A shift in the MOOCmentum: coverage of and conversations around our open letter to Michael Sandel (part 1).

In response to the SJSU Philosophy Department's open letter to Michael Sandel (which you can see in full here), at least two important things have happened.

First, all the top-down pressure on our department to pilot the edX packaged version of Sandel's "Justice" MOOC as a "flipped" course (despite the fact that our existing PHIL 122 "Social Justice" has been serving our students well) has magically disappeared.

Second, a lot of really good discussion about MOOCs and related issues in higher education has broken out all over the place. It seems like we've gotten to the point where people want to look beyond the hype and think about how new educational initiatives (and the role of private entities in driving them) could actually play out when the pedagogical rubber hits the road.

There is so much conversation out there that I cannot give you an accurate digest of all of it (especially during final exams -- things get busy here!). But I want to give you a round-up of some of what I've been reading, probably in at least three parts.

The Tech, Amherst College faculty vote against joining edX:

On April 16, 2013, Amherst College faculty voted 70-36 against a motion to join the edX consortium. …

According to the Amherst Student, debate at the deciding faculty meeting centered around the suitability of the edX platform and massive open online courses (MOOCs) to Amherst’s educational mission. …

At the end of the meeting, the faculty voted to approve a second motion that would explore alternatives to edX. The motion claimed that Amherst’s mission is “best served by having the College itself, rather than an outside organization that offers so-called massive open online courses, develop and offer these online courses and course materials.”

Chronicle of Higher Education, As MOOC Debate Simmers at San Jose State, American U. Calls a Halt:

The California faculty union, which represents more than 2,000 professors on the San Jose State campus, has written a memorandum sharply criticizing the university's president, Mohammad H. Qayoumi, for what the union sees as a preference for "private rather than public solutions" when it comes to online tools and content. ...

Meanwhile, at American University, the provost sent a memo on Wednesday to the entire faculty and staff reiterating a "moratorium on MOOCs" while the university, in Washington, D.C., continues to draft a policy on how the massive courses would operate there.

The university is taking its time in deciding whether it wants to pursue institutional partnerships with edX or Coursera, another MOOC provider; or whether it wants to allow professors to teach MOOCs on their own, through Udacity or some other platform.

Contrary to institutions that have eagerly embraced MOOCs, American is purposely avoiding experimentation before it decides exactly how it wants to relate to the new breed of online courses. "I need a policy before we jump into something," said Scott A. Bass, the provost, in an interview.

The Harvard Crimson, San Jose State Professors Criticize edX as 'Social Injustice':

In addition to citing concerns that JusticeX would replace professors, dismantle departments, and provide a diminished education for students in public universities, many SJSU philosophy professors said they were unsettled by the implicit message of having SJSU students watch the course as homework and then discuss it in class.

“The message is that students at Harvard deserve to have a live professor lecturing in front of them. They can make comments, ask questions, and have discussions with that professor, but San Jose students don’t,” said S. D. Noam Cook, an SJSU philosophy professor. “That seems to be quite inappropriate for any department in any university.”

The Guardian "Comment is Free", Will 'Moocs' be the scourge or saviour of higher education?:

With no clear business models in place – and a reliance at this stage on volunteer labour – it is not clear how the returns on investment will materialise. Will Moocs be a new form of social media? Marketing tasters for established, paying courses? An alternative form of continuing education or outreach? An alternative to textbooks or course materials?

Efforts to monetise Moocs come as politicians wrestle with public disinvestment from mass higher education. According to the US commentator Christopher Newfield: "The distinctive feature of Mooc marketing in 2013 is the shift from being an intriguing experiment to being pushed as a workable solution to budgetary and access crises." …

In California, Senate bill 520 would force universities in the state system to recognise Coursera courses recommended by the American Council for Education. The San Jose State University philosophy faculty complained recently about a decision taken by its senior management to force the use in class of Michael Sandel's edX Mooc on justice.

These academics argue that Moocs, far from taking learning to new vistas, are just "prepackaged materials from outside vendors" (Harvard and edX are private institutions) and being used to re-engineer public education. They see Moocs as the start of an "efficiency" drive to get rid of qualified staff or replace them with teaching assistants.

So, what of the UK? The government is keen to promote "efficiency and diversity" in higher education and has already commissioned a report into Moocs and other forms of online distance learning. The British University Finance Directors Group has indicated that FutureLearn "could well promise a low fixed-cost future". …

As a cheap alternative to degrees, Moocs do not yet pass muster. But as an alternative to public investment, technological solutions with private backing may sway policymakers. In straitened times, will broadcasting the videoed byproducts of elite institutions be seen as good enough for the masses? It would be nice to hope that our commitment to equity and equality in education would resist such temptations.

The Boston Globe "Braniac", San Jose State to Michael Sandle: Keep your MOOC off our campus:

MOOCs are almost certainly here to stay, but the exchange between SJSU and Sandel demonstrates that after several years of feverish adoption, there are still a lot of issues to work out.

