This Will Get Ugly

Jonathan Chait has dashed off a piece in New York Magazine that’s a perfect example of how uninterested most MOOC boosters are in actually improving the quality of higher education. His post is a response to an article by Jonathan Rees (two Jonathans will enter, but only one will survive!) in Slate about how MOOCs are a bad deal for both students and professors. Predictably, Chait mostly focuses on the part where Rees bemoans what MOOCs threaten to do to the the employment prospects of faculty members. Most people are unsympathetic to the idea that we should preserve the current structure of higher education to keep a bunch of eggheads in their houses. Hell, I’m not even very sympathetic to that argument, and I have a vested economic interest in supporting it!

But Chait basically ignores everything Rees writes about why MOOCs will be a disaster if what one cares about is ensuring that people actually learn useful skills in college courses. Rees writes:

How do you teach tens of thousands of people anything at once? You don’t. What you can do over the Internet this way is deliver information, but that’s not education. Education, as any real teacher will tell you, involves more than just transmitting facts. It means teaching students what to do with those facts, as well as the skills they need to go out and learn new information themselves…

What makes this possible is that MOOCs, at least from an educational standpoint, are designed to run themselves. The lectures are pre-recorded. The grading is done either by computer or by other students in the class, should they choose to do the assignments at all. The average drop-out rates for existing MOOCs is about 90 percent, so while Coursera may offer access to higher education anywhere in the world where potential students can get the Internet, it offers no guarantee that anybody will actually learn anything…

While MOOCs may serve a purpose as nerdy edu-tainment for people who are so inclined, a workforce trained without close contact with professors of any kind might as well not attend college at all. Going to the library and reading a bunch of books would be equally effective, and probably a whole lot cheaper.

To which Chait responds:

But, uh – are we sure the only way to teach people what to do with facts is face-to-face? This seems like something that could at least conceivably be taught to more than one person at once. I can remember lots of professors teaching me what to do with facts via lectures in extremely large auditoriums, which is not that different than a lecture you watch online. Nobody claims that the technical barrier has been solved, but it’s amazing that Rees is already declaring it unsolvable…

The goal of the system ought to be making higher education effective and affordable for students. Rees waxes poetic about the joys of in-person liberal education, and I greatly enjoyed my classic college experience, with the gorgeous campus green and intramural basketball and watching campus protestors say interestingly crazy stuff at rallies. But insisting that’s the only way a student ought to be able to get a degree, in an economy where a college degree is necessary for a middle-class life, is to doom the children of non-affluent families to crushing college debt, or to lock them out of upward mobility altogether.

Chait’s equation of MOOCs, which are supposed to replace entire courses, with lectures is instructive; it reveals something that few of the MOOC boosters like to discuss: lectures and the information they transmit are only one small component of any college class worth its salt. The careful, personal evaluation by trained professionals of the material produced by students is why college is useful as anything more than a simple credentialing process. Even Rees referring to this as “grading” misses the point. The development of rhetorical, quantitative, and creative skills requires that someone who knows what s/he’s talking about explains to the student not just that they have done something incorrectly, but how and why they have done so, and how they can fix this going forward. Doing this well takes a lot of time per pupil, and this is why small class sizes are essential is some disciplines (any course that has a significant writing component, higher math, advanced science courses, art). Why do you think people send their kids to small, insanely expensive liberal arts colleges?

But the quality of the education received by students doesn’t really matter to Chait and other MOOC maniacs. He never defines “effective” because it’s only important that people get credentialed. Whether they can write or reason their way out of a paper bag is immaterial, so long as they have a BA. If Chait (and President Obama, for that matter) actually cared about improving the quality of higher education, they would understand that the solution to colleges offering too many large impersonal lectures for credit is not to make courses even larger and more impersonal. Information has never been more accessible than it is today. This is great, and everyone should take advantage of the internet to become more informed people. But information does not an education make. If we want education to have any real value we must invest in it, not in techno-fads masquerading as education.


3 thoughts on “This Will Get Ugly

  1. Great post. You know, this conversation about “effective” education is at the crux of so many debates in higher ed right now. I think the Fox News interview with Reza Aslan (the one that has now gone viral– sums up the disconnect. The interviewer is maddening in her inability to see her own bigotry or the irony of a Fox News representative making this kind of religious argument, and Aslan’s responses are gratifying because he so sharply defends the value of essentially academia. But as I watch the video, I can’t help but cringe when Aslan slows down as though he is explaining himself to a four-year-old. I worry that he comes across as an elite academic snob, and that no matter how gratifying that tone may be to listen to, at the end of the day the Fox viewership does not view his form of knowledge as valuable, and would likely not think his classes “effective.” The debate over what makes an education “effective” goes beyond the issue of credentialing. It has to do with the kind of knowledge that is valued in our culture. And I worry that in our culture, subtle, precise, and careful knowledge loses to noise and empty rhetoric–and that people not only prefer the latter because it is easier to achieve, they fail to value the difference.

    • That whole interview made me queasy. It’s interesting to see this as another form vs. content discussion. Aslan’s classes likely have very little to do with his latest book, especially since he teaches in the Creative Writing program at UCR. In that capacity, he is there to teach students how to write whatever it is they write better than they did before. The content of his research is largely irrelevant to his work as a teacher, but most people watching this interview wouldn’t get that. And Aslan adds to the confusion by talking about himself as a scholar of religions. He is that, but that isn’t all he does, and it’s certainly not the most important thing he does in relation to undergraduate education.

      Aslan’s case is complicated, but it really isn’t that different for academics whose writing and teaching are more traditionally aligned. While what folks research obviously influences how they teach (what they emphasize in texts, and such), the content of a course is a lot less relevant than the form when it comes to determining whether or not a course is “effective.” This isn’t to say that content doesn’t matter at all, but it matters a lot less than people (both professors and their critics) tend to emphasize. And this is where I come back to the professoriate doing a pretty bad job of explaining how their classes will help students become better workers and people in the future. An English course could have the coolest (or most politically correct, or most difficult, etc.) texts and integrate new technologies in amazing ways, but if it fails to have enough difficult writing assignments that the professor carefully and meaningfully critiques, it really isn’t that “effective.”

      Sadly, both FOX News types and many professors are totally hung up on content when what is actually being threatened by MOOCs and defunding is formal rigor. When I was an undergrad I had no idea what most of my professors researched, but I knew if they were good or bad teachers based on how much they challenged me to improve as a writer and thinker. This is what ultimately matters, in my estimation.

  2. Pingback: Et tu, Obama? | The General Reader

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