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That Bright Shiny MOOC Future

[ 72 ] July 20, 2013 |

MOOCs totally provide an educational experience equal to or better than traditional college classrooms:

In January, San Jose State University made a big announcement: It had reached a deal with the startup Udacity to offer college classes for credit online, for a modest fee, not only to its own students but to anyone who wanted to take them. The move was touted as a major step in online learning’s Clay Christensen-approved march toward the ultimate disruption of higher education.

It seems, however, that there are a few more kinks to work out before we all toss out the books and the buildings for good. Inside Higher Ed reported on Thursday that San Jose State is suspending the Udacity partnership just six months after it launched. The problem: More than half the students in the first batch of online courses failed their final exams.

Udacity founder Sebastian Thrun, a machine-learning legend at Stanford and Google, told the AP that the failure rates in the five classes ranged from 56 to 76 percent. Nor was the course material exactly rocket science—the five classes were in elementary statistics, college algebra, entry-level math, introduction to programming, and introduction to psychology.

Thrun did note that 83 percent of students had completed the classes, a far higher rate than is typical for the free, open courses that have come to be known as MOOCs. Why so many failed is not fully clear, though the AP cites “officials” saying that a lot of the students who signed up had little college experience or were working full-time while taking the classes.

On the bright side, Thrun said Udacity had gained some valuable data from the experience. “We are experimenting and learning,” he said. “That to me is a positive.”

It’s always important to experiment and learn when students’ grades are at stake.

One of the arguments we frequently see in these MOOC discussions is that people hated their big survey courses so this would be better. Well, maybe you could screw around on Facebook during while your MOOC for Psychology 101 so it’s less boring, but 56-76% of students aren’t failing those courses when they see faculty in person. My History 141 failure rate is around 5-8%. This is a class of 125 students and the failures consist entirely of students who either stop coming to class or don’t turn in papers.

This is a pretty powerful piece of evidence suggesting the vast inferiority of MOOCs for students.

Comments (72)

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  1. Ed K says:

    This. Every damn bit of it.

  2. Philip says:

    Don’t MOOCs also have a very different student body than the average large survey course, though?

    • Erik Loomis says:

      Normally, but not in this case. These were regularly enrolled San Jose St. students. In other words, this was a trial run for the model they want–to create online courses that directly replace regular courses for enrolled students.

      • tt says:

        That’s not correct:

        Thrun said 83 percent of the students — a mixture of university attendees and inner city high school students from Oakland and other places — finished the courses. But it was unclear why many did not pass or take the final exam.

        Officials say the data suggests many of the students had little college experience or held jobs while attending classes. Both populations traditionally struggle with college courses.

        It’s unclear from the links what percent of students were actually enrolled in San Jose State.

        • Erik Loomis says:

          Ah, I misread. Would like to see what the percentages are.

          • Bijan Parsia says:

            Yeah, I think opener enrolment is a big confounder when dealing with failure rates or even with learning outcomes. This is, of course, part of the promise of MOOCs and of lots of eLearning moves: Time and space shifting makes courses more accessible to nontraditional populations (e.g., continuing ed students).

            If MOOCs could dramatically lower the cost of acquiring the learning out comes of various intro level collegiate courses, that could be, theoretically, a tremendous boon. (Eliminate some drudgery, improve quality, improve access, etc.)

            While those goals are worth pursuing, it’s not remotely clear that we have the technological and pedagogic know how to make it work. Throw in the vultures circling to break the stranglehold nominally non-profit institutions have on higher education and you have a potentially super bad situation.

            OTOH, while every uni is playing with MOOCs in some form or another, I think both the pedagogic and business models are sufficiently weak at the moment that it’s going to hit the big trough in the hype curve. I predict a sort of OLPC faltering, followed up by some solid plugging by committed players.

