Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Why MOOCs are Not the Answer

By Dennis Loo (with assistance from Ralph Westfall)

Former hedge fund manager Adam Kessler has a June 2013 opinion piece at the Wall Street Journal entitled “Professors Are About to Get an Online Education.” The article begins:

Anyone who cares about America’s shortage of computer-science experts should cheer the recent news out of Georgia Tech. The Atlanta university is making major waves in business and higher education with its May 14 announcement that the college will offer the first online master’s degree in computer science—and that the degree can be had for a quarter of the cost of a typical on-campus degree. Many other universities are experimenting with [massive] open online courses, or MOOCs, but Georgia Tech’s move raises the bar significantly by offering full credit in a graduate program.

He goes on to tout how inexpensive this MOOC to degree is and laments that this “boon for students” is provoking controversy:

Sadly, MOOCs are not without controversy. Consider what happened at San Jose State after the university last fall ran a test course in electrical engineering paid for by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Students who worked with online content passed at a higher rate than classroom-only students, 91% to 60%. The course was so successful that the school’s president decided to expand online courses, including humanities, which will also be rolled out to other California State universities.

You’d think professors would welcome these positive changes for students. Some teachers across the country are, however cautiously, embracing the MOOC model. But plenty of professors smell a threat to their livelihood. In an April 29 open letter to the university, San Jose State philosophy professors wrote: “Let’s not kid ourselves; administrators at the CSU are beginning a process of replacing faculty with cheap online education.”

Kessler fails to note that this SJSU class on electrical engineering that had such impressive pass rates was in fact a hybrid course, not an exclusive online offering. There were actually two face-to-face courses, with one supplemented by online materials and extra in class activities: “a hybrid electrical engineering course where students used MOOC tutorials at home and participated in interactive problem-solving activities in class (emphasis added).” The details do not warrant any implication that totally online courses are better … or less expensive. Kessler’s article also conveniently hides the issue of the low completion rates of totally online courses.

After bemoaning professors who think that their jobs are in jeopardy (silly professors!), Kessler neglects to mention that professors’ reservations about the move to MOOCs is not mainly about possible job losses: professors who are deeply committed to teaching and learning are distressed that all of the mania for MOOCs conveniently overlooks a basic truth about learning. Learning is a mentor-mentee relationship that will not produce the same results if turned into what the MOOC maniacs wish for – converting the teaching profession into a few “superstar” teachers on DVDs with thousands of students watching their canned lectures, “assisted” by people who are not qualified to act as teaching assistants and not even presented as doing anything other than holding students’ hands.

What profession can be effectively taught in this manner? This form of teaching and learning resembles how well McDonald’s trains people to become chefs. The very idea that McDonald’s model for food prep and delivery could be used to teach people how to become a cook is absurd. Why then should anyone expect that McDonaldizing education will produce students who are educated?

Giving out certificates of completion and conveying information can be done the way McDonald's does it, but information and thinking - learning how to learn and learning how to figure out the answer to novel problems - are not the same thing. MOOC acolytes treat the conveying of information and thinking/learning as if the two were the same.

The basic difference between information and thinking/learning is that the latter involve higher order thinking skills. You do not learn higher order thinking skills just by being exposed to a lot of information. Information presented compellingly is enjoyable, but it is not the same as getting a higher education.

Students are not en masse demanding online courses. Nor in general are the people advocating MOOCs and online classes as a panacea teachers. The people who are pushing MOOCs as a panacea - note the difference here between seeing online courses and hybrid courses as a sometimes useful adjunct and seeing it as a panacea - are largely people in administrative posts or people in the business world. People who have become wealthy through selling people things and who are motivated by money might be forgiven for not being able to understand the motivation of those who take up professions principally for the non-material rewards of those occupations.

Those who take up teaching as their profession do not do it because they expect to get rich from teaching. If you did then you were misled and you find this fact out quickly. The vast majority of teachers teach because they love helping others’ minds being opened to the wide world of learning. The vast majority of us who teach do it because we care a great deal about others, not because we are into money for its own sake and care only about ourselves. This is why MOOC acolytes do not ever delve into non-material motives of teachers and always talk about teachers as only being worried about money and job security because they themselves have a hard time understanding why anyone would do anything that did not benefit them personally with money and prestige.

Students in their majority, if given a choice, opt for the traditional face-to-face classroom. Why? Because they know from their own experience that this is a much richer and productive experience. As we point out in “Cooking the Goose That Lays the Golden Eggs: California’s Higher Education System in Peril”:

In its essence, education has not changed fundamentally since the time of Socrates. It is a process of human, mostly face-to-face, interactions involving exploration, investigation, debate, and trying on and learning through trial and error. Education is not something to be simply bought like any other purchase. Education is something to work for, struggle for, and earn by hard effort. A meaningful diploma cannot simply be bought. It is not something that you can just be handed like a mass-produced hamburger and fries. You can no more become educated by your paying someone to stamp you as “educated” than you can become an accomplished musician, athlete or writer by having someone give you those abilities and achievements - without your having to work extremely hard for them to become part of who you are.

