Why deMOOCification won’t work

A few MOOCish ideas came together for me today. I was actually trying to avoid the subject, so info about MOOCs has to come to me (RSS as blessing and curse). For awhile all I got was how great today’s MOOCs were, how democratizing, how problem-solving, how very trendy. I just shook my head, watching as the forces of educational reform (which I used to favor) merged with commercial interests (of which I have never been a fan).

Now, in the past few months, there is a realization that Massive Open Online Classes, especially those in the xMOOC, proto-commercial model (think Coursera/Udacity) aren’t really such a good idea. There has been opposition. It has taken awhile for folks to realize that faculty will not only be sidelined into being “content experts”, but that they could lose their jobs as big classes are taught by fewer, less-educated people (simple arithmetic, really). There has been concern that C/U MOOCs perpectuate non-participatory, lecture-based pedagogies. There has been a dawning recognition that somehow MOOCs aren’t even really free (either as free beer or free speech).

So now we have some very cogent, intelligent reactions to the big MOOC trend. Many, however, want to turn the clock back. DeMOOCification, though I can’t find the word in Google much less Webster’s, is becoming a thing.

Aaron Bady’s paper on the MOOC Moment and the End of Reform  points out that MOOCs mark the end of efforts to actually reform what’s wrong with universities, implying one would have to turn back for real reform. Jonathan Rees (a MOOC objector from the beginning) predicts the ultimate failure of MOOCs, and calls faculty to arms. He writes:

I still think MOOCs will collapse from their failure to earn back their start-up costs by giving their product away. Nevertheless, MOOCs can still do an awful lot of damage during their long death throes.

Pulp-O-Mizer_Cover_ImageAs much as I don’t want to say this, I don’t think there’s a chance in hell that MOOCs will die on their own. I can’t think of any trend which saved large institutitions money and trouble, then died a natural death. And faculty can’t defend against them – we have been made powerless very slowly, over a long period of administrative takeover and public apathy (or even antipathy in our new era of anti-intellectualism). What happened at SJSU and Amherst is the exception  - an exception I applaud, but an exception. The public perceives faculty objections to MOOCs as an issue of job security rather than quality.

And yet Martin Weller also forsees the beginning of the end, as Coursera tries to define itself differently, which looks like a commercial product flailing around looking for how to make money.

But I see no sign of weakness. This week Audrey Watters reported that more and more state universities are adopting commercial MOOCs, contracted with Coursera  – this doesn’t surprise me in the least. MOOC “providers” have found their niche in contracting with universities. University money may not seem like much if you want to run a Fortune 500 company, but on sheer economies of scale it’s the biggest untapped market in the world.

We’ve got a lethal combination of ironies:

* a public perception that college is both overpriced and overfunded (ironically leading to state funding contractions),

* higher college fees due to expanding administrations while corporate/business interests buy influence at both public and private universities (more business was supposed to provide more money), and

* a sudden entrepreneurial interest in public education as the only expanding field (other than health care, but education doesn’t have the research or equipment costs)

So, as argued beautfully by Eric Hayot, too many forces are behind MOOCs to reverse them.  His conclusion is that we need to create good MOOCs, kind of like a counterforce to bad MOOCs.

That may be doable, but one thing that won’t work is wishing for MOOCs to go away. It just isn’t going to happen.

Nor will it happen that the good cMOOCs (which is where it all started) will become the default model for MOOCs. Connectivist MOOCs require self-direction and exploration on the part of students, which is difficult to assess on a massive, credit-earning scale. Commercial xMOOCs are catering to an entirely different audience: the masses of lower division students who couldn’t get into their GE classes. The motivation is completion and credits at the lowest price, not learning. Coursera/Udacity-run MOOCs are focused on numbers and super-prof lectures and automated grading of essays and quizzes, in order to process these masses of dissatisfied students who want to buy those pesky credits now. Administrators want to help them do it, saving money and gaining alumni. The demand and the desire to satisfy that demand are in perfect harmony, regardless of the problems.

To say that MOOCs will fade away because they’re of poor quality or bad pedagogy is like saying that McDonalds will go away because the food is unhealthy and the chairs are too hard, or that Walmart will disappear because the service is awful and it’s a lousy shopping environment. Convenience and price will win, regardless of quality. Creating good MOOCs might thus be Pollyannish, or naive, or consume far more time and energy than they would be worth. This is especially true if we start building solid, pedagogically sound MOOCs to feed into a machine more suited for fast food – good classes will be few and far between, and the “customers” will not appreciate them because they will make students think and take more responsibility for their own learning.

And no one really wants that.

Why the plutocracy loves the new online model

I reference first the article in the Chronicle of Higher Education on the bill being proposed in the California legislature to create a “faculty-free” New University of California online (read it and scream).

