Saturday, May 25, 2013

MOOCs and Authority

Logging onto my Twitter account has become a regular part of my morning wake-up routine in recent months.  I only joined Twitter in the fall, and on a whim.  Soon, it became clear to me that it was an excellent way to stay on top of conversations in a range of fields, but especially the polemic about the role of MOOCs in public education.  For anyone interested in the rapidly evolving conversations about higher education, Twitter is the place to go for breaking news (including links to the latest blog posts, articles, and white papers).  As a scholar who is accustomed to doing research by reading books and long-ago published articles and textual commentaries, it's a fascinating shift of habit.

In recent months, the media-generated MOOC mania has met strong and thoughtful resistance from many quarters (a few great places to start: Jonathan Rees' blog; Aaron Bady's essay "The MOOC Moment and the End of Reform"; and Tressie McMillan Cottom's talk on the narratology of MOOCs).  Every day there is some new contribution to the conversation (indeed, yesterday Noel Jackson could tweet that he'd been awake for three hours and not yet seen a new MOOC essay).   The debate has taken on a particular urgency as state legislators in California and Florida (with other states, like Texas, almost certainly soon to follow) look for ways to accredit MOOCs.  My own sense is that, if MOOCs remained purely in the realm of outreach and continuing education (the audience they are currently serving at the moment, as the demographics of users makes clear), nobody would be much concerned.  Indeed, Dr. Al Filreis at Penn has been open about his own view that his ModPo MOOC on the Coursera platform is intended as outreach and continuing education (see his comments to this effect on Bady's essay, linked above); and that he will fight to ensure that the course does not run without him.  Until more MOOC professors speak publicly, however, it remains unknown how many others share his more altruistic and ethical outlook.  I suspect it is far more likely that, even with MOOC professors protesting, the universities who funded the creation of the MOOCs will assert their rights and market these courses to public institutions.  These institutions will then make the MOOCs credit-bearing as a way of cheapening (literally and figuratively) their degrees.

Concern among those with an investment in high quality, campus-based teaching peaks when news breaks that San Jose State University has made a deal with HarvardX to acquire one of their courses and is now asking their faculty to teach that course on their campus.  That concern is even more well-founded when it is reported that at least some MOOC faculty feel no moral obligation about the distribution of their now commodified intellectual property.  This is certainly not the view of every MOOC instructor; but, given the absence of a concerted movement by MOOC professors to ensure that they retain the rights of distribution over their courses, deep concerns and vocal outcries that these packaged courses will be used to justify continued cuts and hiring freezes at public institutions is not unwarranted.  In fact, these cries for action are necessary.

In recent days, a group of Harvard faculty wrote an open letter to the dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences expressing their wish for more faculty oversight and involvement in the HarvardX initiative.  The results: "In a written statement to The Chronicle, a spokesman for the dean suggested that a new committee, consisting solely of FAS professors, was not in the cards." And this, folks, is why faculty across the country are increasingly resistant to MOOC mania.  It has become clear that the MOOC Incs as well as the boards of regents and administrators that support them are wary of any kind of faculty involvement in the enterprise.  This is a recipe for disaster, not least because it precludes the possibility that some aspects of MOOCs might actually have *some* benefits to offer to current campus-based instruction.

Cathy Davidson is launching an experiment via Coursera in Spring 2014, to see if a MOOC can facilitate genuine and useful peer-to-peer networking and learning.  My guess is that, however well-intentioned the effort is, the genre itself will undermine this effort.  As a recent Chronicle of Higher Education article highlights, what "hardcore" MOOC students love is the authority of the professor.  Like large enrollment lecture courses held in an auditorium, MOOC students fixate on the content deliverer: "Professors are the stars. When the students talked about the MOOCs they've taken, they usually mentioned the professor first. They sometimes couldn't remember the name of the university offering the course. 'It makes professors a kind of celebrity, and I think they deserve it,' says Ms. Nachesa. 'It's much better than having actors or other kinds be celebrities.'"

As this article reveals, students themselves--especially older students--are resistant to professors stepping off the stage.  They *want* an authoritative voice to tell them what the answers are; they don't trust their peers.  One of the more fascinating results from my own flipped class surveys: the aspect that the students found least helpful was peer-to-peer collaboration.  Most helpful?  Instructor lecture in class.  I don't happen to agree with their perceptions, but I think these surveys reveal some hard truths about student attitudes: they like authority, especially in larger classes.  They like the sage on the stage and they resist anything that is going to ask them to take on more responsibility (i.e. do more work--a connection that students themselves made explicit in post-course surveys in Fall 2012).

When I first experimented with the flipped class model in Fall 2012, I was sure that they students would love it.  After all, it was "student centered"; it was all about them instead of me. They could replay those lectures over and over, never missing a detail.  I was shocked when a small but significant enough number pushed back--hard--and demanded that I get my butt back on that stage and lecture to them.  They hated watching the pre-recorded lectures and often didn't do it until 48 hours before the test--by which point the view-a-thon became fairly pointless and did nothing to improve their grades over a traditional lecture-based cohort.  Little content was retained and they were utterly unable to form connections between different parts of the content.  Furthermore, they had no use for class time. We were practicing and applying the content from the videos and, because, they hadn't watched any of the videos, they were completely lost.

MOOC advocates have increasingly taken to appropriating the flipped class as part of their end game: record lectures and then have instructors use those to deliver content outside of class, practice content inside of class.  This is an incredibly naive view of the flipped class model and, I can say with some certainty, will absolutely not work with 18-25 year old college students--even at a highly ranked public institution like the University of Texas, Austin.  Indeed, as I've been repeating on Twitter, it is imperative that educators not reject the flipped class mode (or, more broadly, the techniques of blended learning) simply because the terms are now being appropriated by the likes of the Christensen Institute.  Rather, we need to be precise, and argue from evidence, about what a good flipped class looks like; and how/why it works.  As it happens, video-taped lectures are the least useful way to deliver content outside of class--totally unsurprising since in person lectures aren't so great either.

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