J’accuse: SJSU faculty say MOOC profs are complicit

May 3, 2013 at 1:27 am 15 comments

In an open letter to a Harvard professor who built a MOOC, faculty at San Jose State University urge him and other MOOC-offering professors to stop. “Professors who care about public education should not produce products that will replace professors, dismantle departments, and provide a diminished education for students in public universities.”

“In spite of our admiration for your ability to lecture in such an engaging way to such a large audience,” the letter’s authors write, “we believe that having a scholar teach and engage with his or her own students is far superior to having those students watch a video of another scholar engaging his or her students.”

The letter is part of a brewing debate about how MOOCs might deepen the divide between wealthy universities, which produce MOOCs, and less wealthy ones, which buy licenses to use those MOOCs from providers like edX.

The authors say they fear “that two classes of universities will be created: one, well-funded colleges and universities in which privileged students get their own real professor; the other, financially stressed private and public universities in which students watch a bunch of videotaped lectures and interact, if indeed any interaction is available on their home campuses, with a professor that this model of education has turned into a glorified teaching assistant.”

via Why Professors at San Jose State Won’t Use a Harvard Professor’s MOOC – Technology – The Chronicle of Higher Education.

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15 Comments Add your own

  • 1. thinkingwiththings  |  May 3, 2013 at 1:44 am

    Oh, what, and they think we don’t already have two classes of education?

    I’m for having a great, student centered learning ecosystem. It may include MOOCs, at the proper time and in the proper place. The MOOC debate is so polarized it reminds me of the debate 15 years ago about distance learning and “digital diploma mills.” How do we get a nuanced discussion going about what is best for students, and how we will fund that “best”? The current state of the art of in-classroom pedagogy is far from perfect.

  • 2. alanone1  |  May 3, 2013 at 8:26 am

    I guess the SJSU will pass up great books written by outsiders — and perhaps even books themselves. (We could imagine this screed sent forth (in handwriting I guess) ca 1452.)

    This is completely confusing the real goals of education.

    • 3. Mark Guzdial  |  May 3, 2013 at 8:40 am

      I disagree, Alan. The letter (linked at the top) tells a better and more compelling story than the article about the letter. The SJSU faculty want what’s best for their students. We know that lecture is less effective than engaging students. The “Justice” MOOC is video of the Harvard professor’s lecture AND of the Harvard students asking questions, making comments, and taking notes. The implicit message is, “The best way to learn is be an engaged student. See how the Harvard students do it? But you? You get to just watch it happen.” Don’t you feel smarter just watching the Harvard students learn?

      • 4. alanone1  |  May 3, 2013 at 9:19 am

        Hi Mark

        The two main comments I offer are (a) this misses that different students need different kinds of help and (b) what needs to be criticized and improved about MOOCs is their general low quality in most dimensions for almost all students.

        The two comments can be combined into an idea and need, both venerable: what students really need are learning environments that are the strongest pathways to aid their journey of learning — and this includes learning environments that can teach them to be better learners (most of them are poor learners regardless of style in part because this skill is not part of their formative educational processes).

        P.S. I think the spirit of their letter has a few good points (including a little of (b), and what I think is a fair accusation about trying to save money at the expense of further lowering the educational experience), but it fails to address the central problem of (a).

        As to the latter, this has been lowered in many ways over the last 100 years or so but universities and professors have simply gotten used to what would have been considered substandard process in good universities in the past.

        • 5. Mark Guzdial  |  May 3, 2013 at 10:31 am

          Hi Alan,

          I agree with both (a) and (b). I think that the letter meant to address (a) because of the emphasis on a “diverse student body.” I’m working on a paper now to provide some empirical backing for that claim that face-to-face teachers will always beat out a MOOC for under-represented groups.


          • 6. alanone1  |  May 3, 2013 at 10:44 am

            Hi Mark

            Will face-to-face teachers “always beat out a BOOK for under-represented groups”?

            Again, I think this misses that different students need different things and being part of an “underrepresented group” is too much of a generalization. It’s like saying there’s a “women’s view” or an “Afro-American view”. There is too much diversity in most of these categories to make those assumptions.