And yet, this should surprise no one. We are living in a plutocracy. MOOCs are becoming popular as potential money savers for universities and money makers for “education” companies. One might think these two phenomena are unrelated. They’re not.

It is in the interest of a plutocracy to keep people uneducated, since an educated populace is dangerous. By marketing education as a commodity, the plutocracy encourages the view of education as a product that can be purchased, and is sold by professional “manufacturers” – companies like Coursera – and whose services can be outsourced.

The body of knowledge (actually the body of information) that is freely available can now be packaged and sold, farmed when necessary but also created in a lab. People will prefer processed education because it is convenient and inexpensive, just as they prefer processed food and shopping at Walmart despite the hidden human costs.

In such a system, faculty are perceived as aristocratic remnants of a past where their services were needed due to the scarcity of information (actually a scarcity of knowledge). Now that such information is “free” (floating in Wikipedia, scanned books, blogs etc.), professors can be replaced with “knowledge workers” and “content experts” employed by companies and universities that manufacture courses and degrees.

This is acceptable because of the general belief that much of what one learns in college is not used later by the individual. Most members of the legislature, Congress, and corporations went to college and know they use very little of the information they were forced to learn there. That focus is on content (information) rather than analytical skills (a foundation of knowledge). Thus those without such skills conclude that content can be packaged by educational entrepreneurs and will be welcomed into the marketplace.

And they’ll be right since those buying (and promoting) the product lack the analytical skills necessary to understand that college is not about information and its retention. The “customers” of such a product want to “learn” the information, be tested on it, and get a degree that lets them move on and make money and buy a car and support a family and save money by shopping at Walmart.

This must be OK, because capitalism provides for the best products and services to rise to the top at the best prices. What harm could there be? The market will provide us with the best and least expensive education.

Here’s an example of what happens in my discipline. History education is primarily based on narrative – American history is the “story” of our country. The story line is adapted to promote certain values by emphasizing particular events, documents, and ideas. Keith Ereksen’s Beyond History Wars in the current OAH journal, looks at the story lines of American history and notes:

For more than two centuries Americans have told stories of “consensus” that emphasize the ways that “one people” and “one nation” formed a triumphant and unique nation…. Thus, what is truly at stake in history wars are not facts but stories. Because neither facts nor historical documents “speak” for themselves, we must pay attention to the way that details are placed within larger story lines. These story lines—persuasive historical narratives and interpretations—tell people which facts are important to remember and which are not.

When learning is focused on content, we absorb the narrative.

This organizing power of stories explains why students can read a textbook filled with correct facts, watch a Hollywood movie riddled with errors, and then recall only the errors on subsequent tests…

In any history class, the narrative is provided by the textbook and/or the instructor. In a “processed” class, retention of facts via the narrative is assessed. With little or no opportunity for debating or discussing competing narratives, or different uses for the same historical information, students have no opportunity to gain knowledge rather than information.

Thus “education” becomes a product to be packaged and sold, rather than an achievement earned through that messy process of learning, with all its nuances, grey areas, and complexity. We distill it to something that requires no interpretation except the one you are given.

Anyone who understands democracy can see the danger in that.




The fine line between automation and insanity

For many years I’ve been arguing that instructors must create their own classes, and their materials (like this stuff) when possible. We should automate only those things that are purely factual or arguably objective, such as multiple-choice quizzes of factual information. We should avoid pre-packaged materials and course cartridges, picking and choosing those elements which forward our own pedagogy, not that of “learning teams” or publishers wanting to sell texts and ancillaries. I was taught one reason for this very early on by Louisa Moon, who in 1998 advised me to create online lectures that spoke in my voice, because at the time we were worried that others might take the lectures we created and give them to others to teach with, without credit or thanks. Now the reason is a little more complicated.

As the years have passed, my own pedagogical goals have focused more on student discovery, creation and writing. The historical facts I like to leave to Wikipedia and multiple-choice quizzes. All my lectures and materials are my own or I have found them. I use no course cartridges (I only ever used them for quiz questions anyway), and often eschew even a textbook. I do artisanal online teaching.

darthpearsonBut while I have been exercising my pedagogy and DIY skills, the market and the trends move in a different direction. This week I attended a session where a publishing company showed us history software, including a piece that could grade essays for us. Some of the other professors in the room admitted this would be helpful, since we have too many students and want them to do so much writing. I, on the other hand, warned that machine-graded essays is a step toward either having grad students teach our classes or having us teach hundreds of students. Other historians’ responses to the invitation to participate in helping create computer essay grading are here. The current popularity of MOOCs  bears out the concern about teaching massive classes, and so does this review of concerns from back in 1998.

