Monday, May 6, 2013

MOOC Mania Expands

At the National Education Writers Association conference at Stanford last week, MOOCs were the topic of much speculation and debate. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan affirmed that the jury is still out on this new model of instruction, yet he could see the day when the best Algebra teacher in the country would be teaching high school students from around the country online. While it was good to hear that he does not think technology offers the magic bullet for education, some of his comments about MOOCs were concerning. Moreover, as he stressed that the administration’s higher education focus is on increasing access, affordability, and degree completion, he did not offer any new specifics on this front. I later had the opportunity to question him about the president’s college scorecard web site, and he put me in touch with someone to continue the conversation.

During a panel with Daphne Koller of Coursera, I argued that we need to think about the whole higher education system and how these new technological solutions do not deal with the major issues of funding, costs, quality, and academic labor. Koller insisted that people take MOOCs for many different reasons, and the ones who want to complete courses often attain their goal. In response to my concern that faculty are being motivated to sign away their intellectual property to Cousera or to their home institutions, she replied that the she is an advocate of individual freedom so professors should be able to do what they want. I argued that faculty have to think about how their actions affect other people, and in the context of our union contract, we have a collective agreement that some times limits total individual freedom.

The debate over individual freedom versus collective contacts was highlighted in Thomas Friedman’s presentation. He started off by arguing that companies like Google do not want employees with college degrees; rather, what they want is people who have a proven record of mastering certain skills or competencies. Using the analogy of moving from a defined benefit plan to a 401K plan, Friedman said that everything is going to be individualized, and people will cobble together their own degrees and credentials out of a list of available online courses. In this “total revolution,” professors will have to prove their value in a global market as consumers/students are able to learn “anything” from “anyone” at “any time.” This over-generalized rhetoric tends to dominate Freidman’s work and other high-tech evangelists.

A constant theme of this conference was the notion that higher ed institutions are slow to move, but we are in a period of rapid technological transformation. Meanwhile, digital news media outlets have to quickly report on recent events, and so they are more in synch with high-tech businesses that can make quick decisions, and this puts slow-moving deliberative bodies, like public universities, at a disadvantage. Just as newspapers have been transformed by the “Internet Revolution,” we are being told that traditional universities have to give up their attachment to shared governance, job security, and reasoned debate; in this brave new world of high-tech transformation, liberal and conservative power-brokers have seemed to bought into the same push to trade in all past forms of economic and institutional stability in favor of a jump into an unknown future of radical individualism and the privatization of public functions.


  1. Bob, thanks for the account. There is empirical evidence that Friedman is wrong about the revolution, starting with his own newspaper. The NYT focus on intergration, aggregation, analysis, and synthesis, rather than on scattershot factoids culled from elsewhere on the net. The educational analogy is a degree that integrates different domain knowledges and concrete capabilities into an overall problem-solving, independent-thinking, complex data-handling creative person. Actually Google *doesn't* want somebody who took a Scala course and a Python course and a general CS course (3 of the 6 Coursera courses here, unless that person can do a bunch of integrative things at the same time, which generally speaking means that person is already a college graduate. Back to newspapers: the problem is for middle-tier papers without the skills and the resources to do rapid updates online plus deep analysis of the kind regularly provided by the NYT by extremely well educated, sophisticated, experienced, skillful reporters writing on economics, business, education, theater, etc etc. So journalism's ecology is threatened (you raised this point with Koller but I can't tell whether she really responded or not), and local or regional papers including the increasingly crappy LA Times are endangered, and overall news intelligence declines in the country, even though we do actually know what the real revolution is, which is to maintain creative integrative functions at universities and newspapers even as our sources become more diverse and, gosh, digital!! I know it wouldn't seem that way at Stanford but we're entering a more thoughtful phase of MOOConomics--with any luck at all.

  2. Bob, I think your pithy summary of Friedman:
    '... that everything is going to be individualized, and people will cobble together their own degrees and credentials out of a list of available online courses. In this “total revolution,” professors will have to prove their value in a global market as consumers/students are able to learn “anything” from “anyone” at “any time.”'

    is excellently countered by what Chris writes in the previous comment, namely that such 'learning' is not an *education*, which
    "integrates different domain knowledges and concrete capabilities into an overall problem-solving, independent-thinking, complex data-handling creative person."

    The confusion between these two isn't a problem only in the MOOC discussion, but is raised more generally by all types of remote or online delivery (including the old correspondence courses and taped lecture series): unless robust ways of creating and ensuring synergistic interactions are developed for "online ed," the existing system of synchronous face-to-face interactions between instructors & peers in a classroom will not be replaced. MOOCs, I think, are one area where the global "flattening" that Friedman wrote a book about will benefit only the comparatively few advanced, self-motivated learners, not most of us who need lots of help getting started and along the way.

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