Content and Delivery aren’t the same thing as Teaching and Education (or a few misc. thoughts on recent MOOC readings)

No point in pretending that I was super-duper productive during the first official week of the sabbatical, but I did do some stuff/some reading, which I’m writing about/noting here in this post. I have noticed one thing though: I kind of feel like I’m starting to read the same thing over and over again, which (as I often tell my students) is for me a sign that I am caught up enough on what I’m reading to keep coming across stuff where my reaction is “I already know that,” then it’s time for me to start writing my own contributions.

Anyway, a lot (most?) of this post are some notes on things I’ve been doing lately on this project. I don’t know if readers other than me will find this interesting.


I particularly felt this “I’ve heard this already” in reading/skimming the first part of Michael Nanfito’s MOOCs: Opportunities, Impacts, and Challenges. Granted, it was published in 2013 and it has the feel of a very very rushed job. But besides covering territory that I found/heard about a long time ago, Nanfito et al take what I see as taking the non-critical approach I’ve seen in lots of similar books, and I also think he’s collapsing “content” and “delivery” as being the same as “teaching” and “education.” This isn’t that surprising because– and again, seen this lots of times before– he’s very clearly approaching MOOCs from the point of view of an administrator and/or educational entrepreneur. The more I read about MOOCs the more I think about this in terms of my own project: besides being kind of about MOOCs “2.0” (that is, I’m hoping to move beyond the first wave of scholarship that has mostly been about “let me tell you about these things called MOOCs) and also that is a bit more micro than what I’ve read. I’m focusing more on the student experience and the teaching experience, though I’m also still planning on “bookending” that discussion with the context of history, both what came before and predictions of the future.

Anyway, this is kind of a theme of sorts in some of what I’ve read and I’ve been thinking about. For example, there was this in Inside Higher Ed, “Online, Size Doesn’t Matter,” which is about this study “The Effects of Class Size in Online College
Courses: Experimental Evidence,” by Eric Bettinger, Christopher Doss, Susanna Loeb and
Eric Taylor (PDF). Granted, I read this study quickly and there’s a lot of math (it’s really about the economics of all this), but there are many flavors of “bogus” in this. The IHE headline is wrong because these folks were studying smallish online classes and making the argument that increasing a 15 to 40 person course by 10% or so doesn’t make that much of a difference. The source of their study was the giant for-profit DeVry University, and they present all this as if there is not a lick of difference between this place and any other place calling itself a “university.” An amazing amount of the research here about online courses is like a decade old The metric they measure here to demonstrate that the size doesn’t matter is (basically, if I’m understanding this right), is grades. That’s a stupid metric. If I’m teaching a course that has 10% more students in it than another section– say a section that has 15 students rather than 25 students– the grade distribution isn’t going to change much. This doesn’t say much of anything about the amount of time spent on reading and commenting on writing, on meeting and interacting with students, etc. I believe these researchers have confused reliability and validity: that is, they’ve taken a reliable measure (grades) and assumed they are valid. I suspect the results here would be the same if the researchers studied the shoe sizes of students. But again, none of this isn’t about teaching or students.

Then there’s this interview with Coursera’s Daphne Koller:

This interview was conducted by folks at Knowledge@Wharton, which is part of that business school’s online journal. That link goes to the Koller interview, which includes a transcript. This is useful and interesting in a few different ways. First off, this is quite a bit different from the rather idealistic TED talk she gave a few years ago about educating the poor clamoring for admission to university in South Africa. Second, she talks here more about Coursera’s current business model, which is about the Verified Certificates program and continued support from venture capital investors, who (according to her) are still not asking Coursera to make any money off of this. She said: “We mainly feel pressure to bring in revenue because we want to bring revenue back to our university partners so that they can sustain their course development. Otherwise, it’s potentially a drain on resources for them. We’ve started to bring in revenue early primarily to allow university partners to increase their content offerings.” All of this are things I will need to return back to when I’m getting ready for the CCCCs.

But the other things that I thought were interesting were Koller implying a movement of Coursera as really a content provider. She talked about moving courses to an “on demand” model and she also talked about a future where there would be 5,000 Coursera courses in three years. Koller said that that 5,000 number “is about the curriculum of your average medium to large university,” but I think it’s pretty obvious that a lot of courses isn’t the same thing as a curriculum.

Regardless, the goal here still seems to be lots of content and delivery of content. Which again is what I find baffling. Content is obviously not the same thing as “teaching” and “education.” We’ve had relatively easily distributed content for a long long time. They’re called books. 

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