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

August 3, 2012 at 2:27 am 13 comments

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?

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13 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Rob St. Amant  |  August 3, 2012 at 9:09 am

    Elliot’s comment provided an interesting moment during the panel discussion. Later at the summit, I heard others talking about MOOCs as filling an educational niche (a very large niche) but not replacing conventional universities. That sounds like a reasonable goal, but it’s not clear to me whether the “free to students” aspect could be resisted; MOOCs might take over without our understanding how well they work.

    Another interesting question from the audience was about student retention, but it didn’t get much discussion.

    • 2. Mark Guzdial  |  August 3, 2012 at 10:37 am

      Thanks, Rob — nice to hear more about what was going on there.

      We’ve been talking about the “niche” at GT, too. Here’s what I wrote in that thread, in response to a suggestion from Jim Foley that the right niche is professional education. Others were suggesting that perhaps the right niche was secondary education, and don’t we support the professional ed audience already?

      I’m with Jim — I see MOOCs as serving professionals who need to update their skills, who don’t have the time and motivation to learn from books or take face-to-face continuing education. Secondary education is one of the points in the education pathways where we most need mentoring, socialization, and individual student guidance. 100K high school students in an online class is one of Dante’s levels of hell, wasn’t it?

      Yes, we have professional education practice, and it only serves a small slice of the population and their needs. I care about two audiences that GT Professional Education doesn’t serve:
      (1) A high school business teacher who wants to become a CS teacher. There is an on-line program at Columbus State that serves them, but it’s a hard program for high school teachers with little to no CS background. One student has graduated from that program in three years. GT offers nothing for this audience.
      (2) A mid-level technical manager on family leave or just overwhelmed with work and family responsibilities. We lose 56% of women in technology at the mid-point in their careers, and according to the Anita Borg Institute, a big factor is that these women can’t update their technical skills via existing mechanisms while also bearing family responsibilities.

      The current MOOC models don’t really work for these audiences. Dave Evans said that people who finished his Udacity CS101 class spent 10-40 hours a week on it during the six weeks of the course — way too much for someone studying in their spare time. The current MOOC models are too fast-paced. Nick Parlante at Stanford did his MediaComp JavaScript course with Coursera, with a goal of creating a course for high school teachers (my first audience above). He told Barb that the push for everything to be paced by the videos created an even *faster* and *harder* course than what he taught face-to-face — the opposite of what he wanted for the high school teachers. Nick recommended to Barb that we should continue to push on an ebook approach, rather than move to a MOOC at this time.

      • 3. chaikens  |  August 5, 2012 at 10:30 am

        6*(10 to 40)=60 to 240. Perhaps it’s impossible for most people to learn CS101 without sparing 60-240 hours for it. If so, the only hope for a busy person is to use some self-paced system (or book!) and exercise unusual patience and persistence.

        • 4. Mark Guzdial  |  August 5, 2012 at 1:59 pm

          I think that’s an underestimate of what it takes. Finding that time in six weeks for a working professional is very hard.

          • 5. chaikens  |  August 6, 2012 at 2:10 pm

            Yes. My point is to ask what if the course supports spreading out 60-340 hours or more it out over, say 6-12 months? I’d guess that support should include both technique and tools for time management, and content like additional review and warmup exercises before each learning session.

  • 6. Rob St. Amant  |  August 3, 2012 at 10:01 am

    Oh, I forgot to mention: Daphne Koller showed a nice scatter plot of grading results, in which specific points were highlighted as representing the most common types of mistakes students made on a specific assignment (if I remember correctly). My TAs and I check this kind of thing when we grade projects and exams, even fairly systematically, but what I like about the MOOC approach is that it happens on a much larger scale.

  • 7. Bonnie MacKellar  |  August 3, 2012 at 12:03 pm

    I used to teach at one of those “directional U’s” as some people like to call public schools with names like Northeastern Missouri, etc. Those schools are not going to be replaced by MOOCs. Besides the professional programs which tend to be a big focus of these schools, you also get a lot of students who are not very confident, and who need a lot of interaction to succeed. May of my students had chosen NOT to go to the public research flagship university in our state because they didn’t want to be in 200 person lectures or taught by TAs. I do not see MOOCs serving this student body.