But I notice that some of my own changes also begin to lean toward the dark side. A few students on last year’s evaluation said they wanted more feedback on their weekly writing, which I was grading only via a self-assessment at the mid-point and end of the class. I wanted the emphasis to be on practice rather than grading, but they claimed that they did so much work they wanted more feedback. Since it would be impossible for me to give individual feedback to weekly writing assignments, I instead implemented the “graded post”.  Writing posts are now randomly graded, with the grades aggregated for 20% of the total grade. I thought it would go faster if I created qualitative scales, which took me quite awhile to create but then could be used to provide feedback more quickly. But I have students now who are angry at the feedback, who want details on exactly what the ratings meant, or who can’t tell the scale itself from their own ratings. They are more unhappy now then when they saw the writing as practice and it got graded twice a year (for the same 20%, BTW).

Then, when a colleague came to me overwhelmed by grading essays, I suggested the ratings as a possible way to speed things up, since we know what the errors and issues are going to be. Scales can be super handy. I suddenly realized I was suggesting, and doing, a certain amount of automation. No! That is the path to demons offering publishers’ cartridges and computer-graded essays, assigning us to teach 400 students without any help, devaluing our labor and our knowledge and turning us into pushers of education rather than teachers.

On the other hand, it is insane to provide every student with individual feedback on every bit of work they do. I know many professors who sacrifice family time and sleep time commenting in detail on stacks of essays. I’ve been guilty of it myself. And then we know that less than half the students read the feedback we’ve painstakingly given, and less than half of them implement any suggested changes. But we keep doing it because we care, we want to communicate to them, we want them to learn and do better next time.

So what is the fine line between automation, where the work isn’t ours and may be taken from us or increased to unreasonable quantity, and insanity, where we give feedback to all on everything and sacrifice our off-the-job lives?

Some of the answer may lie in giving the right feedback to the right people at the right time. In my own class, for example, I think I’m doing it too often, which is stifling creative work and causing a focus on the grade. For the stack of essays, we could ask students to write “Comments, please” at the bottom of work where they want comments. Those who miss that in the instructions likely wouldn’t benefit as much from the comments anyway, and those who don’t read them won’t bother.

There must be other ideas, too?

Steps in the right order: from MOOC to COOM

One of the big problems with what desperate universities are doing in adopting MOOCs (SJSU/Udacity and many more) is that the process is backwards.

In the history of MOOCs, some of which I’ve mentioned in my Five Short Years to MOOC Corruption post , there were a couple of pioneers that began with a course and opened it up. Both David Wiley’s  Openness in Education and Alec Couros’ EC&I831 were already courses at BYU and U of Regina respectively in 2007.

They were courses offered in the online format. Course -> Online.

They were courses that were then opened to everyone, existing courses where the professor extended the pedagogy by bringing in participants and readers from everywhere. Course -> Online -> Open.

When a bunch of people join, the course becomes massive. The courses grow organically as people hear about them, tell each other, and join the next round. Course -> Online -> Open -> Massive.

When they grow this way, in the COOM format, there is some focus on preserving the intentions of the Course, conscious use of the affordances of the web in its Online mode, an awareness of the importance of openness for scholarship and connections in its Open offering, and concern for both pedagogy and learning in dealing with Massive.

But the current trend, where universities contract with Udacity or Coursera to have MOOCs taught (or rather presented by stage-lecture profs and facilitated by TAs/grad students or worse, peers) goes backward.

They start with Massive, because they want lots of people attracted to the university, who if they don’t pay money now will be willing to later. Massive also means paying faculty less to do more, and using cheaper labor to facilitate. Then they focus on Open, except they also want to be paid at some point, so that goes kind of sideways – the Open is mostly to attract the Massive. Only then do they get to Online, which is where they struggle technologically so they outsource to Coursera or Udacity or whoever, because it’s easier to do that than actually get into online pedagogy and the complexities of learning on the web. Then Course is last, because it doesn’t really matter -  offer whatever you can, and eventually you can have a degree program and save/make lots of money because of Massive.

I would prefer to design, teach and take a COOM than a MOOC.

Organizing etmooc

The brilliant and knowledgeable Alec Couros is trying to organize etmooc, a MOOC about educational technology. He’s got a Google Doc, a team of people helping, a Google Community group , an #etmooc hashtag, and a WordPress website. Wonderful, experienced, exciting people have been making a huge number of suggestions on approach, and resources, and speakers, and so much more. During a meeting of some of the helpers, some choices arose about how to organize the course:

Flickr cc dgray_xplane
  • Should it follow a syllabus (one was laid out originally, with topics and experts to invite to facilitate or speak or something)? or should participants organize it and/or determine content?
  • Should there be guest speakers and webinars, or a move away from that model?
  • Should it be like ds106, with a big database of assignments to choose from and lots of freedom and artifact creation?
  • Should the course be geared toward beginners, people new to online learning and the open web? or toward experienced MOOCers and avid ed techies?
  • Should there be any assessment? Badges? Self-assessment? No assessment? Formative? Summative?
  • Should the topics continue over time, instead of stopping when the next topic comes up? (Alan Levine had some great ideas about this and reasons for why getting away from the whole “course” idea would be good).
  • To what extent can a more organized approach be combined with a lot of freedom? Is there a spectrum between a typical university course and an open educational community?


