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Monday, June 03, 2013

Three Reflections on the MOOC Debate

Maybe it is because I teach in close proximity to edx, but I have been having more and more conversations with other academics and with non-academics about Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs. I actually don't yet have strong views on the subject, which may make me part of a minority, but I have noticed a couple of pathologies in the way people discuss these MOOCs and the threat/promise they have. Here are three:

(1) A failure to disentangle distributive impact from merit of MOOCs:

Let's face it, a big piece of the MOOC debate is distributional. Most of us who entered academia did so because we liked it in its current incarnation. In a world where MOOCs took over in any substantial part, many of our jobs would cease to exist and/or would change dramatically. As status quo entitlement holders we can all certainly complain about that fact, as could our students. That may be a worthwhile debate to have, but it is quite different from the debate about whether MOOCs are a good idea independent of this retroactivity problem.

One way I often try to engage people on this subject is to ask them to imagine that we were at Time Zero, on a blank slate, and creating the first universities for our day and age. We would then ask: what elements of MOOCdom would be optimal with its attendant effects on cost. Only by doing so can one potentially trade off any negative distributional effects to current entitlement holders against potential benefits (or costs) of the system on its own merits, and evaluate whether a CHANGE is worthwhile. That's not rocket science as an analytical separation, and yet many of the people I talk with on this issue are unable to separate out the issues.


(2) A failure to recognize that much of what is at stake is the unbundling of the university and the cross-subsidization in the status quo arrangement.

The modern research university, in part, cross-subsidizes research through the payment for teaching by students. While students partially internalize the value of that research (both in terms of being taught by those doing the leading edge stuff and by the prestige it brings to the institution) there is no doubt that much of the value of that research is externalized, generating a kind of public good. MOOCs may threaten  that by having fees pay for teaching much more directly without the research -- I say *might* because it is hypothetically possible, though unlikely in the current climate to be sure that MOOCs might free up more time for research by allowing professors to spend less time in the classroom by recording their lectures only once rather than constantly performing it (more on that in a moment), though in the current climate that is highly unlikely. The move to adjuncts, heavier teaching loads, more heavy TA usage, etc are much more direct moves in this direction. This kind of move  has analogues in many other professions -- for example using nurses and physicians' assistants instead of doctors where possible, and as it was there it is aimed primarily at cost savings.

The only point I want to make is that the optimal amount of cross-subsidization of research through teaching -- again putting to one side the distributional question of what happens to status quo entitlements and instead starting at day zero -- is not altogether obvious. To the extent what is threatening about MOOCs is that they may reduce that cross-subsidization and thus lead to the generation of less research, then THAT is the debate to have.

(3) What is so great about the traditional live lecture?

I don't teach by lecture. In fact, portions of my civil procedure course that I would lecture through if forced to do so are ones I usually instead put on handouts for students to read on their own, since I think it is a better use of both of our times. Still, I am prepared to accept that in many instances a lecture may have pedagogical value, especially if it is delivered in an inspiring sort of way. What I don't understand, and have yet to get a good defense of, is why the value of those lectures requires it to be live?

Now as someone who loves the theater I can appreciate the difference between seeing Henry V live versus those wonderful 1970s-80s BBC Shakespeare versions. However, whatever "performance" value live lectures have of that sort strike me as a fairly light benefit if costs could be dramatically cut. Again, it may be that many academics who are most against MOOCs engage in just this kind of live lecture, and the possibility of recording it rather than doing it every year would have significant threats to their livelihood. Fair enough. But that is different from mounting the defense against MOOCs on the pedagogical advantage of such live lecturing.

If that defense is out there, I would like to see it. If not, then it seems to me that whether a MOOC is a step down pedagogically, and whether it is such a huge step to justify the increased cost, will depend on how much non-lecture content professors currently bring in. I use the Socratic method or teach classes that are very discussion oriented, things much harder to reproduce (or so I think!) in MOOC land and that have (or so I think, I've not run a randomized trial to find out!) pedagogical value above and beyond a straight lecture. So my defense of resisting MOOCs (again at time zero) would have to be that the pedagogical value added over a recorded lecture is great enough to justify the extra expense. Could I mount such a defense successfully? I'd need to know more about the cost vs. learning trade-offs, but I think this would be the right way to think about it.

