Semi-Finished Thoughts about MOOCs

First they mock you while you clean their house, then they write columns about how much better they are, then you take their job. — The Robot Ghandi

0. I thought MOOCs were a gimmick when I first heard of them, but then I read many anti-MOOC articles and now I think MOOCs are great.

No, that’s not a typo. When I read my inchoate critical arguments about MOOCs spelled out, I saw how weak they are. Now, I that the critics miss the point and the boosters are correct.

1. I learned to cook from a MOOC. Not strictly true. (1) I could already cook pretty well before and (2) it was a MOOC, but an online course from rouxbe which is not open: you pay for it [1]. The money is well-worth it

Interesting how much we spend on classes of a certain type: cooking classes, yoga classes, spin classes, basket weaving classes, musical instrument classes, but we see these as separate from serious learning [2]. We could say that serious learning is what people don’t like doing, but it seems that MOOCs are transforming higher education into yoga classes.

2. MOOCs are are cute and have value, but major weaknesses. Currently, many MOOCs are an amateur affair done by professors who are making it up as they go along.

Windows 2.

However, too many are making the mistake of confusing weaknesses of the MOOC model with weak potential for online education. Rouxbe, for example, has professionally edited videos, with a professional voice actor. You can see that each 5 minute segment took hours of work.

Add automated grading and student following by machine, and the resulting system may be hard to beat by anything but a dedicated human tutor. [3] And feel free to add a few low-earning TAs to the mix.

3. MOOCs (and online education more generally) may be calling the bluff on many myths of education.

Bryan Caplan has been pointing out for years that, if you live in a big city, you can probably just walk into any university course you want and the instructor probably won’t mind even if you’re not a student. You don’t have to accept his conclusion that education is mostly about signalling (rather than learning) to see that MOOCs call the bluff on lack of access arguments.

Professors are getting their bluff called too. They risk getting demoted from guardians of knowledge and designers of curricula to coaches or nags. This very interesting Atlantic piece (not about MOOCs) has the following quote students don’t do optional (another way to phrase it isstudents do not study to learn). Professors risk becoming the voice of the machine: when the automated tutor notes that a student starts lagging, it sends the human because humans can exert a different kind of psychological pressure when the automated nags start to lose power. And if your job is to be the human, then that’s not really a very hard-to-find skill, is it? Or, to put it another way, you can’t really expect a very large salary. [4]

File:Barry university.jpg

The idea that education/certification needs to come with a gym membership and neatly manicured campuses (the typical American college experience) is also getting its bluff called. Many forms of student consumption get subsidized by parents and state if they came bundled with a degree, but now it will be increasingly easy to just get the education if online tuition is less than half of what it costs to get the Deluxe package. This is especially true at non-first tier colleges. Some may be able to reinvent themselves, others will not.

(There are a lot of people who are inclined to argue this point by stating the rise in tuition is explained by the rise in administration, not professors/TAs. This is, at best, a change of subject; at worst, it points out how much harder traditional universities have to work to survive. Cutting on administration will not be easy and many of these extra costs will fight back [what, are you shutting down the gym in an obesity crisis? firing the the campus diversity task force only shows how bigoted Big State U still is…] Big organizations rarely slim down peacefully)

This ties in to the fourth point:

4. Over the next few decades, online education will probably make educational results more meritocratic and more unequal (after a few decades, I don’t know, nor do you).

Having the ability to profit from these new opportunities will be increasingly valuable. Call it motivation, conscientiousness, bourgeois values, its value is going up. Average is Over

[1] Open is the word-du-jour, but people throw it about to mean things like free as in beer, free as in speech or just the fact that you do not need to enroll in a university to attend an open course.
[2] I think basic cooking skills should be taught in high-school, but that is a topic for another day.
[3] The comeback about “inspiring teachers” just proves the point: this is a teacher-like-coach not teacher-as-knowledge-source. Couldn’t a good actor “inspire” more?
[4] Expect however star power to grow. Well-known professors will be able to lend their name to projects and charge for that while the grunt work is done by anonymous TAs. Professors as brand spokesmen? Celebrities will often make more money from endorsement deals than from their day job, so why not professors?
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