A MOOC education

To be a superprofessor (a MOOC prof) is an act of aggression, writes Jonathan Rees, a Colorado State history professor. Massive open online courses aren’t as educational as traditional courses, even if they’re cheaper, he argues.

Being a Luddite is an act of absurdity, responds Matthew Ladner, who believes in creative destruction.


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  1. Florida resident says:

    Somehow the discussion here is about the “System” of education, not about the subjects to be educated.
    See Robert Weissberg “Bad Students, not Bad Schools”, $12.75 + $3.99 S&H,
    Charles Murray, with his 2009 book “Real Education”, $2.26 + $3.99 S&H,
    Charles Murray has just mentioned the work at Vanderbilt University on his AEI Blog:
    Respectfully submitted by F.r

  2. Mark Roulo says:

    Jonathan Rees’ arguments are directed at fellow professors and he has three of these arguments:

    I. To be a superprofessor is to stop teaching.
    II. To be a superprofessor is to aid in the corporatization of higher education.
    III. To be a superprofessor is an attack on your colleagues and your grad students.

    I’d rephrase these as:

    1) The teaching provided by a MOOC is lower quality than face-to-face, so you are a bad teacher if you do this (and, as he phrases it, not actually a teacher any more) even if the price is lower.
    2) The folks running/owning the MOOCs will make a profit, which is bad. Good universities are supposed to be non-profit.
    3) If MOOCs do work, there will be less employment for professors (like him) because of economies of scale. Which is true … the whole *point* to these things is to require fewer teachers to deliver the same amount of teaching (which can drive down costs).

    This sounds to me like a traditional craftsman (say, a violin maker) arguing against new machine generated crafts (e.g. maybe we have some factory that now cranks out cheap, machine made violins).

    Our craftsman argues:

    1) By working for/with the new factory you aren’t a “real” craftsman. And the new machine-made violins aren’t as good (which they aren’t … but they *ARE* a lot cheaper).
    2) And the new factory is for profit. True craftsmen can make money following their craft, but the organization they work for should be not-for-profit.
    3) And you will be putting a bunch of your fellow craftsfolk out of work.

    Am I missing any key aspect to his argument? It really seems to boil down to (a) he doesn’t want potential customers to be able to make a lower-quality for lower-price choice, and (b) he doesn’t want for-profit companies to make money from this, and (c) he doesn’t want *HIS* job (or his friend’s or students’ jobs) endangered. Right?


    • Yeah, that sounds about right with the addition that there’s a veiled threat directed at profs who cooperate with MOOCs.

      With that comparison in mind it ought to be possible to predict the course of events to follow.

      There’ll be a name-calling campaign.

      MOOC-based classes will be dismissed as McEducation and McDegrees. “Superprofessor” will, perhaps already is, an epithet.

      Those who are naive enough to misunderstand the appropriate meaning of the word “superprofessor” will be swiftly set straight and those who laugh will be officially marked as “the enemy” and not allowed to eat lunch with the cool kids.

      Political muscle will be flexed.

      Schools, Georgia Tech for instance, will be subject to any sanctions Rees and his like can manage.

      There’ll be pressure on the accrediting organization to give Georgia Tech a hard time. Georgia Tech professor may have an inordinately tough time getting published. Georgia Tech undergrads will have a tougher time getting into post-grad programs. The Georgia and U.S. legislature will be lobbied to throw logs into the path of MOOCs. Professors may start to join labor unions to increase their political leverage.

      Basically you can copy the playbook of the craft guilds and labor unions, adjust a trifle for what differences there are between being a professor and a cobbler, and you’ll know what those opposed to MOOCs will do and probably when they’ll do it.

  3. Foobarista says:

    Rees’ article sounds awfully aggressive itself, with all the talk about “naming and shaming”, etc. He gives one example of a prof who tried it and didn’t like it, and damns the whole exercise.

    Oh, and everyone who doesn’t work at an nonprofit is a devil.

  4. MOOCs are somewhat like the old-fashioned “lecture series.” You signed up (or just showed up) at a lecture on a topic once per week or once per month; lecturers could be several or just one; you learned a lot, especially if you did outside reading/investigation; and the cost was cheap or free. No one attempted any real assessment of what you had learned; since you weren’t paying much, you could not expect that. And that is the problem with MOOCs — not that they put people out of work, but that they don’t enable you to confidently attack the next level of the same subject, because even you don’t know how much content and/or skills you have mastered as compared to what’s necessary to progress to that next level.