 * * *

None of this is to say yay to MOOCs. I think there are significant potential problems with the MOOC model, most interestingly the risk of homogenizing education. I have  an Orwellian picture of every Civil Procedure class doing the same MOOC segment at exactly the same time around the U.S. year in and year out. But I think it is important to focus on these and other arguments clearly and this is my own (modest) attempt to sort argumentative wheat from chaff.

I am sure many will disagree and look forward to hearing your thoughts.

- I. Glenn Cohen

Posted by Ivan Cohen on June 3, 2013 at 11:17 PM in Current Affairs, Law and Politics, Life of Law Schools, Teaching Law, Weblogs | Permalink


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Hi Glenn. I find your point (3) slightly surprising because you're a law professor. When you lecture, don't you ask questions of students and have them wrestle with the answers in front of their peers? When I teach a lecture class rather than a seminar, I always spend most of class in this kind of dialogue. Perhaps we have a nomenclature problem, and by "traditional live lecture" you mean something decidedly NOT like traditional law school teaching, but perhaps more like a traditional large undergraduate lecture class at the far end of the not-much-interaction spectrum, where the professor really literally just speaks without a break for almost the entire time, perhaps taking a few questions at the end or not even that.

At any rate, it seems to me that the key benefits of "live" anything have a lot to do with human interaction. This is especially obvious in law school world where the norm is to spend most of every class pushing students, one at a time and in groups, to wrestle with texts and ideas and find answers. The important interaction is not only professor-student, but also student-student. I think this is also true in the "traditional" undergraduate-type lecture. As I bet any social psychologist could tell you, a lot goes on even in the classes with the least apparent interaction: the professor "reads" whether the class appears to understand each point, tracks attention and confusion etc., and students watch their peers as well. In principle, a hypothetical MOOC could include some of this interaction (although there are limits just because of numbers of people). But present-day technology is woefully inadequate to allow a MOOC to recreate even the level of interpersonal interaction of a large lecture hall. Nonverbal communication is extremely attenuated, if it is present at all, in current MOOCs. Meanwhile, I would think most law school classes are especially far from being adequately reproducible in MOOC form -- this may be what you mean when you say you "don't teach by lecture."

Posted by: Joey Fishkin | Jun 4, 2013 2:15:57 AM

I've taught in a large range of formats and signed up to a wide range of MOOCS.

Simply, it is much better to listen to a 50 minute lecture in 400 seater than stay in your room all day.

Young students particularly are picking up all the tacit cues of a new professional identity. Being there matters.

As for MOOCS, the same things matter. When a prof loads up 10 lectures and departs, we behave exactly the same way as undergraduates do. We depart, promising ourselves that we will do it later.

Uni is minimally social. But it is social.

We are also joining a community who is committed to a particular branch of knowledge that is important to the wider community. Assuming this identity is not a matter of knowing stuff. It is a matter of reshaping the way we live, the way we spend our time, and what we attend to. It is a process that is acted out. We can not "be" unless we "do" with other people who have and are developing the same commitment.

I agree MOOCs are political - or a playing card in a a political game. Universities just aren't used to their politics playing out quite so transparently?

Posted by: Jo Jordan | Jun 4, 2013 9:22:26 AM

Thank you both for the thoughtful comments.
Joey -- I indeed did have in mind the traditional undergrad non-interactive large lecture and should have been clearer on that. When discussion and Q & A is involved I think that is "value added" as is the student to student interaction. That said, this raises the question (a) How much value for how much cost? I also don't have a good sense of how many larger undergraduate classes are pure lecture with discussion occurring with the TAs after the class in smaller sections. To the extent that is a common model I think it is the one that the MOOC puts the most pressure one. and (b) Could MOOCs be a part of that interaction, so one of the phrases bandied about a lot in the MOOC world is "reverse the classroom" with the idea that students will have seen the MOOC lecture and then the class time is spent on discussion, Q & A, in bricks and mortar. This has been on of the proposed models of MOOC as compliment and not substitute. Being the cynical person I am, I am skeptical, and think it much more likely that MOOCs are the McDonalds of higher ed, but I should put that out there.
Jo- I love the phrase "We can not 'be' unless we 'do'" as an educational mantra. I believe it. But I also press back on myself as a sometimes empiricist and someone who spends a lot of time in evidence-based medicine to ask "what evidence do I have for the proposition?" For example, one thing I've learned through interacting with MOOC-world is that there is lots of evidence that breaking learning into micro chunks with immediate evaluation and feedback, something few of us can do in our current setting, is optimal for learning. And even if my inner humanist can convince myself that the kind of model I know and love IS better, I think it is fair to ask "at what cost?" Those of us who want to mount a defense of the status quo need to mount it as a value proposition, as business-y as that sounds, if we want to mount the defense successfully.

