valid digital artifact of the xMOOC movement and its constituency.  Just saying they’re wrong won’t change the fact that the only people who call their work xMOOCs are the people who know what cMOOCs are…the vast majority of people who have heard of a MOOC associate it fully with that model.
  • Norman states in a footnote that Siemens, Downes, Cormier and others developed the MOOC in 2008 before it was turned to buzz…but that’s not true.  It’s true that the first MOOC was their creation, and that iteration of MOOC still exists (with more incarnations happing every month)…and it’s an incarnation based in theory and pedagogy of traditional, online and distance education…but the xMOOC model is a very different beast that (for some reason) shares the same terminology, not a co-option or hostile takeover of MOOCs themselves.  If we can figure out why the cMOOC and xMOOC share the MOOC moniker maybe we can find common ground and improve both iterations.


1 thought on “MOOCs – Sliced Bread, or the Ron Popeil Bread Slicer?

  1. Pingback: MOOCs – Sliced Bread, or the Ron Popeil Bread Slicer? | All ... | |

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