  • 8. Cecily  |  August 3, 2012 at 12:37 pm

    From a technical standpoint, a MOOC is essentially the education version of a blog. A person with minimal technical expertise can put one together(no coding required) and it can be put online where it can be consumed by the masses. Blogs have not replaced most of the major dotcom websites. Major dot com websites still require real professionals with real graphic design and technical expertise(e.g. ability to write code and write code that writes code). There is money in blogs(my cousin’s family recently dropped all other employment to blog full-time), but the vast majority of bloggers are just hobbyists with something to share. Similarly, I supsect that MOOCs will exist, but probably the vast majority of them will be run by hobbyists. Will there ever be a market where having a high degree of pedagogical expertise and a high degree of technical expertise is a major competitive advantage? If we got to the point where we had enough students in a course that we could embed experiments and do real-time data mining, machine learning, and content generation on-the-fly, it seems that yes, folks that have all of those skills will be able to start companies and make substantially more money. However, it will take a lot of students and a lot of courses to make the statistical approach superior. This is a similar conundrum to what the internet faced. For a time, Yahoo! was able to manually index webpages and produce superior results to the statistical approaches. At some point though, the Internet got too big, and statistical approaches became vastly superior and Google overtook Yahoo. It is reasonable to assume that if courses got big enough a similar thing could happen with them. If I had to place bets, the Pittsburgh algebra effort(in ITS) or a vocational/secondary computer science effort seem the most likely to attract these kinds of numbers. The Pittsburgh algebra effort makes the list because its probably already had a billion dollars of research poured into it, and it has relatively good widespread adoption and there are a lot of really smart technical people working on it. Secondary/vocation computer science makes the list because there seems to be a major vacuum there- a lot of people seem to wish for such a course, but there doesn’t seem to be enough critical mass for it to work in traditional systems, yet. The relaxations of online might be enough to attract critical mass.

  • […] told you a bit about how the Media Computation class went this summer, with the new things that I tried.  Let me tell you something about how the “Computational Freakonomics” (CompFreak) […]

  • […] MOOC’s is quite more careful than many who talk about MOOCs.  He doesn’t believe that MOOCs are going to wipe out Universities anytime soon, and he sees that there are many subjects (like occupational therapy, that I mentioned in another […]

  • 11. Fight the MOOCopalypse! « Computing Education Blog  |  October 5, 2012 at 6:15 am

    […] my school are talking a lot about what’s going to happen next.  One of my colleagues echoed Elliot Soloway’s comment from the Google Faculty Summit, saying that soon, all that would be left is research universities, and all other college education […]

  • 12. Dennis J Frailey  |  October 5, 2012 at 7:22 pm

    I find all the comments here fascinating in what they tell me about people in general and academics in particular. People, including those whose profession is to advance human knowledge by exploring new ideas, resist new ideas when they impinge on their personal comfort zones. Distance education in general and MOOCs in particular are a case in point. Certainly these techniques are in a relatively immature state and there are plenty of lessons learned that those promulgating these techniques have failed to pay attention to. But we should be figuring out how to make them work, not griping about why they won’t. The accelerating cost of the traditional education model leaves us no other choice.

    Would we want to revert to the typical university situation that existed in the middle ages? I suspect not, if we were to consider what the scholarly life was really like back then. (For one thing, few of us would be employed as educators; for another, education would be unavailable to most people; and for another, the particular politics of that era would be seen by most of us today as horribly stifling and inconsistent with academic principles.) But how would the learned scholars of that era have responded to a description of today’s higher education situation? They would have reacted in horror at many of the things we take for granted. For example, the concept of higher education for the majority of the population; the idea of community colleges; and the typical modern curriculum. [For example, they would be aghast that “liberal arts” students do not learn any appreciable amount of mathematics or “natural philosophy” (science).]

    I have the benefit of having taught in distance education mode for over 40 years, using different technologies over the years. I don’t fear it – I see it as offering an incredible set of new opportunities, both to deliver education to a greater audience and to do so in a more cost effective (and, indeed, more effective) manner. In order to exploit this mode of education one must make many changes in how one teaches. But the results can be highly satisfying. For example, I had students in the military who were able to get a college degree by taking courses from different locations every semester. And I saw students whose personal circumstances would never have permitted them to attend classes in the traditional mode but who were able to take courses. earn degrees and advance their careers via well conceived distance education programs.

    Yes, you have to rethink the way you teach and the way you test students’ grasp of what was taught. But it is likely to be the future of education. It can be effective, and it can be integrated into the traditional academic structure. Talk to some of the schools that have been doing it for decades.

  • 13. Distance learning is not new « Gas station without pumps  |  October 6, 2012 at 12:24 pm

    […] is why I’m bothered by comments like Dennis Frailey’s “Distance education in general and MOOCs in particular are a case in point. Certainly these te… Distance learning is not in an immature state—it is a very mature business which is being faced […]


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