A Critical Review of Andrew Ng’s “Learning from MOOCs”

My research and scholarship revolves around how learning technology (specifically recent explosions in distance and online learning technologies such as Khan Academy, cMOOCs and xMOOCs) affects the teaching profession.  There is great scholarship on the difficulties of distance instruction, and a whole host of people writing about educational technology while showing concern to stakeholders existing in academics.  There is not a lot of research writing on MOOCs as of yet, and very little on the xMOOC so commonly considered when discussing MOOCs.  And there is even less MOOC writing that focuses on instructors, or on the teaching profession, and how MOOCs work with/affect it.  Andrew Ng, one of the co-founders of Coursera, has an essay in today’s Inside Higher Education where he looks specifically at the relationship between MOOC and instructor.  In reading MOOC literature (and the subsequent comments), I find a great deal of how one interprets the writing depends a great deal on that individual’s prior inferences and assumptions.  This is nothing new — perhaps it just seems new and loud in a world of quick publishing — but it bears mention, especially when it is easy to consider any writing to be Fact.  There are multiple ways to read a text; I am taken back to Stuart Hall’s encoding/decoding and his ideas of dominant, oppositional and resistance readings.  In the spirit of this article, I am going to tackle it from the theoretical standpoint of critical pedagogy.

Critical Pedagogy is an educational school/theoretical basis that comes in large part from Paolo Friere’s want of education to allow individuals to become active social agents in their world, working to improve the lives of all and foster democratic principles.  This education idea stems from the progressivism of education pioneers such as John Dewey, who saw the civic and social duties of the individual as important as the skill and trade elements learned in a classroom.  To that end, critical pedagogy must consider all stakeholders and elements in the educational realm when looking at any part of the substructure:  students, teachers, administrators, economics, politics, dominant cultures, subcultures, curriculum, business interests, and the relationships and struggles that occur when those and the other stakeholders involved work in the system.  Read more here.

A critical reading of Ng’s article will thus focus on assumptions, perspectives and beliefs Ng states matter-of-factly, challenging those based on the theoretical perspective.  I am not necessarily advocating critical pedagogy, nor am I necessarily looking down upon Coursera and their practices.  Rather, I am using this specific theoretical lens to shine a light on some things held true by xMOOC developers that might be worth questioning.  I will move forward as if you have read Ng’s article.

*Ng rolls out the idea that MOOCs can reach many, and that is a great thing, because the goal of teachers is to improve the lives of students, so reaching more must be better.  One thing MOOCs do not account for is the homogeneity of the course cartridge.  Knowledge is not static; it is fluid, and its reading and interpretation is dependent on many things, most notably context and environment.  What happens when the environment is designed to accommodate hundreds of thousands from all corners of the world?  To that end, is the environment designed to handle all classes, races, genders?  And just because the MOOC exists, does it not still require motivation…in many ways a greater amount, as there is not interaction between instructor and student, so the student must do a great job of internalizing their locus of control.  Certainly some will benefit from the access, but would those not have benefitted from other things as well?  Were those not the motivated ones already, and was the MOOC really their Coke can from the sky?

*Quoting Ng:  We’re reimagining many aspects of what it means to teach a course, ranging from lecture delivery, to assignments, to strategies for engaging the online community of students.
This view of what it means to teach a course is much more narrow than the view of instructor as professional as considered by folks like Dewey, a focus on content over context.  These elements (lecture delivery, assignments, engagement) are technical matters, elements that can be crafted in a best practices  sort of way, which leads into the homogenization of education again.  Also, lecture is by and large the least effective way to teach, as are didactic assignments the least reliable means of determining a student’s competency.

*Ng celebrates a MOOC launched by Coursera regarding how to teach a MOOC.  Now, I have taught online courses for a number of years, and there are elements of the teaching different from a face to face cohort.  That being said, if teaching is not a paint-by-numbers exercise (and it can only be a paint-by-numbers exercise if the content, method of delivery, process of evaluation and other elements of a course have been decided by a higher authority), offering assistance to instructors on how to best engage with the massification of higher education would not be best served by a paint-by-numbers approach.  However, if the end game is paint-by-numbers…

*I do not wish to speak ill of Jeremy Adelman, the Princeton professor who taught what Coursera considers to be a successful Western Civilization MOOC in the Fall of 2012.  I enrolled in the course myself, and was impressed with how evident it was that Adelman was trying to engage his students. In Ng’s article, Adelman is quoted to say that his experience lecturing to a camera had to change from his classroom style, because the classroom was about him and not about the teaching.  Again, here the experience becomes about the content, and passing along information to a group of people.  From the critical pedagogy perspective, Adelman decides what is important, and in the MOOC setting the contextual clues he can provide to a group of face to face students must be put aside, with a greater focus on pinpointing the content his students need to know.  So the content reins supreme.  Adelman is a respected professor of history, but would history not be better learned by a student with a contextual interest seeking out primary sources and more in-depth information than a survey course of 8-10 minute lectures?  One would say that the course provides a structure, and that is true, but without the means of contextualization, scaffolding and motivating, the primary crux of the MOOC is to impose a curriculum as dominant.

*There is more on the broadcasting of lecture, but then Ng moves toward the problem of interaction and involvement, and notes the use of social media by students to work through a course and make connections.  One place someone should research is in why people drop out of MOOCs; there are a great deal of reasons (and a great number of dropouts), and it would be interesting if the dynamic of relationships plays out in MOOCs as it does in the classroom.  In a classroom, there are some students comfortable speaking out and others who are not.  In the MOOC, it is assumed that because of the mediated conversation, people will feel more free speaking out, but that is not proven nor seen.  Perhaps it is just a different group of people willing to speak out, and a new group (as well as other existing groups) marginalized by the social media experience, except this time with no instructor interaction.

*On that line, crowdsourcing is a celebrated aspect of social media, but the flipside of crowdsourcing is the mob mentality, as considered by Jaron Lanier in his book YOU ARE NOT A GADGET.  Lanier sees crowdsourcing as a potential good, but also as a potential ill, because misinformation and low-level thought can easily permeate and get to the top of a group based on politics and identities.  To that end, if a group of MOOCers are working together on a project but have the same knowledge gaps, without an instructor to go to and find information from, those knowledge gaps will compound, and the instructor (whose materials were created before the student even existed in the course) will not be able to accommodate for the misinformation.

*Some people have mentioned that if the “best and brightest” professors are teaching MOOCs, perhaps professors from smaller schools can work as teaching assistants or tutors.  This is worth its own blog post, but such a plan would marginalize the majority of professors and focus the role of instructor onto a very small group of people whose note is more likely to be based on their own personal prosperity rather than their pedagogical practices.  Also, this turns academia into a place of passing along content and removes the social, research and democratic planks academia was built on, rendering the profession to more of a mechanic.

*Again, to pick on Adelman:  I have been [teaching] the same way for years — for decades and decades — without being mindful of the changes in technology, the changes in our students.  He then goes on to say that online technologies blow that up.  Perhaps, but social learning theory, cognitivism and constructivism blew them up decades and decades ago as well.  Perhaps being about students rather than personality would have helped make that realization long before.

*Quoting Ng:  With MOOCs, there is so much more potential for educators to go into each other’s classrooms and share resources with their peers.  Perhaps this is a sad commentary on modern life, but I found it easier as a teacher to walk next door into a classroom.  However, it is worth noting that this author has noticed a high percentage of academics involved in MOOCs.  Especially in connectivist MOOCs, where it seems like an extreme majority of people hold graduate degrees. Such population skews do not speak well of a democratization of education, but rather a winnowing of focus onto those with the expertise already.

In the end, Ng’s piece reads as public relations designed to drum up interest, hit buzzwords hot in education circles, and show the successes of the program.  Within that, however, is a continued drumbeat toward the mechanization of courses and education, removing the social and democratic aspect of education and focusing on trades and skills for employment.  Could MOOCs be a beneficial technology for students and teachers?  Certainly.  But this article only shows more of the same rhetoric and movement away from teaching as a profession.

9 thoughts on “A Critical Review of Andrew Ng’s “Learning from MOOCs”

  1. Christina Hendricks

    Excellent post. I have been thinking a number of these things myself, but I haven’t articulated them nearly as well as you. I especially like the critical pedagogy interpretation of the piece. I also think the point about the homogenization of education with MOOCs is right on. How can you possibly engage in any sort of tailoring of the course to the different contexts of the various learners and the time in which the course is taught (e.g., referring to current events) when you’ve got tens of thousands of students?

    I tried a MOOC for a little while, just to see what they are like, and I found it far too easy to just sit back and let others take an active role, so I act just as a spectator. In my own courses in Philosophy, I try to ensure no one can do that (even in large courses, I have them break off into smaller groups in which they must engage and talk). I also found that without much in the way of moderation of discussion, and with the up/down voting system for the comments, some people ended up being more dominant in the conversation and others went ignored. A lot of comments were just not answered by anyone else. That would never happen in my classroom; so long as the comment was heard by me I would ensure it was addressed!

    At any rate, I just wanted to say you did an excellent job here.

    Also that I prefer to read blog posts in an RSS reader, but I couldn’t find an RSS option for your blog. I subscribed, but would rather do the RSS. Is it there and I just can’t find it?

    –Christina, another etmooc participant and someone generally interested in teaching and learning! (@clhendricksbc)

    1. Rolin Moe Post author

      Thanks for the kind words, and I hope I have fixed the RSS issue (on the sidebar…if not I will dig a little deeper).

      I know no system is perfect; my teaching certainly is not. However, if the xMOOC is the disruptor that will change education, certainly we need to look at democratization as something much greater than basic access (to those with tools) to information stamped by an institution and a Dr. Famous. If our goals for education are in creating an engaged and critical citizenry, our theories, pedagogies and models must address more than a one-size lecture to throw at the masses. If our goal is an economic one and a short-term gain of employment rates for graduates, then the MOOC might be perfect, but we are at best selling this and the next generation short of anything more than behaviorist conditioning, and at worst are doing something nefarious. I don’t believe in the nefarious part (I truly think people that get into education do it because they want to “make a difference”), but we need to have a critical conversation amidst the hype and hoopla.

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  5. Jesus Sandoval

    I am a high school teacher that relies in constructivism approach to reach current urban students. The concept of MOOCs is new to me. I found your article very refreshing and the way you defended the side of the students and their overall needs versus the mechanical economical approach that makes more sense for the people that have a vested interest in success of their innovative approach. One fit for all, it is too stagnant because the flow of information would be determined by the people running the MOOCs. It looks like the classroom teacher being able to make decision based on the dynamics of the classroom is going to be a thing of the past as the public education curriculum is becoming more and more standardized. MOOCs should just be used as an enrichment option, but not to take the place of the classroom teacher.

    1. Rolin Moe Post author

      Hi Jesus,

      It will be interesting to see how this plays out in K-12. I have made an argument that the MOOC is representative of similar pressures that affected K-12 over the last 20 years finally catching up to higher ed, but rather than “Superman” being a charter school it is a MOOC.


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