If I were designing the course, my combination would be a main course with set topics that launch on a particular date (Alan’s idea), and after some basic introduction to the topic, development of a mini-community that continues with that topic.

For the main course, I would have a syllabus, start and end dates, and the list of topics, two weeks apart. Maybe 6 topics total so no one loses interest – a 12-week class. The strands happening now in the Google Community might work as topics: Connected Learning (this could include set-up), Digital Citizenship, Digital Storytelling, Open Learning, Tools in Context 1, Tools in Context 2.

The goal for each topic would be to develop a mini-community on that topic. The first task for each topic would be a collaborative document where participants put what they want to learn about (inquiry) and start listing resources (content). These resources could include materials from the “experts” who were normally be guest speakers, including their videos. If there are many participants in the topic, they could vote on the top 12 resources to focus on. The time for posting the list of questions and resources would be limited to a week or so, then reflection could begin on blogs and/or elsewhere (synchronous sessions, creation of artifacts, etc). For the sake of alignment, the facilitator for that topic would suggest contributions in a format appropriate to the topic (Digital Storytelling might look ds106-ish, Tools in Context 1 might suggest the use of Prezi or Diigo).

The mini-community for that topic established over the two weeks, we’d go on to the next topic. Again, brief introduction by the main instructor, then collaborative inquiry/question collection and resource gathering, then reflection and communication. And so on.

These topical mini-communities would each have their own space somehow, either as a Google Community topic or a WordPress tag or something, and at least one leader or facilitator (yes, someone would be in charge).  That mini-community could continue long past the course or not, continue for as long as it stayed alive. Participants could come and go from the main course, participating in all of the topics like a regular class, or in just one or two.

So you’d need one central instructor (Alec, or me if it were my course), then at least 6 facilitators (teams might be better), plus as many participants as want to join.

I’d have no assessments, no awards, no assumption of the acquisition of mad tech skilz by participants. There would be structure for the main course and at the top level of each topic, but freedom in reflection, creation and community. There could be guest speakers for individual topics if the mini-community wanted them, but none for the main course.

So, after thinking about it for a few days, that’s what I would do.

Five short years to MOOC corruption

Man, I’m sick of MOOCs. According to the New York Times it’s the year of the MOOC, and they even have the temerity to call Coursera, Udacity and edX the “big three MOOC providers“, so now the Huffington Post is peddling that line too. The Washington Post, Time “Magazine”, Forbes are all watching those big awful MOOCs.    The Chronicle of Higher Education eagerly reports the latest MOOC news, like colleges offering Coursera courses for credit.

I’m a historian, so I’m accustomed to people forgetting history. But how far back was 2008, for gosh sake, when David Wiley (2007 really), Alec Couros, George Siemens, Stephen Downes, Dave Cormier started all this? How could we forget the roots of the whole MOOC thing in five measly years?

My annoyance is showing. This morning in response to a Facebook query I wrote:

None of the people who invented the MOOC were doing it for profit – they were exploring new pedagogies. Now commercial and proto-commercial entities have not only adopted the idea (which is fine) but are seen as representing what a MOOC is. The entire argument is now based around these new commercial beasts, most of which use a pedagogy that is similar to an early 20th century correspondence course – read, test, repeat.

Those of us who teach those plain ole online classes are appalled. We have been working tirelessly to make the web the home of new pedagogies. The big obstacle has (until now) been learning management systems (Blackboard, Desire2Learn, Moodle), since they not only guide pedagogy for inexperienced instructors but keep all the learning in a closed silo. Now we’ve got these horrid new super-trendy models (we are already talking about offering “MOOC”s at our college – it will save money to have one teacher “teach” thousands of students, I’m sure).

In four short years we’ve completely lost touch with the reason, the purpose for MOOCs – the opportunity to exploit the opportunities of the web, to form learning communities, to blow apart top-down teaching models, and to create something meaningful and valuable to participants. The massive part wasn’t just the number of students, it was the number of opportunities for people to learn what they wanted to learn. And the process was still in the baby stages, with most MOOCs still focusing (regardless of topic) on what it meant to be doing a MOOC.

Now, just when MOOCs were branching out into academic disciplines, they get corralled into this nasty, mass-produced, crowd-mongering model.

I could just spit.