  3. Incontinentia Buttocks says:

    The argument for MOOCs shares a set of assumptions with the the argument for corporate K-12 reform. To whit: lazy / mediocre teachers are primcipally responsible for what ails education. They drive up costs and produce mediocre results. Much of the supposed appeal of MOOCs is that they can give all students access to the universal magic of star teachers, the tiny set of natural educational aristocrats who tend to be meritocratically located at high prestige universities, who presumably have been hiring faculty principally on the basis of their superior teaching excellence, which in turn is presumed to translate into the very different setting of a MOOC.

    As the Udacity case noted above suggests, these assumptions yield poor results. But they also proceed from a questionable, and disturbing, aristocratic ideology which seems less based on any data about human capabilities than it is designed to provide a retroactive sociological justification for our winner-take-all society.

    • John Protevi says:

      I like this entire comment. The connection with the K-12 “reform” scam is particularly astute.

    • Origami Isopod says:

      And then of course there’s the technocratic bias:

      Udacity founder Sebastian Thrun, a machine-learning legend at Stanford and Google

      Who needs any data about how people actually learn? That’s just “soft” science; i.e., not “real” science. (And you better believe this is gendered as hell, as is the right-wing animus against teachers.)

      • Lee Rudolph says:

        I’ve met Thrun, and heard him and/or his collaborators speak, at several robotics conferences, and “machine-learning legend” isn’t the first description I’d have chosen for him—or, at least, not with the meaning the author (and the MOOC context) seem to be using. He and they have worked a lot on developing algorithms for teaching machines to do useful things: that is (in the talks I’ve heard), it’s the machines that are supposed to be the learners. Before Udacity, he was, and I suppose still is, associated with Willow Garage, the autonomous driving research program that I guess is now folded into the “Google Car”.

        That kind of work is necessarily very data-driven, but of course I suppose the temptation to assume you can gather data from/about people in the same way you can gather data from/about robots could be hard to resist, and bad to give into.

        • Lee Rudolph says:

          …Though I should add that, in fact, that kind of roboticist does gather a lot of data (for instance, on performance of various physical tasks) from people; it’s not like they spend all their time locked up in the lab with Robby.

        • Bijan Parsia says:

          Too follow up on Lee’s good point, a big attraction for machine learning folks of MOOCs is precisely getting data about how people learn. Watch Koller’s TED talk. Toward the end she gives some examples.

        • JL says:

          He and they have worked a lot on developing algorithms for teaching machines to do useful things: that is (in the talks I’ve heard), it’s the machines that are supposed to be the learners.

          Wait, what else would machine learning mean?

      • Bijan Parsia says:

        Er..I don’t know why you are focused on machine-learning there. Daphne Koller is also a machine learning legend (at Stanford!) and is a Coursera founder and advocates using such courses to study learning.

        Machine learning folks have a bit of bias in this direction because 1) they like lots of data and MOOCs provide lots of data and 2) they have hopes for their technology helping with key issues like automating or semi-automating grading.

        (Grading/feedback is a really interesting and important bottleneck in education. Assessment generation is also a key bottleneck. I’ve done work on both these areas.)

        • JL says:

          From one computer science person to another…if that’s what they are looking for, wouldn’t it make more sense and be less risky to students to start by teaching, say, both an in-person and online section of a course, with 30 people or whatever in each, and compare? It seems like you’d want a comparable control group – similar size, educational background, and demographics to your test group – so that you can study how in-person and remote learning are different, and since students’ learning is at stake, you want to be careful how many students you’re affecting in such an early stage.

          • Bijan Parsia says:

            For some experiments, that’s fine. For example, if you are trying to tell the difference between regular and online learning. But that’s not necessarily the only way you can go. Koller’s example in the TED talk is having 2000 students get the exact same wrong answer for some assignment. As she pointed out: That rivets your attention in a way that 2 out of 100 doesn’t. You can get more confidence in studying it. You can sample the 2000 in order to study what went wrong in more detail. Etc.

            Small scale studies are terrible for that. Large amounts of (even uncontrolled) data is very good for some things.

            Now, in Koller’s case, the courses offered are free, so the ethical issues are a bit different.