NPR Blogs, "13.7 cosmos & culture", Is Massively Open Online Education A Threat Or A Blessing?:

Colleges and universities are communities with their own local cultures, values and ways of doing things. In the face of budgetary pressure, how will these communities withstand the temptation to give up the hard work of making knowledge and, instead, just subscribe to courses being produced and packaged elsewhere?

One might object that MOOCs are no different from textbooks. What is a textbook, really, but a programmed course template, a whole course in a box? Have popular textbooks destroyed local learning communities and entrenched established hierarchies? No.

This is an important point and it brings out how complicated the issues are. So often with new technology we simply reenact old battles.

But maybe the comparison with textbooks breaks down. Textbooks are limited in ambition. They don't replace the whole curriculum; they give it a grounding. Good teachers use textbooks.

Will they come to use MOOCs the same way?

Or will administrators appeal to the existence of MOOCs as justification to make some of those good teachers redundant?

The New Yorker, Is College Moving Online?:

In his office that afternoon, overlooking a small quadrangle and the back of the Swedenborg Chapel, King told me that he didn’t think MOOCS were quite ready to replace the classroom. “At the moment, there’s a very big difference between an online experience and an in-person experience,” he said.

Just how much is lost has lately been a subject of debate. At Harvard, as elsewhere, MOOC designers acknowledge that the humanities pose special difficulties. When David J. Malan, who teaches Harvard’s popular and demanding introduction to programming, “Computer Science 50,” turned the course into a MOOC, student assessment wasn’t especially difficult: the assignments are programs, and their success can be graded automatically. Not so in courses like Nagy’s, which traditionally turned on essay-writing and discussion. Nagy and Michael Sandel are deploying online discussion boards to simulate classroom conversation, yet the results aren’t always encouraging. “You have a group who are—they talk about Christ,” Kevin McGrath, one of the coördinators of CB22x, told me soon after the discussions started up. “Or about pride. They haven’t really engaged with what’s going on.”

“Humanities have always been cheap and sciences expensive,” Ian M. Miller, a graduate student who’s in charge of technical production for a history MOOC intended to go live in the fall, explained. “You give humanists a little cubbyhole to put their books in, and that’s basically what they need. Scientists need labs, equipment, and computers. For MOOCS, I don’t want to say it’s the opposite, but science courses are relatively easier to design and implement. From a computational perspective, the types of question we are asking in the humanities are orders of magnitude more complex.” When three great scholars teach a poem in three ways, it isn’t inefficiency. It is the premise on which all humanistic inquiry is based.

The next round-up will focus on some of the commentary I've been seeing on blogs. Stay tuned!

4 responses so far

  • Dan Hicks says:

    You give humanists a little cubbyhole to put their books in, and that’s basically what they need. Scientists need labs, equipment, and computers. For MOOCS, I don’t want to say it’s the opposite, but science courses are relatively easier to design and implement.

    I'm fine with the thought in the first two sentences. But the last sentence seems quite dramatically false, at least given no crowd-controlled robots: Labs are not only much harder to design and implement online than even seminars, but simply impossible in a MOOC.

  • dominic suciu says:

    Call me Cassandra, but I think this will go down as a pyrrhic victory at best. This won't be the first time where a revolutionary innovation was repulsed only to have it return. While online classes cannot be a substitute for class-time, in the future, online lectures should be a part of every course that is taught. The videos themselves can be evolved by the instructor to become more and more effective with each batch of students. As such, not only can they be an excellent resource for students that are studying difficult subject matter, but they could completely change the dynamics of class time. Instead of being the place where students encounter the material for the first time, class time could be a place where students could deepen their knowledge and understanding of the material through discourse with their professors and fellow students. In fact it is very likely in the near future, that most textbooks will be written with accompanying well-designed and crafted lectures, allowing students many more opportunities to understand the material that is taught. I think these means are ultimately here to stay. The real focus should be to find creative ways of embracing these methods without making the professors irrelevant. Appealing to your own job security at the expense of the student's ease of learning won't survive in these times of rising tuition costs.

  • Janet D. Stemwedel says:

    I reckon the people MOOC-ing sciences are interested in students coming away with some grasp of important empirical facts, theories, equations and their application, classification schemes, and things of that ilk -- you know, the kind of stuff you could assess with multiple choice quizzes or problem sets that lend themselves to automatic grading.

    Getting one's hands dirty learning something about the techniques with which the scientific knowledge is made (as one does in a lab course) is something students will probably still get to do at elite institutions, but is that a frill you want to pay for other students to get?

    (If it's me answering: Yes. Yes, I do.)

  • [...] I'm continuing the round-up I began compiling in the last post of responses to the SJSU Philosophy Department's open letter to Michael Sandel (which you can see [...]