Fight the MOOCopalypse!

October 5, 2012 at 6:15 am 22 comments

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.

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Seeking K-12 teachers for study on learning App Inventor CS Unplugged and Middle-School Students’ Views, Attitudes, and Intentions Regarding CS

22 Comments Add your own

  • 1. familyCoding  |  October 5, 2012 at 6:56 am

    As a non-Asian, non-male person who completed Coursera’s HCI last summer, I would say we made up a bigger proportion than you expect. Keep in mind that MOOCs bring in a lot non-Americans, many of them from Eastern Europeans, where women haven’t been as marginalized. And there are a lot of reasons why MOOCs can be good for women, who are more likely to want to study part time from home. That said, I don’t think that MOOCs will necessarily destroy universities. Not if they use them the right way. Collaboration is such an important part of computer science and university life . At worst it might reduce lecture time, and at best it could could down on lab costs, and increase life long learning , if universities establish themselves as ongoing communities. It’s up to computer science departments to establish how important local face to face interaction is. If MOOCs take over, it won’t be on MOOCs, it’ll be on universities for letting it happen.

    • 2. Mark Guzdial  |  October 5, 2012 at 9:54 am

      How do you know what the proportion is? Daphne Koller visited us this week, and she didn’t know. Most participants in a MOOC don’t post in forums, don’t send email.

      I do agree with you: if the MOOCopalypse happens, it’s because Universities let it happen.

      • 3. familyCoding  |  October 5, 2012 at 10:46 am

        I don’t know the actual breakdown. I’m judging from participation in forums, and comments from peer evaluators. There is ALOT of peer evaluation in HCI. You have to properly evaluate three-seven projects to move on to actually evaluating five other projects. And this is repeated once a week for six weeks. Because there’s so much peer evaluation, you get some pretty active forums (even if it’s just people complaining about peer evaluations). I wouldn’t say it was gender equal. But the 90% is just a guess too. I could see why women would try out a MOOG before they would risk signing up for a comp sci course, where they might feel marginalized, or be told that they don’t have the right calculus course to even try programming. It’s a drag, because when I did my B.A. in the mid 80s, you had programming courses for arts students. It was seen as a more practical inter disciplinary skill, and women actually made up about 37% of students in comp sci departments. It’s gone down to 18%. I wonder if part of the problem is the way it’s framed as “attracting” women to comp sci, instead of getting them back.

  • 4. rdm  |  October 5, 2012 at 8:29 am

    I am participating in a MOOC right now.

    The professor is drawing a careful distinction between what you get if you are a paying student (hands on support and personal attention, graded essay questions, plus everything that the online students get) and what you get if you are an online student (access to the materials and class forums, and class videos, self graded assignments, graded multi-choice quizzes). He also points out that he thinks that the online students will provide extra value for the paying students. (He has also observed that many of his online students are professionals rather than students.)

    But there might also be competition between MOOC classes and classes which do not have a MOOC element? It’s also not clear that all classes are suitable for a MOOC presentation. (You need to somehow be able to support a large student:teacher ratio.)

  • 5. HenkPoley (@HenkPoley)  |  October 5, 2012 at 10:14 am

    How do you think the MOOCopalypse would work? Sort of by invisibility of any useful positive effect to actually attend a university, people will stay away? [and only study parts of it at home targeted at their own interest]

    Also, say this happens on a large scale. Would this be detrimental to universities? Apart from leaving them of the burden to shuttle around students and teachers between classes, could there be other positive effects? Or can we expect a sudden drop in research, because the only way people go into research is that they incidentally hang out (get lectured) in the right physical space?

    • 6. Mark Guzdial  |  October 5, 2012 at 10:23 am

      No, enrollment is high. The model we’re talking about is closing and collapsing colleges. Here in the University System of Georgia, six campuses are being collapsed into three this year. And yes, they’re talking about more use of MOOCs.

  • 7. Cecily  |  October 5, 2012 at 10:37 am

    Whoa– you are collapsing six campuses? I am not sure we have ever collapsed campuses in Utah, I think we just re-name them to affiliate them with bigger-prestige campuses. I think a good example of a school that is not super-research-based that would survive the MOOCaplyse is BYU; although they have sort of embraced online learning and courses and produce a large number of them that are rather popular, that has not diminished the social value of being on campus in Provo where undergraduates can meet and ultimately find someone to marry in the LDS temple. I do think that the social value of what a campus provides will probably to continue in increase in relative weight in student’s decisions. I felt much better about returning to Utah for my PhD when I realized that with digital libraries and large collections with a fantastic inter-library loan system, I would probably have better access to prior work here than some other schools.

  • 8. Errol Thompson  |  October 5, 2012 at 3:21 pm

    I place quotes on my door and this week one was “Any teacher who can be replaced by technology deserves to be.” (David Thornburg).

    I see technology being used to enhance my teaching but never replacing it. If anyone has watched Michael Sandal in action or has run a class with a high level of interaction as happened with my problem solving class today, they might question whether technology can deliver the same environment and context for learning.

  • 9. Lloyd  |  October 6, 2012 at 1:45 am

    We are not violating Title IX with respect to Computer Science education. There is a “three pronged test” to show compliance with Title IX. The “third prong” is to show that the program in question is “meeting the interests and abilities of the underrepresented sex.” We have a wealth of information that tells us that most high school women don’t want to study computer science. You can argue that society or k-12 education is doing something wrong. You can argue that we should be doing more to attract women (or to get them back). You would be right on both counts. But the fact is, we are not violating Title IX – we provide adequate opportunities that meet the “interests and abilities” of women to study computer science.