    • Mark Roulo says:

      I’m actually fairly skeptical that MOOCs are going to work. I basically see them as “The Great Courses” from The Teaching Company with tests and a certificate (NOTE: I like TTC … but it is clear that they don’t sell 100s of thousands of each course),

      But I don’t see why testing for mastery has to be difficult. It isn’t like adding a rigorous final taken at a proctored location is a huge hurdle to clear.

      • Anthony says:

        Grading is hard, if you want to evaluate on anything more than multiple-choice questions on an exam. And some courses really need something more, especially if the intent is to offer college-level courses where the students analyse rather than just remember facts. Teaching a MOOC for writing is possible, but grading it would take a *lot* of adjuncts or grad students if the course got big. Grading an engineering design (or a fashion design) course would be similarly difficult.

        • Mark Roulo says:

          “Grading is hard, if you want to evaluate on anything more than multiple-choice questions on an exam.”


          Not quite. Grading is *expensive* if there aren’t clearly defined right and wrong answers. Even without multiple-guess, I can build a math test that is easy and cheap to grade.


          Something worth remembering is that lots/many/most of the folks working on MOOCs have a technical background. They are thinking in terms of “how can we teach 10K students programming? or databases? or calculus?” They aren’t thinking as much about “how do we teach 10K kids about the Renaissance?” or “how do we teach 10K kids to write a coherent paragraph?”


          But even the humanities aren’t unreasonable to grade. You just need to hire humans that are (a) qualified, and (b) inexpensive compared to the current approach. Given that large chunks of the university (and, I expect university *spending*) are *NOT* spent on education, this seems at least plausible.

          Consider that out-of-state tuition to the University of Michigan is ~$20K/year and out-of-state tuition to UC Berkeley is ~$32K/year … I’d think I could get a lot of grading done for that. Hell, for the humanities students, you could hire a tutor for every 4 or 5 undergraduates and be price competitive.

    • The history of technology is replete with early examples of the new technology borrowing heavily from the technology it was destined to replace.

      Early automobiles – horseless carriages – were horse drawn carriages without the horses and with a motor stuck almost willy-nilly in where ever it could be coaxed to go. It took decades to determine the best arrangement for just about everything.

      Early steam boats had their engines driving banks of oars.

      So it shouldn’t be much of a surprise then that on-line learning has a great deal in common with traditional approaches.

      Over time though limitations of the older technology that early adopters engineer into their new technology solutions will be cast aside and the full potential of the new technology will start to be realized.

  5. Cranberry says:

    The danger of over selling MOOCS is that they haven’t been proven to work. That’s a serious flaw.

    Dropout rates of 90% should be taken seriously. Let’s see–will all the for-profit companies agree to only charge tuition if the students pass an independently administered test at the conclusion of the course?

    Those who are pushing the model, and dubbing others “Luddites,” assume that computer-aided instruction will at least produce comparable outcomes to in-person instruction. That may not be true.


    “San Jose State University is suspending a highly touted collaboration with online provider Udacity to offer low-cost, for-credit online courses after finding that more than half of the students failed to pass the classes, officials said Thursday.

    Preliminary results from a spring pilot project found student pass rates of 20% to 44% in remedial math, college-level algebra and elementary statistics courses. In a somewhat more promising outcome, 83% of students completed the classes.”

    • Mark Roulo says:

      Fair enough … but I wonder if many tradition colleges would agree to refund tuition if students didn’t pass an independently administered test?
      In the case above, I didn’t see any numbers for the expected pass rate with a traditional remedial class.

    • It’s only a serious flaw for those who engage the services of a MOOC. For everyone else it’s a subject of discussion.

      If the concept is inherently flawed, and thus educationally ineffective, that’ll be sorted out in short order by those seeking an education.

      But for the entrenched interests that’s not good enough. Given enough time MOOCs might become effective, assuming they’re not now, and then what? If you’ve got a cozy situation now MOOCs are a threat now. Better to destroy the threat before it grows.