Monday, February 25, 2013

MOOCs and the Liberal Arts

In his recent Salon article, Andrew Leonard put in words something that has been nagging at me for months, namely, the fact that humanities disciplines are badly served by the higher ed MOOC hype.  It has been common to analogize the rise of the MOOC (and, more generally, the push to deliver more online courses as a way of lowering costs) to seemingly similar revolutions in the music and news industries.  As Leonard perceptively observes, however:

"it’s become clear to me that there is a crucial difference in how the Internet’s remaking of higher education is qualitatively different than what we’ve seen with recorded music and newspapers. There’s a political context to the transformation. Higher education is in crisis because costs are rising at the same time that public funding support is falling. That decline in public support is no accident. Conservatives don’t like big government and they don’t like taxes, and increasingly, they don’t even like the entire way that the humanities are taught in the United States."

I want to emphasize Leonard's key insight: the transformation in higher education that is being touted has a decidedly political context that has been missing from transformations of other industries.  Whereas changes in the music and newspaper business models were driven by economics, those in education are largely being driven by politics (for a similar argument on the economics that are driving the higher education revolution, see Predatory Privatization: Exploiting Economic "Woes" to Transform Higher Education).  As well, the education of a populace has long been considered a social good in a way that the supply and medium of music or news delivery is not.  Thus, when The New York Times declares 2012 "The Year of the MOOC" and proclaims the rapid proliferation of these "courses"--and, more to the point, the emergence of businesses like Coursera and EdX--a game-changer, we need to think long and hard about what this means (see also Audrey Watters' excellent overview).  This is not a value-neutral declaration; and the consequences for the landscape for higher education are potentially vast.

A lot has been written, and more is published each day, about the shortcomings of MOOCs to match the quality of a class delivered in a "bricks and mortar" classroom.  The dropout rates are massive (approaching 90% for most courses) and there's not a lot of quality control.  Some MOOCs are high quality while others seem to function more like teasers to attract applicants to the university or college that produced the course; to sell copies of the instructor's book(s); and to attract donations from alumni.  A great deal of a course's success depends on the instructor's ability to adapt the content and delivery of content for an enormous and international audience.  It also depends on the platform's suitability to the course's content.  The platforms were developed for math, computer science, and "hard" science courses and are reasonably good at supporting that content.  As well, the MOOC environment is particularly well-suited to the sort of course that has clearly correct and incorrect answers; and where much of the learning can (but probably should not) be reduced to memorizing and applying formulas.

A reasonably intelligent and self-motivated student can buy the textbook, follow the recorded explanations of concepts, and then apply those concepts to homework assignments.  Unclear concepts can be reasonably well-explained by peers, in part because it is reasonably clear when someone knows what s/he is talking about.  A peer might not walk a student through a difficult problem as smoothly or straightforwardly as an instructor, but I suspect that this process happens with success on a regular basis.  Reflecting on my own experiences with math, physics, and chemistry in college, I can also imagine that a peer sometimes has an easier time of identifying and clarifying misunderstandings because they, too, just worked through the exact same set of steps.  In part, though, the success of this process depends on the fact that it is also obvious when a peer is NOT able to be helpful (because they fail to arrive at the correct answer).  It also depends on the fact that solutions follow a predictable set of steps.

The process of learning in an introductory programming or math course is entirely different from that in an introductory writing or even psychology course.  It's not that math/science courses have objective answers while the social sciences and humanities are subjective.  It's that there are sometimes more than one correct answer; and the process of arriving at correct answers can vary from student to student.  In addition, students often struggle to distinguish between good and poor advice from their peers in humanities courses.  They are more prone to persuasive rhetoric because they are less familiar with the facts of an issue--indeed, if they already knew the facts, they wouldn't need to be taking the course.  The learning process differs in significant ways, yet the MOOC platforms and modes of delivery don't account for this at all.  If Blackboard tries to do too much, to be everything for every course, the Coursera and EdX platforms don't do enough (yet) to support the delivery of a humanities MOOC that is more than a kind of living textbook.

The most significant challenge for humanities instructors is the role of written "free response" to the learning process, whether in the form of single words; short answers; or longer essays.  Those of us who use peer review in our courses can only stand agape when the Coursera founders naively suggest it as the solution to grading written work (Andrew Ng discussed this during a lecture at UT Austin in March 2013, c. min. 16).  Certainly, peer review can work very well, but it requires an immense amount of structure and oversight in relatively homogenous student groups.  In much larger groups, it's simply not a good approximation of instructor feedback (Audrey Watters on the problems with the Coursera peer review model).  The point of peer review isn't about grades--preliminary studies indicate that peers do a reasonable job on this front.  It's about providing sustained and thoughtful critiques that encourage deeper thinker and learning on the part of the writer.  Sure, some learning happens in the process of writing; but most of it happens in the process of reading and responding to insightful comments.  Peer review can be part of this process; but in a decade of using it as part of writing assignments at all levels, I've never seen it come close to replacing the comments of the instructor (or even teaching assistant) in an undergraduate course--and even in a graduate seminar, it is a nice supplement to rather than replacement of the specialist instructor's comments.

The implications of the lack of fit between current MOOC platforms and humanities content are significant.  If MOOCs are here to stay, as seems to be the assumption, then humanities faculty need to take this problem seriously.  They need to recognize the political dimensions to the rise of the MOOC; and recognize the potential threat these pose to the survival of the humanities at so-called state-funded institutions.  They need to take seriously the challenge to develop functionalty that allows for the delivery of a serious and pedagogically sound humanities course to a large audience.  This does not necessarily require the use of the existing platforms.  Indeed, humanities faculty might well opt to develop their courses on a different platform, for instance, Instructure's Canvas LMS.  We can hope that an enterprising, humanities-focused company might come onto the scene with a platform that better serves our needs.

If we do not take this problem seriously, however, we run the risk of sending the message to the public at large that humanities topics are merely fun and light (the college student's "blow off course"); and don't involve complexity of thought, analysis, and real learning.  At the moment, MOOCs on humanities topics tends towards the sort of class that appeals to lifelong learners and those who want to do something fun but intellectual in their spare time.  This is not because these instructors are lightweights or because their "brick and mortar" classes aren't serious and demanding.  It's because the current functionality of the Coursera and EdX platforms is not sufficient for the kinds of things that support real learning in a humanities course.  The answer, I think, is not to lament this failing but rather, to work actively with Ed Tech experts to figure out how we might deliver a reasonable approximation of what we do in the classroom to a larger audience.

6/8/2013: Cara Reichard, MOOCs Face Challenges in Teaching Humanities ("Richard Saller, dean of the School of Humanities and Sciences, suggested that there are certain qualities of the humanities that are better suited to an intimate classroom setting than to a massive online format.  “The humanities have to deal with ambiguity [and] with multiple answers,” Saller said. “The humanities, I think, benefit hugely from the exchange of different points of view [and] different arguments.”)

6/12/2013: Posthegemony revisits this topic of MOOCs and the Humanities, way that they are not a good fit.