Archive for August 3, 2012

MOOCing an analogy between teachers and John Henry: But maybe it’s students?

I wrote my monthly Blog@CACM piece this last weekend, which was a synthesis of several pieces I wrote here: About the worked examples that I’m trying out in Oxford, the PixelSpreadsheet, and contrasting the study abroad I’m teaching on and MOOCs.  I mention that I’m doing an end-of-term survey about how all this worked, and I expect to say more about those results here in the next couple weeks.

In the Blog@CACM piece, I mention an analogy I’ve been thinking about.  (Please forgive the terrible pun in the title.)  John Henry is an American folk hero who worked on the railroads “driving steel.”  Along comes the steam-powered hammer, which threatened the job of steel-drivers like John Henry.  John Henry raced the steam-powered hammer, and beat it — but suffered a heart attack and died immediately afterwards.  In some versions of the story, John Henry’s wife or son picks up his hammer and keeps driving steel.  But as we all know, the steam-powered hammer did drive the steel-drivers out of a job.

I wonder about the analogy to higher education.  The Internet makes information cheaper and easier to access.  Teachers play the role of John Henry in this analogy.  Sure, they may do a better job than that steam-powered education, but cheap and plentiful is more important than quality, isn’t it?  Taking the analogy in a different direction, the teachers who are building the new Coursera courses at Universities with no additional pay or course/work release remind me of the John Henry who suffered exhaustion and “died with a hammer in his hand.”

Colleagues who went to the Google Faculty Summit came back with stories of how MOOC’s were part of the conversation there.  I heard that my advisor, Elliot Soloway, stood up to say:

 “I’m at the University of Michigan where in addition to our university we have Central Michigan, Eastern Michigan, Western Michigan, etc.  In five years, those schools will be gone.”

That’s when I realized another potential casualty in the battle over MOOCs, if Elliot is right.  My niece went to Central Michigan to get a degree in Occupational Therapy.  Today, she works with special needs children, with both physical and cognitive impairments.  There are only a couple of OT programs in the state of Michigan, and none at U-M.  Can you imagine teaching students how to provide therapy to patients with physical impairments via MOOCs?!?  (Relates to “Gas Stations Without Pumps” on what works as a Coursera course.)  How do we teach everything that we want and need to teach if only elite universities and MOOC’s exist for higher education?  Is the role of John Henry in the higher education version of the analogy played by teachers (as in my original blog post), by degree programs that don’t fit these models, or by the students who seek to do something other than what the elites and MOOCs offer?

It’s over-the-top melodramatic, I admit, but that’s what makes for good folklore.  Folklore and similar stories play a useful purpose if they help us to see new perspectives.  In the vision of the world where community colleges don’t survive, who gets wiped out (besides the Colleges themselves) like John Henry?

August 3, 2012 at 2:27 am 13 comments


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