Archive for October 5, 2012

Fight the MOOCopalypse!

Like everywhere else that’s considering MOOCs, the faculty of 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 would be by MOOC. He noted that there are some non-trivial issues in making MOOCs more effective.  I wrote an overly-dramatic reply, which I include here with edits for context.

Those non-trivial improvements are the key challenge.  I believe (even, hope!) that technology may one day create opportunities to teach better than we do now at less expense.  But I see no reason to believe that it’s going to happen soon.  Education is technology’s Afghanistan — school-conquering technology keeps charging in, and the technology limps out defeated:

  • In 1913 Thomas A. Edison asserted, “Books will soon be obsolete in schools …. Our school system will be completely changed in the next ten years” [by motion pictures.] (Saettler 1968, p. 98).
  • “I do wish to emphasize that I do not envisage replacing teachers entirely, especially at the elementary-school level. It would be my estimate that even under the maximum use of technology only 20 to 30% of students’ time in the elementary school would be spent at computer learning stations.” Patrick Suppes on Integrated Learning Systems (CAI) in 1992.  (If you’ve been in any elementary schools recently, you know that it’s far less than that.)

Technological change happens, but not overnight.  The iPhone didn’t come out of nowhere — I still have my Newton.  Education is way harder than handheld personal computing.  It will take far longer.

Here are two reasons for Georgia Tech to explore MOOCs:
(1) To figure out how to make them better, to help them evolve.  It’s not going to happen soon, and if we do it, we should plan to be in it for the long (and probably expensive) haul.  This is a noble pursuit.

(2) Expecting MOOCs to destroy universities as we know them in the near future (let’s call it the “MOOCopalypse”), we want to be ahead of the oncoming tsunami.

First, I don’t expect #2 to happen.  Families are going into debt because they VALUE higher education.  They WANT their kids to get it.  How will they feel about their state universities graduating only 20% of those who enter?  Even Sebastian Thrun doesn’t predict the MOOCopalypse, and he doesn’t see any reduction in universities happening soon.

Second, I don’t want #2 to happen — not as a professor, but as a citizen and a computer scientist.  I predict that those who complete MOOCs in computer science are 80% White or Asian and 90% male.  That’s not the world I want.  I wrote a blog piece for CACM last May where I pointed out that 10 years after we started working on increasing female participation in computing, we have made almost no progress.  And that’s with flexible, face-to-face systems with people offering the courses.  Why should it get better in a “near future” with all MOOC’s all the time?  How much will state legislators across this country support an all-MOOC world which so blatantly violates Title IX?

If we were to increase our involvement with MOOCs, we should only do it to support the development of technology (#1), not in fear (or worse, support of) the MOOCopalypse (#2).  I completely agree with others in this thread (and wrote a blog piece recently saying similar things): We teach way better than any MOOC can.  If we do teach more with MOOCs, we should be the harshest critics of MOOCs: We should measure demographics, we should measure learning, we should describe who-drops-out and not just who-completes.  That’s how they’ll get better, and we’ll learn how to teach even better in other media along the way. And we’ll be pointing out why MOOCs are too immature a technology to use for general higher education.

WE SHOULD FIGHT #2.  We should be advocates for broadening participation in computing, for higher-quality education.  I don’t believe in technological determinism, and I don’t worship at a Silicon Valley shrine.  We can change our fates.

Let’s not go quietly.

October 5, 2012 at 6:15 am 22 comments


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