Growing up in Nepal, I used to hear this useful advice all the time: “Don’t talk about the heaven in front of Indra [the god who’s the king of heaven].” The message in the saying is that you should not boast about something in front of someone who knows better than you about it. When I read about how “star” professors at prestigious universities expressing great faith in massively open online courses (MOOCs), I just wonder what dedicated teachers, educational researchers, scholars of intercultural education, and experts of online education think about these “docs on laptops” who may be stars of subject matter but evidently not so of teaching effectively.
According to a survey cited in a Chronicle of Higher Education article, “Nearly half of the professors [teaching MOOCs and responded to a survey] felt their online courses were as rigorous academically as the versions they taught in the classroom.” To put it bluntly, even though it may be possible to make “lectures” academically “rigorous” (let’s say by delivering your best ideas in best ways, and say by further enhancing the lectures with integrated quizzes, helpful resources, etc), I don’t think that “teaching” can be rigorous overall in “massive” and “open” environments at all. I will not dispute that MOOCs can be a useful form of learning experience for students, but the fact that the “stars” compare (or are willing to respond to a question that asks them to compare) MOOCs against on-site teaching begins to sew invisible clothing for these academic emperors.
Yes, if teaching means primarily “delivering” and enhancing the delivery of the “content,” a course may be academically rigorous. But if academic rigor must subsume rigor in teaching as well, then the claim becomes suspect.
Yes, delivering the content of a course as the primary teaching method can be more feasible in some types of courses than in others. But even in the most content-focused courses, whether it is off or online, learning is most effective and meaningful when there is more focus on one-on-one support by the instructor, student-to-student interaction that is meaningfully facilitated by the instructor, and scaffolded exploration and implementation of ideas in a small classroom than on a one-way delivery of content by the instructor. Courses with 500 students in big lecture halls may have been “efficient” but they have never been effective learning environments. They become worse, not better, when the number is multiplied by a thousand, even if technology helps make up for some of the weaknesses of the lecture hall (for instance by allowing students to absorb the content at their own pace and convenience).
That is, the stars of the lecture hall may be stars of content but that does not necessarily make them stars of teaching. In reality, more stars of teaching are found working in carrells in the basements of community college buildings, or replying to many students’ emails every day in small online courses, than they are standing in front of gigantic lecture halls of prestigious universities or, in the case of MOOCs, recording lectures and reaching out unilaterally to thousands of students around the world on the backs of for profit companies.
I’ve been reading carefully what the founders of MOOC companies have been saying about “teaching” and I find no better word to describe their “pedagogy” than the logic of “naked emperors.” A founder of one of the companies famously said that in fifty years from now, there will be only ten institutions in the whole world that “deliver” higher education. Another professor turned businessperson claimed that her company’s mission is to “take the best courses from the best instructors at the best universities and provide them to everyone in the world, for free!” But if we ask the “how” question of teaching, the MOOC emperor begins to seem more naked.
Until the beginning of July 2013, Coursera’s “Our Pedagogy” page contained mainly of two components, “peer assessments” [sic] and “calibrated peer review.” The page seemed to be updated sometime in mid July but it still didn’t look like the research assistant in the company’s “pedagogy” department no more qualified than the company is interested in teaching/learning. The “literature” on the first component consisted of one article on “calibrated peer review” (seriously!), but to top off their discovery of peer review–which led to this professor’s reaction when she found out recently that students can provide feedback to each other on discussion forums–they had “crowd-sourcing” the literature review on which consisted of a single article co-authored by, you guessed it, one of the company’s cofounder Andrew Ng. The idea behind the second pedagogy shebang is “Amazon’s Mechanical Turk system, a significantly cheaper and faster method for collecting annotations from a broad base of paid non-expert contributors over the web,” aka a slightly better technology than what produced the product review on “binders full of women” on Amazon.com.
