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Let them eat MOOC

May 16, 2012

In this morning’s New York Times, Thomas L. Friedman echoes his fellow columnist David Brooks’s recent zeal for massive open online courses or MOOCs. He profiles Andrew Ng, associate professor of computer science at Stanford, who “last semester . . . taught 100,000 in an online course on machine learning.”

He taught that many students? What does Friedman think real teachers actually do?

Like many others, Friedman says the current generation of students, having grown up with online media, “is increasingly comfortable learning and interacting with professors through online platforms.”

Interacting? Maybe. But that’s not the same as discussing and debating, which can’t be done with 100,000 students.

Professor Ng is the co-founder of Coursera, which Friedman says will “revolutionize” higher education. Similar ventures getting lots of recent attention include Khan Academy and Udacity.

I have nothing against making online lectures widely available. And the boosters may be right that MOOCs facilitate a “connectivist” approach to learning, with online discussion boards, student-generated content, and peer networks becoming more important than the lectures themselves. Friedman writes, “While the lectures are in English, students have been forming study groups in their own countries to help one another.” That sounds fine.

But it’s disgusting to present MOOCs as a solution to the crisis in public funding for higher education. According to Friedman, “These top-quality learning platforms could enable budget-strained community colleges in America to ‘flip’ their classrooms. That is, download the world’s best lecturers on any subject and let their own professors concentrate on working face-to-face with students.”

Rather than educating readers about what publicly funded education actually provides, Friedman lets them off the hook: No need to raise taxes for higher education, even though taxes are at historic lows, we’ve got Coursera! And no need to help fund local universities in poor countries, the students there can just listen to our professors online!

On top of that, Friedman consigns community college professors to becoming teaching assistants for “the world’s best lecturers on any subject.” Class flipping makes a certain amount of sense. But anyone who has heard a great lecture knows that it’s not just about the speaker’s knowledge or delivery. It’s about the connection with the audience, which easily evaporates when the audience is distributed around the globe, and when listeners can’t ask questions or make comments in person.

Sure, it’s nice to have posters of great paintings and recordings of great concerts, but who thinks those provide an adequate substitute for art museums and live music?

7 Comments leave one →
  1. Bob Friedman permalink
    May 16, 2012 1:14 PM

    I read Thomas Friedman’s op-ed this morning and was hoping to soon see a Brown blog on the subject. I am glad that my hopes were not disappointed. Like usual, I mostly agree with Mark but I would like to add a few other observations.

    One such observation is that I doubt that Sacramento State has a course on machine learning or will have such a course in the near future. It is not economically feasible for every university to have a course in every specialty. In addition, if a student wants to take a course in machine learning, he or she should not have to select the college of attendance just on this very narrow criterion.

    My general point is that online learning may have its greatest utility for highly specialized courses which cannot reasonably be replicated at every university. There is a huge difference between a machine-learning online course and a similar course in introductory American history.

    I also think that universities have been far too unconcerned with the cost of education for students. Granted, we are all in an uproar when it comes to the exorbitant pay given to university presidents and other highly placed administrative bigwigs. However, we need to be more concerned about the increasing cost of college and try our best to achieve efficiencies whenever possible. While declining state support for higher education is a huge problem, the increase in the cost of college education has occurred in institutions both public and private.

    I would like to provide three hyperlinks that describe the problem that I am referring to.

  2. Ben Hoyt permalink
    May 16, 2012 1:30 PM

    Doesn’t the idea of deferring lectures to the world’s best professors completely undermine the legitimate academic authority that one’s actual professor is alleged to have? If this is the only glory your teacher can cover his or herself in, that of an academic foot-person for a more learned professor, I, for one, would have serious doubts about how high the average student would rate this T.A.’s credibility to instruct. In the era of “online platforms” I’ve noticed that some students already regard their professor’s knowledge on certain topics as dubious or superfluous. If you’ve pondered a topic on your own time, invented, or fallen into, a plausible ideology and found confirmation for your views in the vastness of cyberspace, whatever theories or facts a teacher might assail you with, your views are more or less cemented. Add to this confluence of circumstances, the fact that the professor no longer has the casus belli in classroom of being the sole, or even the most qualified, lecturer and I think what lies beyond would appeal to Bakunin and Kropotkin.

  3. John Meyer permalink
    May 16, 2012 2:24 PM

    Let’s try a modest revision to Friedman’s assertion and see if it would justify cutting funding for higher ed: According to Friedman, “These top-quality learning platforms could enable budget-strained community colleges in America to ‘flip’ their classrooms. That is, assign books and articles by the world’s best scholars on any subject and let the professors concentrate on working face-to-face with students.”

    It seems to me this is what college has always been about. Simply providing or assigning “content” (hate the word, but I hope my intent is clear) has never been the equivalent to a college education. Online lectures seem much more equivalent to the role of a book in a course than the role of an instructor.

    Sure, some people have the motivation and ability to teach themselves by just reading the books. But for most, the classroom environment and the professor are crucial to learning .

  4. Bob Friedman permalink
    May 16, 2012 5:19 PM

    The big issue of online education is not whether it is a good or bad development. Instead, the important concern should be what does online education replace or supplement.

    There is no question in my mind that online education is far superior to the large lecture hall. I wonder how many defenders of the traditional higher educational system envision the large lecture hall when they talk about the superiority of the current system.

    I also believe that online education supplements in a most valuable fashion the traditional curriculum by providing highly specialized courses that otherwise would not be taught. The fact that 100,000 students would be interested in a course on machine learning is an impressive statistic. Personally, I am glad that students have the opportunity to take such a course which, if not for online education, would be unavailable.

    In terms of students getting unfiltered information from the web (as brought up in a previous post), I would far prefer that students receive their content from Stanford University than from Rush Limbaugh. Yes, students bringing in bad information is a problem but it is certainly not a problem created by Stanford University or by MIT.

    To condemn online education (and I want to make very clear that Mark Brown has not done this) is to try to stem the tide of the future, a project doomed to failure. I will go back to how I began this post, Our concern should consist in deciding when online education is an improvement and when it is used simply to cut costs and, in doing so, undermines the best aspects of traditional university pedagogy.

    • May 17, 2012 9:19 AM

      Yes, thanks, I agree, Bob, that we need to focus on “deciding when online education is an improvement and when it is used simply to cut costs” — especially since, from what I understand, quality online courses often don’t actually save money.

      And nice point, John, online lectures are in some ways more like books than like live lectures. As the boosters say, one of the big advantages of online lectures is that you can stop, rewind, repeat, and listen to them again anytime you like — you could even print them out on paper, bind them between two covers, and sell them in shops!

  5. May 23, 2012 3:02 PM

    “He taught that many students? What does Friedman think real teachers actually do?”

    Undergrad courses with multiple thousands of students are the norm at many universities, and have been for decades. This is nothing new. What’s new is that the university administration no longer sits on the bottleneck between the money and the talent (see also: Amazon/New York publishers, eBay, iTunes/record companies).

    Teachers who actually teach students on an individual basis have nothing to worry about, IMO. There will always be a demand for that.

    On the other hand, universities that adopted the “set up courses taught by underpaid adjuncts, then cram in as many students as humanly possible” model, then used the revenue to fund administrative bloat, are likely to be in serious trouble. If the student isn’t going to have any meaningful contact with the instructor either way, why wouldn’t he or she opt for the MIT or Stanford course over the one from Directional State?


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