Going Postal: The Crisis in Higher Education from Correspondence Schools to MOOCs
A fascinating analysis of MOOCs that takes the long-term view: That distance education isn’t new, and has been very hard to get right. I always find useful these historical analogies, to educational “technologies” of the past. (Trivia side point: What was the most quickly adopted educational “technology”? Larry Cuban has claimed that it’s the chalkboard, which “democratized education” since everyone could see what the teacher was writing.)
The MOOC advocates’ belief in “big data” may win out, and it’s certainly different than the postal service model of a hundred years ago. I do agree with Burke’s point (quoted below). Human learning is hard, and researchers have been trying to use “big data” to address the problems for awhile. Using big data to inform education may be harder than the MOOC advocates believe.
A hundred years ago, higher education seemed on the verge of a technological revolution. The spread of a powerful new communication network—the modern postal system—had made it possible for universities to distribute their lessons beyond the bounds of their campuses. Anyone with a mailbox could enroll in a class. Frederick Jackson Turner, the famed University of Wisconsin historian, wrote that the “machinery” of distance learning would carry “irrigating streams of education into the arid regions” of the country. Sensing a historic opportunity to reach new students and garner new revenues, schools rushed to set up correspondence divisions. By the 1920s, postal courses had become a full-blown mania. Four times as many people were taking them as were enrolled in all the nation’s colleges and universities combined.
The promoters of MOOCs have a “fairly naïve perception of what the analysis of large data sets allows,” says Timothy Burke, a history professor at Swarthmore College. He contends that distance education has historically fallen short of expectations not for technical reasons but, rather, because of “deep philosophical problems” with the model. He grants that online education may provide efficient training in computer programming and other fields characterized by well-established procedures that can be codified in software. But he argues that the essence of a college education lies in the subtle interplay between students and teachers that cannot be simulated by machines, no matter how sophisticated the programming.