            • JL says:

              I see. That makes sense. It does, though, seem like even with the courses being free, you’d want to make sure (and I expect the IRB requires her to do at least some of this) that people signing up for them realize that this is experimental and may not be equivalent to a regular in-person course on the subject. A lot of people might dig taking a free class for scientific research purposes (I probably would, given enough spare time and an interesting class topic).

              Like you said, those are very different ethical issues than someone being taught a tuition-charging college course remotely by a (possibly for-profit) entity that is claiming it’s just as good as taking it in person, with the student having intended to take a legit full-blown college class.

              • Bijan Parsia says:

                It’s interesting as to whether it falls under a typical IRB’s purview. People “experiment” in their classes with different techniques. This usually isn’t considered to be research per se and thus doesn’t need normal ethical approval. It is, of course, subject to normal teaching QA.

                Since evidence based teaching isn’t normally required (alas), experimentation in the classroom (not intended for publication) usually gets a pass. Whether it *should* or not is an interesting question.

        • Tristan says:

          Isn’t there then an argument that the way MOOCs are being used is (at least bordering on) a research ethics issue of uninformed consent? There seems to be a fairly sizable gap between how the implementers view MOOCs (good sources of data on human learning) and the representation of MOOCs given to potential enrollees (just as good as a traditional college course). That is, the MOOC-boosters present the things as fully realized and adequate post-secondary alternatives, ie the bugs have already been worked out, but what you describe as the value of MOOCs to the machine learning crowd, and more tellingly what Thrun says in the article, seems to indicate that the people putting the things together view the students as essentially beta testers.

          post script: I slept briefly and have had no coffee, this is probably more rambly and inarticulate than usual. Apologies in advance.

          • Tristan says:

            Post Post script: I seem to have woken up enough while writing that to realize my point was already being discussed by people still able to communicate in written language. Further apologies.

      • JL says:

        Who needs any data about how people actually learn? That’s just “soft” science; i.e., not “real” science. (And you better believe this is gendered as hell, as is the right-wing animus against teachers.)

        I usually agree with you, but WTF is this? You think machine learning scientists disrespect how humans learn, or hate social science? Social and bioscience are the basis for most machine learning techniques. You know nothing about machine learning, apparently.

        • JL says:

          Hmm, I may have jumped a little hard on you here, OI. I got pissed because you insulted a field that overlaps with mine and that I have published in. I stand by the content – machine learning folks and AI folks in general are probably the most social science and bioscience interested physical scientists out there, as a group, and a lot have had significant training in one of those fields – but I probably should have been less in-your-face about it.

          If you or anyone else is curious about what Sebastian Thrun (who is in fact a machine learning legend) does when he’s not screwing up on the MOOC issue, he made his name applying human psychology and statistical methods to robots so that they could learn and navigate better.

          • Lee Rudolph says:

            That’s what I wanted to say, but better and clearer.

            I’m sorry to have inadvertently muddied the waters up above by getting confused on what “machine learning” means; my mind had drifted back 40 years or so to the concept (but not the correct name) of what I now remember was called “computer-aided instruction” (which, surprisingly, didn’t entirely transform the university! and teach students better’n'cheaper!! even though it was bankrolled by [I forget which then-big, since EnGulfed&Devoured, publishing house]!!!) and I muddled myself hopelessly.

            • JL says:

              Ohhhhhh, THAT’S what you were thinking machine learning could be. I can see that. I’m just very used to the terminology, I guess.

              I’m curious about what “computer-aided instruction” was 40 years ago – when I think of computers in the college classroom, I think of in-class labwork for computational classes, or course websites, or interactive websites that will let you do exercises at home as a supplement to what you’re learning from the prof in class. I suspect that what you’re talking about is none of those things, not least because I can’t see the college computing infrastructure of 40 years ago being adequate for them.