We could just ignore this bizarre educational revolution if universities were not rushing to embrace it and if they did not do so in the form of a “bundle” that contains a learning management system (a technology like Blackboard) and some of the most ridiculous ideas about teaching that we have ever seen as teachers. But it looks like the current situation with MOOCs is best described by the Nepalese idiom “bear’s head in your hands.” Serious teachers do not want to sit on the sidelines and complain because they not only want to prevent the “revolution” from undermining the best things about their profession–making direct, human, personal impact on students’ intellectual and professional development–but also want to adopt/adapt new tools and modes of teaching in ways that they know are best for their students. They want a seat at the table, appropriate tools to work with, and opportunities to show the important work that they do. But it looks like this thing is going to attack the profession of teaching if teachers leave it, and attack their profession in a little while if they keep holding it.
The so-called MOOC revolution of higher education is not only largely built on some of the most problematic pedagogies of the past (which are the least effective for us as writing teachers and indeed for any discipline: lecture, standardized tests, machine grading) but the revolution also disregards other fundamentals like academic integrity, need for specialized training for distance education (as Ron Legon’s critiqued in an InsideHigherEd article), and a puzzling blindness toward international learners other than as fantastic numbers and evidence of access, diversity, and influence in the world. Also, as Legon suggests, it is amazing how the big-name professors at big-name schools who are dominating the MOOC scene at this time seem to not bother very much about even the fundamental principles of distance education (such as these or these).
If we as educators want to adopt/adapt MOOCs, we must also at the same time build on time-tested foundations of teaching/learning through direct interaction between teacher and learner; we must resist the wholesale “platforms” that are not easy to adapt to the uniqueness of our disciplines (and must instead adapt the other way around); we cannot overlook issues of academic integrity that distance education researchers have been highlighting for years; and we cannot design courses for “anyone” and leave it to learners to navigate their way through unfamiliar academic and disciplinary territories without scaffolding (which reminds me of a Russian engineer who participated in a Google Hangout in a writing MOOC and provided feedback to the assignment by an Indian college student that made me want to cry). We must admit that some courses are simply incompatible with the massive and/or the open and exclusively online nature of MOOCs.
In the MOOCs that I have taken, the instructors were not the typical “stars” that were originally marketed by the MOOC companies; they were some of the best teachers in my field, and they tried their very best to make learning in the virtual environment that had thousands of students as meaningful as possible. But no matter how much I liked the delivery of content, the conversations among some of the (highly committed) students, I never found an instance that would replace the intimate support systems of conventional teaching/learning. As an Inside Higher Ed article written by six teachers from community colleges in California state:
the heart of what we do as college educators has to do with the immeasurable human interaction that we have with our students and the vital social experience of the face-to-face classrooms. This is something that simply can never be reproduced by a new technology, no matter how advanced.
And as Tufts University President, Lawrence Bacow puts it, not many parents “want their 18 to 21 year old sitting in their basement looking at the computer for four years.” Additionally, when it comes to international participants, when instructors try to achieve the same or similar curricular objectives through MOOCs that they do in small classrooms, it seems almost impossible to make learning very meaningful for learners in distant societies who had starkly different academic experiences. I discuss this issue in a blog entry for The Chronicle of Higher Education.
So, in my view, the first thing that any serious teacher must do about MOOCs is to “acknowledge” that they (like each of the learners/participants) are situated in a certain society, culture, discourse, and so the effectiveness of teaching/ learning in a globally open space will depend on what participants make of the teachers’ ideas and how they present those ideas. Teachers can share knowledge, and they can also try to teach learners ideas and skills on their local terms; but they must be aware of the localness of their ideas and how they communicate them to the learners. It is by “flipping” the learning environment from presenter centered to participant centered (as much as possible) that open learning spaces can start becoming meaningful.
An effective MOOC must foreground the “awareness” of how cultural, experiential differences will shape students’ participation in the course. But when that is done, it may follow that serious teachers must admit that there are perhaps no way to teach MOOCs without leaving major blind spots. Trying to avoid the pedagogical, cultural, and other blind spots of MOOCs even in their best form will probably mean redefining MOOCs altogether. For instance, the “M” may have very limited usability, and so may the first “O.”
Effective “delivery” is only going to expose the worst pedagogies of the past rather than showcase the best affordances of either today’s technology or good teaching practices. For the “star” professors to come forward with the worst pedagogies and tout the “technology” for essentially delivering content is to help serious educators more clearly see that the star professors are naked–just boasting about their royal robes.