“What did we learn here and what’s it worth to you?” The end of World Music, part 2

I probably have only two or three more posts in me about MOOCs generally and World Music in particular. This is one that I’ve been working on off and on while the course was wrapping up.  I don’t know if it’s really done, but I decided to go ahead and post it because the World Music/Coursera people sent around a survey about the course.  Here’s the link to it; I’m not sure if just anyone can get to it or not.  Most telling to me was the last question:  “If Penn hosted a World Music Extension experience based on the priorities you selected, what rate (US $) would you be willing to pay to enroll?”  The answer space was a sliding scale going from $0 to $500.  This email also said “we are working on grades; and the certificate system, which comes from Coursera, is currently being revised, so information about certificates will probably come later next week.”  So wish me luck on that.

So, while I wait to find out if I’m “certifiable” from this class or not, I contemplate the basic “what did we learn here” questions of this experience.  What exactly was this?  What would I pay for this?  And is this the future of education?  I’m tempted to just point everyone to these last lines from the Coen Brother’s black comedy Burn After Reading and leave it at that:

But I will add more for now and I am hoping to write more about this and other MOOC-iness later.

The first thing I’m still wrestling with is just what exactly a MOOC is and what is it for.  I can tell you what it’s not: I don’t think this version of a MOOC is “educational” in the sense of having all three of these components:

  • Learning, or the opportunity for people to learn.
  • Teaching, which is the active involvement of a person(s) who is in some sense an expert in the subject and process.
  • Credentialing, which is some sort of evaluation process that others acknowledge and, explicitly or implicitly, has merit and value.

I blogged in more detail about what I mean by all this here back in April.  Some may think I’m setting the “educational” bar too high, but I’m trying to get away from the way the word is casually tossed around, especially in the press reports that have suggested that MOOCs are the next big thing.

Okay, learning:  yes, World Music was clearly a “learning opportunity,” but so what? Learning is really the easiest part of education because learning opportunities are everywhere; almost any content provides it. I learn a lot from watching cooking shows or DIY home improvement shows on TV, not to mention listening to NPR or browsing web sites or even reading those old world content management systems, books.  The World Music MOOC provided learning for learning’s sake/learning as “infotainment,” and it’s a resource for the motivated self-learner/student of life, which is fine. Creating content that people can learn from is easy and it scales well. So yes, there was learning– or at least the potential of learning.

How about teaching?  Not really.  All the lectures and graduate student discussions were recorded months ago and there was minimal interaction from Professor Muller and her grad assistants in the class.  Teaching, as opposed to content, requires some give and take exchange with an expert who has enough experience with that content to at a minimum guide the student interaction and make some judgement of student success.  This teacher/expert presumably is a human, though, as I was discussing with a colleague the other day, maybe a teacher could theoretically be a machine with enough artificial intelligence to anticipate and respond to questions from the student.  To the extent that students can teach each other (and I think that’s limited), Coursera didn’t work because the discussion forums were almost useless.

And just to head this off at the pass:  yes, it is possible for one to “teach one’s self” how to do something just from the content, but as I wrote about back in May playing off of some posts from Aaron Barlow, few of us are “true autodidacts,” self-motivated or self-disciplined enough to do this effectively.  Most people who begin something as “self-taught” eventually seek the help of some teacher or other expert.  Also, I think there’s a limit to what one can teach themselves:  learning something procedural like computer code or how to juggle (I taught myself to juggle when I was in middle school) probably lends itself to self-instruction more than learning about a more abstract concept, like “World Music,” or learning something procedural but with a high degree of difficulty and complexity, like surgery.

So to continue the cooking show analogy: sure, I can learn a lot about how to make Linguine Con le Vongole and Penne Puttanesca by watching Mario Batali on Malto Mario,  but that’s different from Mario actually teaching me to make this stuff– answering my questions about measurements, checking on my work, offering me pointers, etc.  And by the way, I think this is true with even this segment of the show, where Mario actually does something closer to teaching than happened in World Music in that he actually interacts with people who are there while he’s cooking, answering some questions and explaining some finer points of techniques.  But he’s teaching them, not me.

Again, content scales easily and teaching doesn’t, which is why education is still expensive.

And just to repeat again a reoccurring theme:  specifically with “World Music,” the production values of the video lecturers and graduate student talks in this class were piss-poor. This whole experience could have been dramatically improved if there was even a tiny bit more time and thought put into how the course should be presented. I think the usefulness of Khan Academy is highly over-rated, but at least this guy can give a presentation.  These videos and a few other really well-done instructional sites (like Instructables or Code Academy) can come pretty close to teaching, particularly when dealing with very procedural instruction.  But it still ain’t teaching, and Sal Khan has made it clear in a number of places that he sees his materials as a supplement for actual teaching and not a replacement for teaching.

I think MOOCs could provide something closer to what I mean by teaching if there was less “freeze-dried” lecture content and a lot more interaction between the professor and graduate assistants and students. I think this is possible because even though all the hype around MOOCs have focused on the large number of students who sign up for these courses, the real number to focus on is the number of students who are active in the class.  So in the case of World Music, we were never really talking about 30,000 students, but rather 3,000.  I suspect that ratio is pretty consistent across these different MOOCs.

