Divining Madness

October 2nd, 2012

The annual “special section” on online learning done by the Chronicle of Higher Education is out, and it’s (almost) all about MOOCs. The cover proclaims “MOOC Madness,” and the big article is “MOOC Mania.” How apt. I used that same title a couple of months ago in voicing my skepticism about all the hype , and have had cause to return to that theme again and again. Now the validation given to this fringe phenomenon by the popular press makes me feel, if only for a paranoid moment, like a voice crying in the wilderness. MOOCs have not only arrived; the juggernaut has rolled past — crushing any naysayer in its wake.

But wait a minute. What the articles actually reveal is something less than a wholehearted embrace. I was naturally first drawn to Ann Kirschner’s sampling of a MOOC (something I’m doing as well). The Dean of CUNY’s Macaulay Honors College is in many ways the ideal student, trying something she actually envisioned years ago while forging Columbia’s Fathom. She’s already knowledgeable about the subject, pressed for time, yet genuinely interested, ripe to find the MOOC she tried a useful learning resource. But it’s far from an ideal learning environment, and she’s quick to point what’s missing: “There was no way to build a discussion, no equivalent to the hush that comes over the classroom when the smart kid raises his or her hand.”

Other authors are harder on the next big — and we do mean big — thing. Much, both positive and negative, has been made of Sebastian Thrun’s famous MOOC on Artificial Intelligence, which initially enrolled 160,000 students but saw only 20,000 complete it. Greg Graham, a writing instructor, doesn’t even mention the completion rate. He’s horrified by the sheer number enrolled.

Perhaps Thrun and others like him have made the classic mistake of valuing quantity over quality. Those huge numbers on their screens are clouding their judgment about what is wrong with our education system and what it will take to fix it. Like Wal-Mart, online education promises greater numbers: To hell with customer service and quality; we’ve got discounts!

This seems a little shrill, but it does, from another angle, explain the lure of MOOCs. Those sheer numbers seem an answer to the cost disease presumably afflicting faculty productivity. If we employ conventional methods, there’s no way, with the cost of everything (including faculty) going up, that we can produce more educational “product” more cheaply. So it’s easy to imagine the administrator’s version of Thrun’s now famous comment, “You can take the blue pill and go back to your classroom and lecture to your 20 students, but I’ve taken the red pill and I’ve seen Wonderland.” Wonderland, indeed. If you’re an university president, imagine the thrill of getting so much more out of that first-rate prof you’re paying that six-fiigure salary to by getting six-figure enrollments.

Dean Kirschner is right: “Let’s give this explosion of pent-up innovation in higher education a chance to mature before we rush to the bottom line.” Yet there is another kind of rush on, and of a very different kind. Last Friday the Wall Street Journal published a piece on “educational competitiveness” rankings that showed how investments in Asia were changing the global higher ed landscape — pushing China above Germany, for instance, and just below the US and the UK. China now has its own analog of the Ivy League — the C9 — and its formula for success is not that much different from that of the Ivies — maximum investment (in faculty) and maximum selection (of students).

Whether MOOCs are a giant step forward, this seems a giant step backward. Surely there has to be something between this resurgence of social Darwinism and the assembly-line anonymity of some MOOCs. Technology can be about intimacy as well as reach, and reach can take into account need, not just ability or merit. We don’t need to decide whether to accept or reject MOOCs — that’s premature. But we do need to decide how to modulate as well as realize the possibilities they represent, particularly so they can reach the kinds of students CUNY is committed to.

  1. Tributaries » Blog Archive » (Not) Controlling the Future Says:

    […] Divining Madness […]

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