    As for MOOCs, it’s way to early to say they violate Title IX. Most MOOCs, to date, have been precisely in those areas that are demonstrably of low interest among high school and university women. That will change and we will see whether women will enroll in larger numbers. Furthermore, if MOOCs were the only choice, don’t you think the number of women participating would be similar to the number of women enrolled in universities now? Of course, we don’t know. It’s unreasonable to claim violation of Title IX on the basis of the information we have at this point.

    I can easily see how MOOCopalypse can happen. When you have governors like Rick Perry appointing higher education boards, cost is weighed far more heavily than effectiveness. So I agree we should fight MOOCopalypse. But let’s focus on arguments that make sense; Title IX is a red herring (although I understand that, in the current climate, arguments that make sense may not be the most effective).

    • 10. familyCoding  |  October 6, 2012 at 8:16 am

      I’m curious how studies show that girls aren’t interested in taking computer science courses if they haven’t actually taken computer science courses. They don’t even know what computer science is, beyond cultural stereotypes. One of the reasons why there’s been a huge push in the UK recently to introduce programming at the middle school grades is precisely to expose girls early age, ideally around age 11 when their abstraction skills are in the early blooming stage and they aren’t as distracted by peer concerns. Arguing against a “MOOCopalypse” is like arguing against snowstorms. Or against the Web. Online learning isn’t going away. The only question is how to guard against potential behavioural biases (alienation, isolation) and figure out how to use it to improve, enrich and increase education.

      • 11. Mark Guzdial  |  October 6, 2012 at 9:48 am

        I’m not successfully making my point, and I apologize for that. Of course, online learning isn’t going away. MOOCs are a fascinating technology that can be used in lots of ways, including Fred Martin’s flipped classroom. I’m arguing against the belief that, within five years, two-year institutions will be eliminated in favor of MOOCs and introductory and remedial education will be turned over to MOOCs.

        Yes, that’s what’s being discussed. I’ve been in two meetings just this last week, with Deans and Department/School chairs, discussing exactly that. THAT’s the MOOCopalypse: wiping out large parts of our US university system, in an amazingly short time frame (“five years” is exactly the phrase that’s been used in the meetings I’ve been at), replacing them with MOOCs. Technology is great, but getting it right takes time, especially in education. Planning on switching over major parts of our education to MOOCs in a short period — when it’s never even been used successfully for that level even once — is irresponsible.

    • 12. Mark Guzdial  |  October 6, 2012 at 9:49 am

      Well argued, Lloyd. I see your point.

  • 13. Fred G. Martin  |  October 7, 2012 at 6:06 pm

    Mark, that is truly disturbing that administration would be thinking of MOOCs as a replacement for lower-division work.

    It’s pretty well established in the literature that persistence is a significant challenge for many students, and particularly among low SES and URM students. And, that online learning exacerbates this challenge — even when you have instructors paying attention to students!

    It seems a pretty safe bet that MOOCs’ present successes are primarily among strongly self-directed, high-efficacy learners — e.g., accomplished upper division undergrads and adult learners with credentialed educational backgrounds.

    Why would anyone think that MOOCs would be good for introductory or remedial instruction?

    By all appearances, this is the opposite of what’s true.

    • 14. Mark Guzdial  |  October 8, 2012 at 4:05 pm

      I agree completely, Fred, but that’s very explicitly being discussed. I went to a meeting with leadership across the University System of Georgia last Friday, and the explicit plan was to move “introductory and remedial” courses to MOOCs. I asked how that could possibly help with completion rates. The response from a Vice Chancellor was that MOOCs will get better. Really? How? Why would they?

      In the last few weeks, both Daphne Koller and Sebastian Thrun visited GT, and at both visits, leaders at GT were explicitly talking about the universities that would close across the state, replaced by MOOC courses. One of my colleagues said to me, “Why should we have multiple copies of the same course, when we can have one MOOC course by a great lecturer covering the same content?” Maybe because students would pass the multiple copies, but won’t complete the MOOC?

  • […] Fight the MOOCopalypse! ( Share this:TwitterFacebookTumblrEmailPinterestRedditStumbleUponLike this:LikeBe the first to like this. […]

  • […] Via computing education blog […]

  • […] will damage smaller schools and will benefit the largest universities. Sounds like a form of the MOOCopalypse. Interesting that they see the elites as doing well under MOOCs — the rich get […]

  • […] The first group hears that MOOCs can replace lectures, as MOOCs as a kind of textbook. They dream of higher-quality education with blended/flipped classrooms with more interactive exchange during classtime. This group wants to keep Colleges and Universities, and make them better (here’s an example of that vision).  The second group hears the story linked below: that MOOCs will replace classes, then schools.  They expect (and maybe even want) the MOOCopalypse. […]

  • […] I predicted that CS course MOOC completers would be 80% white or Asian and 90% male. I underestimated. Tucker’s course was 88.6% white or Asian and 91% male. […]

  • […] Chronicle referenced below helped convince me that the MOOCopalypse is unlikely to happen. The MOOCopalypse is the closing of most of American universities (“over half” said one of our campus […]

  • […] disrupt school.  School fights back, and schoolifies subjects and technologies.  I said before: Education is technology’s Afghanistan.  Lots of technologies have come in and tried to change everything, and the technologies come out […]

  • […] Education is technology’s Afghanistan […]


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