Of course, even if the class were “only” 3,000 students, effective teaching would take more than one professor and one or two GAs. In other words, you still have the problem of scale, again bringing us back to the reason why universities have lecture classes in the hundreds and not thousands and why universities employ graduate assistants and other part-time labor to supplement (well, in many ways surpass, but that’s another story) the labor of faculty.

Credentialing?  Clearly not there yet.  The peer rating/review of short writing assignments failed for lots of reasons I’ve already covered and which I am hoping to write about in more detail later.  But if I were to sum it up in a long sentence:  because there was no instructor involvement, because there was no reason for students to take the process seriously, and because the peer rating instrument itself was so poor, the results of the process were meaningless. If the Coursera people came to me asking for advice on what to do about this, I’d tell them to abandon the short writing assignments entirely and to focus instead on measuring student writing and involvement in the class with the discussion forums.  To me, that’s a much better level of judging engagement with the material and it would be a lot easier for peers to rate.  As it was, there was no accountability in those forums, and as a result, the discussion was scattered, meaning that to the extent that there was any assessment process for the class, it was all based on this heavily flawed peer rating of short writing assignments, the quizzes that popped up immediately after videos, and a final that repeated many of those quiz questions.

This missing credentialing piece is critical. Unless you believe that there have been tens of millions of dollars invested in Coursera et al for quasi-charitable reasons, the goal of these corporate MOOCs is to have them be worth something to consumers (both students and other stakeholders, notably employers), to have them “count” in the real world.

My guess is that Coursera is working on two angles to get over the credentialing problem. The long-term/long-con business plan is to convince the world that corporate MOOCs are in and of themselves valuable, thus bypassing entirely the whole college degree process.  Who needs a bachelors degree–especially in jobs where a college degree might not be needed at all (e.g., sales) or fields where people already succeed without degrees (e.g., computer coding, especially for various web/mobile apps) –when you can take a curriculum of sorts through these different platforms, and/or when you can demonstrate what it is you have learned/know via various MOOC certificates?

Given that a college degree has been the ticket to the white-collar class in the U.S. and beyond for quite some time and with higher education, we’re talking about international institutions that have been around for hundreds of years, I think this is a very long con indeed.  So the more realistic and shorter-term goal seems to be to get these classes to count as transfer credit in some fashion– general education, for example. As CHE reported, Colorado State is going to accept a Udacity Intro to Computer Science course on building a search engine as credit after the faculty reviewed it, and according to this CHE piece, edX is planning on offering proctored exams for some of their MOOCs; the exams will cost $89.  This could be a good deal for students if it worked, much like the CLEP test.  (By the way, one of my other MOOC-oriented posts is going to be on that Intro to Computer Science course, but I need to monkey around with that one a little more first).

But there are at least three catches.

First, getting these classes to count as real college credit depends on the educational system that MOOCs are supposedly trying to disrupt.  This strikes me as awkward:  “We think we can provide a better education to students than traditional universities, so we want traditional universities to let students take our courses and then have you count them for credit at your university for a degree.” Rrrright.  Second, as every transfer student knows, the portability of credits from one institution to another varies wildly.  It’s all fine and good that Colorado State is contemplating taking that Udacity Intro to Computer Science course, but if there are only a handful of institutions that follow suit, that doesn’t do much good.

Third, I’m afraid that ultimately the real impact of corporate MOOCs on higher education– if they are even modestly successful at granting actual college credit for their courses at some universities– is that both the explicit and implicit distance in the value of degrees from different types of universities will only widen the already existing gap.  As it is, there is a bias against online versus “real” classroom experiences, which is what is so maddening about Coursera and the elite institutions “discovering” online teaching in the first place, as if this hasn’t been going on at places like EMU for years.  If we add MOOCs into the mix, I think that simply expands the already existing gap between elite and non-elite universities.

In fact, just to be overly cynical for a moment, this is perhaps the main reason why elite institutions have gotten into the corporate MOOC business in the first place.  It’s a good PR and “branding” move for them to offer up some content for free, recognizing that content in and of itself– especially without teaching and credentialing– isn’t worth anything to their bottom line.  At the same time, if corporate MOOCs take off, then that only rarifies all that much more the elite sort of instruction at the top of the heap, making the rich even richer.  Seems like a win-win for the likes of Stanford, UPenn, and U of M.

But I digress.

Even if I can’t exactly come up with an answer to the “what exactly was this” question (other than to say that it is not “educational” per se), I can come up with an answer to the “how much would you pay for this” question:  $0.  Judging from what I’ve seen in the discussion on the Facebook group for the class, I’d say that my answer is in the general price range of my fellow students (though one went as high as $25).  In fact, now that I think of it, I’d say that Coursera has more or less the same problem as Facebook: I know lots of people who are wildly enthusiastic and near obsessive users of Facebook, but I don’t know anyone who would actually pay for it.  Content (aka learning) in and of itself has very little value on the internet.

That said, if there was a test or certification that you could use to get general education credit transferable to a community college or a university as part of some other more traditional degree program, that’d probably be worth something.  I don’t know if that’s a multimillion dollar business or not, but I am awfully confident that it is not “the future of higher education:”  that is, maybe these kinds of MOOC, CLEP-like tests/classes will be a part of the system, but I find it extremely unlikely that they will replace the system.

And if MOOCs do replace higher education as we know it, well, then I want out– or rather, I suspect the administration will be kicking me out.

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