            • 7. Mark Guzdial  |  May 3, 2013 at 1:18 pm

              Hi Alan,

              Yes, the results we have say that it’s likely. Our analysis of our statewide survey (n>1400 students), as well as other’s work (e.g., Joanne Cohoon’s and Catherine Lang’s) suggest that even high-ability students from under-represented groups need personal, individual encouragement to persist in computing. Our mediational analysis says that White and Asian males persist based on ability alone, but encouragement significantly mediates persistence by these other groups. It’s part of the social and affective issues in being from an under-represented group. It’s hard to get personal encouragement in a class of 100K.


              • 8. alanone1  |  May 3, 2013 at 1:31 pm

                Hi Mark

                What is an “underrepresented group” (if Asians are not part of this?)

                • 9. Mark Guzdial  |  May 3, 2013 at 4:31 pm

                  The typical definition in the United States (the one that we use in our work) is African-Americans, Hispanic, Native Americans, and disabled. Other groups are emphasized in other parts of the world. The previous-to-this issue of Inroads talked about efforts to broaden participation in computing worldwide.

  • 10. lindaleea  |  May 3, 2013 at 11:32 am

    This shows how out of touch academia is with the real world. There is already 2 classes – the rich who can go to elite colleges and the rest of us. The average person needs to work and go to school. Most of us do not have rich parents that will pay our way. MOOCs and online classes are the only way we can get an education. Some of us do very well. I got my Masters online and would not of gone to a classroom.

  • 11. Charles Severance  |  May 3, 2013 at 12:58 pm

    This is very sad. The *problem* in the situation is neither the faculty at SJSU nor those of us who create/teach MOOCs. I feel for the faculty. The SJSU faculty are really saying, “If you keep making MOOCs, our administration and state government will foolishly cut our budget and force us to use your materials because they know nothing about education. Since we are sure that neither our administration nor the state government will ever understand the realities of education – the only alternative is to plead with those making MOOCs to stop making them.” Which of course is pointless because if one prof stops making MOOCs 10 will step up to fill their vacated spot. As a result, MOOCs are likely to have a significant long-term negative impact on schools with bad administrators and uninformed state governments. It will be no fun to be at those schools – but one way or another – bad administration and crappy state government will eventually take its toll. One way or another something would have come along to ruin things for those schools with administrators that focus on money more than education. Stopping the production of MOOCs is not the answer. This document is a good addition to the dialog.

    • 12. Mark Guzdial  |  May 3, 2013 at 1:20 pm

      Well said — I agree with your framing of the problem. I’m not convinced that it’s pointless, though.

      • 13. Charles Severance  |  May 3, 2013 at 3:07 pm

        The discussion is very much not pointless. Trying to “outlaw” or “suppress” the making of MOOCs in order to outflank bad administration *is* pointless.

        • 14. MOOC News & Reviews (@MOOCNewsReviews)  |  May 10, 2013 at 5:13 pm

          I saw it the way Charles does. I read the original letter and the reporting on it and kept arriving at the same reading. The beginning of the letter establishes that MOOCs can have a role and this one might be good and we should be careful with them. And then it promotes an action that goes against those values out of fear of what might happen with MOOCs and also demands that no one else be involved. “Guild thinking,” another blogger called it, and I think that applies perfectly. If they had said they don’t think this MOOC works in this case, that would have made sense to me.

          As for the nuanced discussion focused on what’s best for students that thinkingwiththings calls for above, we like to think that’s what we’re providing at MOOC News and Reviews.

          Robert McGuire
          Editor, MOOC News and Reviews

  • 15. rdm  |  May 21, 2013 at 3:19 pm

    If you had not seen it already, here’s a rather satiric MOOC proposal: http://cucfa.org/news/2013_may10.php

    I think the points raised there are similar to some of the points you raise here.

    I am not sure if I agree with all of the suggestions made there, but I also do not have any solid reason to disagree with them.

    (For people not inclined to follow links, but still interested in a summary: it is a letter framed as a proposed MOOC class teaching about MOOC business models.)


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