              • Lee Rudolph says:

                Well, I’ve remembered the name of the publishing house—it was Van Nostrand. The CAI project was, improbably, supposed to teach students (at Brown, where I had just begun to teach, and which had Van Nostrand connections) writing; the PI (if indeed there was any formal grant-like structure involved) was a then-eminent behaviorist in the psychology department, who was also an old friend of my SO, who was at that very moment embroiled in trying to save the MIT Writing Program (which had barely been founded by then, and was already deeply under attack from the Humanities Program, while the scientists and engineers looked on aghast), and who had, shall we say, deep reservations about Jack’s proposed methodology. This made for some awkward moments on weekends. I remember all that very well…but if you ask me to remember the hardware and software, hey, I’m an old guy, and this was 1974 or 1975. I think there were individual machines that gave instant feedback (very pigeon-pecking style), but on what, or how, I have no idea, even though I volunteered and underwent a session or two on one of them.

                There were of course, simultaneously, CAI things going on at MIT, and there were even brief but ultimately fruitless negotiations between the Writing Program and a group from the AI Lab (where I had been a hanger-on and was somewhat connected); there, of course, there would have been no obstacle on the computing infrastructure level (hey, they’d even gotten a color monitor by then!!!), but no one could actually come up with anything worth doing.

                I also vaguely remember some early inter-university network called PLATO that had CAI pretensions.

                • Bijan Parsia says:

                  Oh, yeah. Plato. U of D. A good chunk of old school CAI is just what we’d think of normal eLearning tech today: communication, shared materials, online exams, etc. But there were plenty of AIy attempts: Guideon was an early example. CMU’s ACT-R group spun out a company selling “Cognitive Tudors” that have adaptive and personalized instruction based on a continuously updated model of the student.

                  MOOCs generally area a bit of each.

                • Origuy says:

                  I was at Illinois in the mid-70s, which was where PLATO was developed and when it was in its heyday. It was good for a lot of repetitive training and had some pretty good lessons in other areas. I took a chemistry class that had some simulated lab exercises, along with real lab. I don’t think there were any classes only on PLATO, but at the time the terminals were very expensive and in high demand.
                  PLATO did break ground in a lot of ways, having email, chat (IM), newsgroups (blogs), and multi-user games in 1974.

          • Origami Isopod says:

            Yeah, sorry about that – I think I could have gotten a clearer picture of the field before making that assertion.

          • Tristan says:

            To be fair (and setting aside that Mr. Rudolph was apparently acting under a misapprehension), while my limited experience with them (ie one guy) is that AI types do indeed have a pretty deep respect for soc-sci (for the obvious reason that ultimately their project is to replicate what social science tries to explain), there’s an often quite vocal group of people who don’t actually work in or really understand the field who do seem to sincerely believe that AI is just a matter of ‘making the computer smarter’, and tend to regard any input from ‘soft science’ as a form of heresy (unless they know it’s been endorsed by a real scientist). That kind of thinking is out there. If it wasn’t the singularity would just be some weird thing John von Neumann said in the ’50s.

    • shah8 says:

      With the others, giving a dap to the comment. Good thinking.

  4. Don't Go to Law School says:

    I think that some courses are much more suitable for the MOOC format than others. For example, I think that many lower division or general education classes would be ideal for MOOCs. Introductory chemistry, math, physics, etc. The type of courses where the subject matter doesn’t change from year to year and the type of courses that many students have to take. If you have a really good dynamic professor who can clearly convey the subject matter then it’s a win-win for everybody. This is akin to what BarBri has done, that company has high quality lecturers and most students now use a MOOC type format to learn the material for various Bar Exams. Students can watch lectures anytime, anywhere, and pause, rewind, or even speed up the lecture.

    The MOOC format didn’t work well for these students, but I wouldn’t throw the baby out with the bath water.

    • Erik Loomis says:

      Except that there’s no evidence that it is a win-win for anyone except for the capitalists funding it.

      • Don't Go to Law School says:

        I agree that the amount of money that is made off of courses like BarBri is disturbing, especially considering the low overhead. The company can tape a course once and then distribute it to thousands of people.

        • Dilan Esper says:

          BarBri is a particularly big racket, in that they sign up students three years before they “need” the course when they have no idea whether they actually need it.

          Of course, BarBri pays big money to mostly unionized professors, so it’s never going to get the kind of scrutiny that online learning does here.

          • Hogan says:

            mostly unionized professors

            Really?

