Centrifugal Forces

February 19th, 2013

“Associated with the role of technology is a new discussion regarding the ‘unbundling’ or ‘disaggregation’ of teaching functions,” Thomas A. Angelo and  James JF Forest wrote in 2002.  No longer so new, that discussion has been renewed with new force by the advent of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) and their variants (MOOC blends using “flipped classroom” approaches and the like). While we haven’t seen a single verifiable pedagogical or business success from such approaches so far, we have seen enormous investment and even more hype. So we have to ask: what does the disaggregation of teaching-as-labor mean for academia when the teacher is no longer primarily responsible for either the instructional content or the evaluation of student work, and the academic institution may no longer even provide the platform?

An answer of sorts came is now yesterday’s news. The Wired Campus blog of the Chronicle of Higher Education offered a compelling headline on February 18: “Professor Leaves a MOOC in Mid-Course in Dispute Over Teaching.” The professor in question, Richard A. McKenzie of UC Irvine, told the students that he would no longer be teaching the MOOC on microeconomics he was leading, which had nearly 37,000 enrolled. He had complained to those students that “fewer than 2 percent have been actively engaged in discussions.” Notable exceptions to the general lack of activity were a fair number of complaints that McKenzie was asking for too much work. “I will not give on standards,” he responded, “and you also should not want me to, or else the value of any ‘certification’ won’t be worth the digits it is written with.”

The real point of interest here is that the course, offered through Coursera, will go on without McKenzie. The dean of distance ed at UC Irvine reported that he and others “felt that the course was very strong and well designed,” and so the professor was really not necessary. A little like the Google driverless car, which not so incidentally MOOC pioneer Sebastian Thrun had quite a hand in, a course can apparently be well-built enough not to need an instructor at the wheel.

The New York Times just invoked Thrun and his MOOC on AI in an editorial, which begins, “Stanford University ratcheted up interest in online education when a pair of celebrity professors attracted more than 150,000 students from around the world to a noncredit, open enrollment course on artificial intelligence.” But the editorial, titled “The Trouble with Online College,” goes on to note grave problems with retention and completion, and generalizes these problems to online instruction generally: “Online classes are already common in colleges, and, on the whole, the record is not encouraging.” The record consulted focuses wholly on community colleges, and just in two states, with special emphasis on the especially vulnerable students in remediation. This focus on underprepared students may highlight the consequences of under-preparation, but it hardly serves to indict a mode of instruction for college students generally.

Still, negative takes on online ed are hardly helped by this latest debacle with MOOCs. Bad as it would be to say the emperor has no clothes, it would be still worse to say the clothes need no emperor.


Comments are closed.

See also:

Skip to toolbar