MOOC Reflections

Last semester I took Dr. Jeremy Adelman’s “History of the World Since 1300 AD” massively open online course (MOOC) offered by Coursera. As I began composing my reflections on the experience I found several excellent and extensive reviews of the course. The one I enjoyed the most is the 16 part review written by Jonathan Rees on his blog, “More or Less Bunk.”  Rees combs through the course and its pedagogical successes and (mostly) failures thoroughly, has an engaging back and forth with Dr. Adelman, and features a running commentary on what this all means for higher education in general. I highly recommend it, both for its topical value, and also for the historical value it will likely one day represent. It seems destined to go down in history along with other “it will never fly Orville” sideline commentaries on the MOOC phenomenon. There is simply too much money at stake for MOOCs to fail. Of course they can’t really succeed at delivering high quality education to the students of the world, but standards will be lowered to accommodate such an effective financial model. That’s my perspective anyway.

Hater gonna hate…

Even though I found articulate reviews of the course, I thought I’d still offer my perspectives – as much for my own therapy as for original informative value. The best and most engaging moments of the course occurred when content experts weighed in on forum discussions. There was one engaging debate about Native American civilizations and the director of the Cahokia museum weighed in to make a correction to the textbook and to inform Dr. Adelman and students on latest archaeological findings. There were a few really cool similar moments. Each was loudly and rightly celebrated by Adelman in his weekly email update. Overall however, the forums were a nightmare. Imagine 82,000 people having a post and response conversation. Even if only 9,000 or 10,000 were actively posting, the deluge of posts and responses made engaging discourse impossible. There was also some sort of voting system for posts. This moved “liked” posts towards the top and made conversations impossible to follow. Coursera and Adelman’s staff worked feverishly to try and channel the flow, starting super-threads, asking people not to start new threads, deleting redundant threads, etc… all to no avail. The forums were like trying to have a political debate with a room full of candidates and no moderator. Hopeless.

Written assignments failed equally spectacularly. Who grades 82,000 term papers? We all know that critical thinking, analysis, and synthesis are essential to scholarship, especially in the humanities, yet there are no easy options here for grading student work on this scale. In Adelman’s course there were six short essays due (total of 492,000 potential essays!!). Students were required to grade their own, then grade the essays of five of their peers. Only 2% of students wrote the first essay and even fewer evaluated their peers. For my part, the writing assignments were wholly unsatisfactory. Feedback was poor and often uninformed. Another great opportunity to analyze and synthesize course information – largely lost.

With failed discussions and writing activities, what is left? Enter the super-professor. A professor who in one course touched more students than many faculty will in a lifetime of teaching. But, as might be guessed, Dr. Adelman may have a super-hero (or villain) like broadcast machine, but we met much more of a Clark Kent. In our media saturated era, students bring high expectations to the MOOC big top. We expect slick production values and media integration. What we got were a few still maps from the text (authored by Dr. Adelman and other Princeton faculty) with names and legends that were too small to be legible.

Dr. Adelman had some great ideas and perspectives – in fact, he is obviously a very talented and brilliant professor. Unfortunately, his lectures were flat. The first lectures were especially awkward and rough – perfectly fine for a local campus online course. Excellent even. But, when broadcast to a stadium sized virtual auditorium, they came across as amateurish and underwhelming. I even thought for a while that this could be a very bad thing for elite institutions. Might it reveal that there isn’t anything magical in a world history lecture from a super-tuition school? Might it actually deflate their brand mystique? I don’t know the answer but the revolutionist within me saw a light of potential hope here. However, as the semester went on, the lectures greatly improved in production quality and polish. This is one advantage reaped by first colonizers of the frontier. Within a couple of iterations, it will be very difficult for newcomers to compete with courses improved via trial-by-fire experience.

I couldn’t help but wonder, however, if this is the technology of the future, how is it different than just a textbook? What would be different if all those 82,000 people simply downloaded a free ebook and read the history, and then had some clumsy forum or book group conversations? Would it be pedagogically all that different? Without effective objectives, assessment, and activities, was it even a course? In fact, as Rees pointed out, the course lacked a syllabus of any kind. What are the objectives? What are the big ideas we’re supposed to take away? If someone thinks all it takes to teach 80,000 people at once is some video lectures and a robust forum platform – I think someone has a misconception about innovation in education. This isn’t an inspiring model, and the outcomes aren’t college level. It is true that if I had put more into it I might have had higher outcomes, but that is true with any book in any bookstore. Information alone does not make a college course, especially a humanities course.

Despite this underwhelming experience, higher education institutions are forming offerings alliances at an incredible pace as they speculate on an uncertain educational frontier. The speed with which these usually ponderous entities are acting suggests it is not open-education inspiration driving them, but fear. Apparently there is a sense that this moment offers a colonial-era-like opportunity where the victors will be those who arrive earliest with the most offerings on these uncharted shores in an education-space land grab. Afraid of being left behind, many campuses are feeling pressure to pitch their tents, lay claim, and build what presence they can on the new landscape.

Thus I wonder if it is possible that MOOCs are not really designed to present open learning opportunities to the students of the world but to seize potential content markets before lesser institutions? And this is done with the knowledge that these super schools can then provide education content to these lesser institutions – which become enthralled content consumers due to simple economic efficiencies? Is it possible that MOOCs are not conceived to achieve a liberation of learning, but rather, a further consolidation of educational content creation and delivery? Will the end result be some sort of Orwellian hegemony of super-schools?

In January of this year The American Council on Education approved five Coursera courses for college credit.  The offerings include Algebra, Pre-Calculus, Calculus, Bioelectricity: A Quantitative Approach, and Introduction to Genetics and Evolution. Coursera will offer proctored exams at the end of these courses through ProctorU at around $60 to $90. Yikes. Coursera enrollment last November encompassed 2.5 million students – after only being in existence 8 months.

What does it all mean? The good news is that an online course, designed well, and delivered well, from even the most modest of institutions, can easily top the offerings of Princeton. Also, we might be encouraged (or at least humored) that not two weeks ago, a Coursera offering titled “Fundamentals of Online Learning” collapsed in its second week leaving 40,000 students still in the tent, due to poor design and technical shortcomings. Still, Lessons are being learned. Soon, it won’t be MOOCs we are discussing, it will be MOOCs 2.0.

Further Reading:

“Apocalypse Soon” An article on the potential economic impacts of MOOCs on mass market higher education institutions.  

Many details about Coursera can be found on Wikipedia. Of course.





2 thoughts on “MOOC Reflections

  1. RLS

    Is your math correct? I think 82,000 x 6 > 252,000. Otherwise, I find your comments very insightful, expecially the idea that we’re witnessing something like a “scramble for Africa”–nobody knows what they’ll do with it when they get it, but Great Power status requires having some of it.

    1. Owen Post author

      Math fixed. Thanks for noticing.

      Thanks also for the comment. I love your articulation of the “scramble for Africa” analogy. Perfect.


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