What is at stake is more than education, however, as important as education is. What is at stake is the kind of society in which we want to live. Education’s impact is deep and wide: the kind of broadening that people receive through the educational system – and more generally through media, art and culture, child-rearing, governmental statements and actions, and so on – bears directly and substantially upon the way that young (and not so young) people learn to think, gather, evaluate information, recognize disinformation, and make choices about political, economic and social issues.

Life does not come with an answer key. The correct and best answers to all questions are not always definitively known in life at any given point before the fact, and incomplete and indirect information is the norm rather than the exception. Primarily due to the influence of the privateers, the educational system is increasingly becoming one in which the main emphasis is memorization and giving back to the teacher what the teacher has dispensed as the answers in order to pass the tests. Students are not being properly and adequately taught how to analyze, weigh information, think holistically, decide between competing claims, and make wise choices based on frequently incomplete information. This grows all the more significant when there is a growing storm of false or misleading information emanating from people and organizations trying to seduce people into buying their wares, whether those wares are commodities or ideas. Should this trend persist it will mean that our society will become increasingly intellectually impoverished, because its citizenry has become vulnerable to being manipulated by hucksters, opportunists, and those who have more ready access to mass media by virtue of their owning media, possessing a lot of money, and/or having friends in high places.

Kessler claims that he has nothing against teachers and that thinking that online education as a panacea is a threat to teaching is silly, but then he goes on to cite his comments in Chicago before a group of K-12 educators:

I began by pointing out that in 2011 only 7.9% of 11th graders in Chicago public schools tested “college ready.” That’s failure, and it’s worse when you realize how much money is wasted on these abysmal results. Chicago’s 23,290 teachers—who make an average salary of $74,839, triple U.S. per capita income and 50% more than median U.S. household income—cost Chicago taxpayers $1.75 billion out of the city’s $5.11 billion budget.

Why not forget the teachers and issue all 404,151 students an iPad or Android tablet? At a cost of $161 million, that’s less than 10% of the expense of paying teachers’ salaries. Add online software, tutors and a $2,000 graduation bonus, and you still don’t come close to the cost of teachers. You can’t possibly do worse than a 7.9% college readiness level.

When I made this proposal, only slightly facetiously, in a roomful of self-described education entrepreneurs, it was if I’d said that Dewey had plagiarized his decimal system. I was upbraided for not understanding the plight of teachers. The plight of students, as is too often the case in discussions of education, didn’t seem to rate the same concern. (Boldfacing added).

Mr. Kessler wants to have his cake and eat it too. He does not even seem to notice that he contradicts himself in his relatively short article.  He says, on the one hand, that he isn’t against teachers, but then he “only slightly facetiously” proposes to replace all teachers with iPads and Androids.

This is similar to a “joking” slide in a major slide show presented by Richard Katz advocating online education for the CSU system. Katz is a private consultant brought in by former Chancellor Charles Reed to advocate for CSU Online. In this show as his very first slide, Katz shows a picture by his toddler son of a cyborg that the son proudly presents: “I have designed the teacher of the future. Instead of using people I have chosen cyborgs because they don’t need to be paid.” (When I figure out how to post this slide here I will do so.)

Besides being unintentionally revealing of Richard Katz’s real attitude towards faculty – colleges and universities would be great if we could just get rid of all of the faculty – I have to wonder about his son. He looks too young to have a real teacher and what is a small toddler doing thinking about the question of paying someone to be a teacher? How did he get the attitude of a ruthless moneygrubber at such a young age? At this stage in life most toddlers, if asked how much their caregivers should get to spend time with them, would open up their arms as wide as they could and say, “This much!” When will Katz’s son decide that he could improve on his real life father with a cyborg?

Kessler says that the Chicago educators who he proposed to get rid of brought up the plight of teachers. I suspect that this is not the only thing that they said and that anything else beyond this he could not understand and has a blind spot to. As a teacher myself I would have said that what Kessler does not understand and has no experience with – being a hedge fund manager is very different from being an educator - is that learning is not a widget that you can just hand someone like a product coming off an assembly line.

Teaching and learning have from the beginning and will always remain an interactive human relationship. It does not always have to be face to face, but it does need to be interactive between humans.

The vast majority of students consistently express a preference for face-to-face classes if they can get it. Why is that if online is supposedly, according to people like Kessler, cheaper and better? Online classes and hybrid classes have a place as part of a panoply of offerings, but the narrow cost-benefit analysis of those pushing online education as a panacea is not based on a) understanding what education is and b) hides their real agenda which is to turn education into a profit-making center for private companies in which students will be saddled with more debt and receive an impoverished version of a real education. We explore these questions at greater length in “Cooking the Goose That Lays the Golden Eggs: California’s Higher Education System in Peril.”

No comments: