Assembly Line Learning – Excerpts from MOOC Research

Note: I will use this space over the next month to share excerpts from my dissertation The Evolution & Impact of the Massive Open Online Course. The research was a Delphi study bringing together 20 MOOC experts to discuss the MOOC in educational, political, and sociocultural terms (slides from the oral presentation can be seen here). Upon library clearance, the entire document will be available through a Creative Commons license. The following is from Chapter 1, the argument for significance. This excerpt looks at the hype-based MOOC arguments seen in news media, as well as criticisms on the MOOC and its hype.

Distance education as industrialized model of learning.  As mentioned previously, the field of distance education largely roots its history in structural changes to the transmission of information. This idea of education as a technological structure can be traced within the literature to Otto Peters (1983). Contemporary leaders in the field of educational technology and MOOCs have positioned their technologies as a wave of innovation in a system inert for over 100 years (Khan & Noer, 2012; Thrun, 2012), but Peters traces the inertia back to the Renaissance, arguing the advent of distance education was the first change to the system, and positioning a concept of distance education that promotes flexibility, efficiency and scalability (Peters, 1983). To accomplish this, the historical notion of a singular instructor, who throughout history has been a lone person involved in numerous aspects of a student’s education within a course, is replaced, and the instructional labor is divided into multiple positions filled by multiple individuals, each focused on one aspect of the learning process:

In distance study the teaching process is based on the division of labour and detached from the person of the university lecturer. It is therefore independent from a subjectively determined teaching situation…the division of labour and the objectification of the teaching process allow each work process to be planned in such a way that clearly formulated teaching objectives are achieved in the most efficient manner. Specialists may be responsible for a limited area in each phase (pg. 98).

Stressors of time and money in the distance education field can be minimized or removed if the notion of instructor changes from a singular entity to a group of specified experts. In this argument, the scalability of distance education requires hyper specialization of the various aspects of a student’s matriculation through a course: admissions, development of materials, production of materials, production of supplementary materials, development of assessment, grading of assessment, tutoring and retention. According to Peters, passing this work out to multiple individuals allows not only to scale the initiative, but to potentially achieve greater outcomes: experts can develop the materials and leave the referencing and production of materials to others, pedagogues can focus on coaching and tutoring, and professional colleagues or even prior students who are not considered high-tier experts can fill the positions of grading and retaining (pg. 99).

Many elements of the industrial process are evident in the present development of MOOCs and other educational technology initiatives. MOOC organizations such as Coursera and edX provide a platform and infrastructure for institutions such as Harvard and Stanford to house courses. Most of the grading of MOOC assessments is automated (Vanderbilt, 2012), including a prototype to automate the grading of written work (Markoff, 2013). In instances where a human element is required to assess work, the job is most often left to the students in the class itself (Kolowich, 2012). The professors spend the majority of their energy into developing content and filming lectures. The coaching and tutoring that happens on discussion boards is largely if not entirely crowdsourced via the student body (Solomon, 2013), though MOOC providers have encouraged faculty to seek out former students or school alumni to assist with those services (Andersen, 2013; Perez-Pena, 2013).

Non-Web Citations:

Andersen, M. (2013, April).  Teach a MOOC…what, are you crazy?  Presentation at the Sloan-C 6th Annual International Symposium Emerging Technologies for Online Learning, Las Vegas, NV.
Peters, O. (1983).  Distance education and industrial production:  A comparative interpretation in outline.  In D. Sewart, D Keegan & B. Holmberg (Eds.) Distance Education:  International Perspectives (95-113). London: Croom Helm Routledge.


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