Posted by: I. Glenn Cohen | Jun 4, 2013 9:51:56 AM

I think seeing the lecture live -- even in impersonal one in an enormous hall -- is better. I think only somewhat better, not dramatically so. And not so much better to justify thousands of dollars per credit hour in tuition and debt, which I believe is your point, Glenn.

But I think comparing lectures -- live versus online -- will miss the point of college and of MOOCs both. I'm sure few professors actually want to teach that way and most consider it a slanderous stereotype. And MOOCs are not going to be successful (educationally, at least -- maybe commercially) if they overrely on videotaped lectures. Critics of MOOCs are wrong to reduce MOOCs to that straw man version, and defenders of MOOCs are wrong to concentrate on arguing that lecturing in that format is better. MOOCs need to be about a lot more than just lectures, and the best ones are.

My feeling is that it's the massiveness of MOOCs that differentiate them from other educational formats and provide a unique kind of learning opportunity. Interaction with a teacher may be less likely, but the possibility of interaction with a massive number of other learners creates other kinds of learning opportunities.

Robert McGuire
Editor, MOOC News and Reviews

Posted by: Robert McGuire | Jun 6, 2013 12:34:32 AM

Thanks Robert. I completely agree that the mere substitution for taped lectures for live ones can't be enough to make MOOCs work. Taped lectures were a mainstay of several educational experiments (I believe in the UK in particular?) of low cost instructions and of course correspondence courses long predate even those experiments. I would be curious to know how many of the current MOOC platforms, you believe, add enough value in terms of these new kinds of learning opportunities?

Posted by: I. Glenn Cohen | Jun 6, 2013 3:03:19 PM

I'll resist giving a very definite answer. That's the question at the heart of our website, and the answer to is is really going to be decided by our contributors over time. I'll give a few thoughts on it.

"Enough" value depends on the objective, of course. If the value we're looking for is a something equivalent to a credit-bearing course from a degree-granting institution, that's a high bar and the last one that will be cleared. I certainly wouldn't argue that any MOOCs have.

Not everyone who wants an education wants a degree, and not every employer who wants their job candidates to be educated or skilled is concerned with whether they have degrees. So MOOCs may provide a value for each of them even if MOOCs are never considered equivalent to college.

Many of the people taking MOOCs are non-consumers of higher education -- basically almost everyone on the planet over the age of 22 and under the age of 18, excepting the number who are in graduate or continuing ed programs and adding in the number in that age group who are too poor to go to college. I loved college myself and would love to do it again, but when I finished my graduate degree, I basically resumed a lifetime in the nonconsumer role. With or without MOOCs, I'm unlikely ever to pay for another credit hour again. Anything that changes that dynamic has a value, which is why so many people are enrolled in them.

I listen to the people enrolled in the MOOCs and who are for the most part enthusiastic about them. Like the Bengali teenager who wrote for us last week or the Sri Lankan lab tech the week before that or the Spanish engineering Ph.D. student who wrote the first review for us. They find MOOCs very valuable. Maybe they'd be less enthused about MOOCs if they had taken those courses in college settings, but I'm going on the assumption that they aren't dupes. The value they see in Coursera is the value I see in it.

Value isn't a single number. It's a ratio of cost:quality, and, while free can be worthless, in this case, free makes up for a lot of questions about quality, particularly if you're in that non-consumer category.

Posted by: Robert McGuire | Jun 10, 2013 7:40:07 PM

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