Why HBX is Just Another MOOC (or a Food Dehydrator)

The Business School, Disrupted article in Sunday’s New York Times goes well out of its way to avoid labeling HBX (the pre-MBA online program preparing for roll-out through Harvard Business School) as a MOOC.  Rather, the article places HBX in contrast to the MOOC, and presents the MOOC in terms of Clayton Christensen’s theory of disruptive innovation.  According to those quoted in the article (Dean Nitin Noriha, Professor Michael Porter, Professor Jay Lorsch, etc.), the instrumental qualities of a MOOC do not pertain to the HBX model:  there is a cost to enroll ($1,500), the format is not lecture-based, and the program actively discourages lurkers or vacationers in an effort to secure heavily active participants.  In short, HBX defines itself by pointing out its differences from the MOOC model; to paraphrase Baldrick from BBC’s Blackadder, it is a dog because it is not a cat.

The article is a fascinating touchstone of online education-as-phenomenon for reasons outside the MOOC instrument; Geoff Shullenberger discusses much of Clayton Christensen’s article presence over at his blog.  For me, the real power of the article is not in what makes HBX different instrumentally from a MOOC, but how the language of online education as proliferated through MOOC discourse has created a space for brazen discussion of education as branding and consumer-profit relationships.  The language of online education in 2014 (as presented in Useem’s article) not only fails to address the thoughts of research and scholarship in online education prior to Sebastian Thrun’s MOOC, but bolsters a worldview of online education in a manner antithetical to the earliest beliefs and hopes for what inexpensive telecommunication could do to revolutionize the way we learn and communicate.  The world of MOOCs, HBX and Disruptive Innovation look little like the ideals of transformational learning from the perspective of the learner.  From this perspective, HBX might act in a different manner than the MOOCs cited in the NYTimes article, but its purpose and view of why online education exists only solidifies the MOOC perspective.

Example 1:  On campus, Harvard business students face one another in five horseshoe-shaped tiers with oversized name cards. They fight for “airtime” while the professor orchestrates discussion from a central “pit.”
     “We don’t do lectures,” Mr. Nohria said. “Part of what had already convinced me that MOOCs are not for us is that for a hundred years our education has been social.”

The “fight for airtime” is not limited to this citation; earlier in the article Useem notes the importance of high participation in the course as a sort of competition; only those students with the highest of completion rates will be invited to take the final exam and receive credit.  This vision of online education looks nothing like the shared networks and communication spaces early MOOC advocates such as Siemens, Couros and Cormier envisioned (of course, they were envisioning MOOC-as-network rather than MOOC-as-software).  Watching Dave Cormier’s 2010 video explaining MOOCs, the notion of collaboration at the heart of his message is soundly lost four years later in HBX’s schema –

The fighting-as-social notion presented as a touchstone of HBS pedagogy is also bereft of the theoretical elements of social learning theory as developed by Vygotsky and furthered by Bandura, Lave & Wenger and Engstrom.  Learning does not become social because an algorithm designed for individualization is replaced with human subjects to be viewed as enemy combatants.

Example 2:  “Would you rather watch Kenneth Branagh do ‘Henry V,’ or see it at a community theater?” asked Mr. Ulrich at Wharton. “There are going to be some instructors who become more valuable in this new world because they master the new medium. We’d rather be those guys than the people left behind.”

I’m planning an extended critique of the argument that compares early MOOCs to early cinema by saying early cinema equated to a recorded stage play (spoiler alert – it didn’t).  The emergence of scholars new to online education making a misnomer comparison, such as Ulrich in the above and Christensen in Nature magazine, is telling both about a lack of understanding technology-as-instrument as well as the lenses from which they view education.  This sees education as a consumable, viewed as a market corollary to how a person chooses a narrative film.  The Henry V metaphor promotes a notion of content as Truth, as a metanarrative, and as the primary takeaway of an education…each of which is widely debated and often dismissed in education research.

There are times as a consumer I would prefer to watch Branagh’s Henry V…which is a film, not a theatrical production.  There are times as a consumer I want to see a regional production, or a touring show, or even the local high school’s take on Henry V.  There might be times as an educator I want to show students the Branagh version…but if I have access to a community theater, a regional tour or even a high school production, I’m going to gravitate toward those because the options for interaction and discourse are greater due to, among other things, the connection of environment between the live actors and my community.  Moreover, if I were stuck with needing a video clip for some reason, Branagh is but one option, and not even the canonical one (which would be Olivier’s 1944 version).  When I studied Henry V in college, we read it, we watched Olivier, we watched Branagh, and we had the Shenandoah Shakespeare Express (now the American Shakespeare Center) perform it at our college, complete with pre-show information and post-show discussion.  It was the confluence of all media that resulted in knowledge and wisdom, not Branagh’s moxie.  Content is not universal, it is not singular, and it is not the foundation of learning.  Without intending to, Mr. Ulrich’s rhetorical question points out the gross inefficiencies the MOOC movement assumes are product features.

Example 3:  Mr. Ortalo-Magné spins out the possibilities of disruption even further. “How many calculus professors do we need in the world?” he asked. “Maybe it’s nine. My colleague says it’s four. One to teach in English, one in French, one in Chinese, and one in the farm system in case one dies.”

This is an update to the notion that online education will provide excellent service because of content mastery, previously noted (and subsequently discredited) when Sebastian Thrun said the world would only need 10 universities by the middle of the century.  It also promotes the worldview shown in California Governor Jerry Brown’s statement that fully automating a calculus course should not be too difficult for a university to achieve.  Forget that such a statement ignores more than half of the world’s population regarding language (Farsi?  Portugese?); the statement implies the education experience is a content-only enterprise.  The history of distance education proves content alone cannot trump interaction or environment.  Despite 150 years of distance education efforts and initiatives, the model for effective learning is a small class size and interactive opportunities between student and a mixture of peer/expert/content.

Example 4:  Professor Christensen did something “truly disruptive” in 2011, when he found himself in a room with a panoramic view of Boston Harbor. About to begin his lecture, he noticed something about the students before him. They were beautiful, he later recalled. Really beautiful.
     “Oh, we’re not students,” one of them explained. “We’re models.”
     They were there to look as if they were learning: to appear slightly puzzled when Professor Christensen introduced a complex concept, to nod when he clarified it, or to look fascinated if he grew a tad boring.

Much of the problem with formal education today is the measurement of how learning happens.  A system focused too heavily on assessment or measurement will create confirmation bias, where marks are met for measurement but are a red herring which do not result in actual learning.  In such a world, it makes sense for education-as-business to take the notion one step further and treat B-roll cutaways as an informercial would, pretend learning for what often amounts to pretend education.  The authentic aims of online education heralded 25 years ago when telecommunications through computers became potentially affordable on a mass level were not interested in creating a facsimile classroom, whether that be an LMS or MOOC designed to replicate traditional classroom practices, or a recorded video where a professor is able to lecture to a room of paid models rather than students because the view of education is a content enterprise rather than a situated experience.  There is no pedagogical benefit to facsimile students in Professor Christensen’s University of Phoenix taped lectures; there is a sales benefit similar to Ron Popeil hocking food dehydrators.

3 thoughts on “Why HBX is Just Another MOOC (or a Food Dehydrator)

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