            • Linnaeus says:

              Yeah, I wondered about that myself, so I tried a little digging. I took a look at the institutions that encompass most faculty unions at any education level (the AFT, the NEA, and the AAUP) and compared their lists of locals/affliates against the faculty list of BarBri to see if any of their faculty teach at institutions where faculty belong to one of those unions. Only one (Vincent Alexander, at St. John’s) does. I don’t know if any of the other universities that BarBri faculty teach at have faculty unions that are affiliated with a union other than AFT, NEA, or AAUP, but I’m doubtful that many of them do, if at all.

              • Linnaeus says:

                As a side note, though there are institutions where the AAUP does function as a union, most of its chapters do not.

              • Joseph Slater says:

                An even closer look might show even fewer “unionized” faculty doing BarBri course. Because it’s not uncommon for the AAUP or some other union to represent *most* faculty at a university, while the faculty at the law school is still not unionized. This is true, for example, at the university where I teach, and at a number of other universities I can think of off the top of my head.

                • Linnaeus says:

                  That’s a caveat I forgot to add – a faculty union doesn’t necessarily represent all faculty at a particular institution.

                  I should also say that I only looked at the faculty listed on the BarBri website, so there may be instructors at BarBri’s local offices that I didn’t take into account. But even so, I’d guess that those folks are still law professors, and most of those wouldn’t be unionized.

          • Joseph Slater says:

            Dilan: BarBri instructors are, at least normally, law professors, and very few law professors are unionized.

    • wjts says:

      For example, I think that many lower division or general education classes would be ideal for MOOCs. Introductory chemistry, math, physics, etc.

      Those are exactly the sort of courses San Jose State used MOOCs to teach: “elementary statistics, college algebra, entry-level math, introduction to programming, and introduction to psychology”. And in each case, between 56% and 76% of the students failed the course. This is worth repeating: in every entry-level MOOC at San Jose State, more students failed the class than passed it. There’s no baby here.

      • tt says:

        That really isn’t surprising given the students who entered the course. As with many technologies, the early proponents made wildly over-optimistic claims about how revolutionary it is. But just because those claims are false doesn’t imply that there’s no value in the technology.

        • wjts says:

          That really isn’t surprising given the students who entered the course.

          The students enrolled in the course were a mixture of college students in their first years, non-traditional students, and people outside SJSU – exactly the people that MOOC advocates point to as those who have the most to gain from implementing MOOCs as a feature of the college/university curriculum. And the material covered in the courses in question was exactly the type of material that MOOC advocates point to as being best-suited for the MOOC model of instruction. So when SJSU implemented MOOCs in exactly the manner that MOOC proponents say that MOOCs should be implemented, more students failed than passed – i.e., the MOOCs did not do what they were designed to do. To say that this is just an unfortunate instance of wildly over-optimistic claims about the revolutionary nature of MOOCs brings to mind General Turgidson’s lament about the unfairness of condemning a whole program because of a single slip-up.

          • tt says:

            It’s wildly overoptimistic to suppose that MOOCs will do better than traditional courses at educating a particularly difficult population. The Udacity people seemed to believe that they would and they were proven wrong. But MOOCs don’t have to do better to provide value, because of the big advantage in accessibility. They aren’t going to replace traditional education. They will fill a niche that has been empty, and provide benefits on the margin.

            • wjts says:

              Serious question that sounds snarky, though I don’t mean it to: what niche? What margins? What benefits?

              • JL says:

                I’m guessing the niche would be groups like adults who work long hours and aren’t near a brick-and-mortar college, precocious high schoolers wanting something more advanced than what they’re getting in school, or people in poor/developing countries wanting a taste of US higher ed.

                When I’ve had friends working for MIT OpenCourseWare (which is not a MOOC service but is sort of the forerunner of a lot of MOOCs), those were the sort of populations they talked about. Though OpenCourseWare was free – I don’t know if people in developing countries, for instance, can afford the tuition-charging MOOC services.

                • tt says:

                  I’m guessing the niche would be groups like adults who work long hours and aren’t near a brick-and-mortar college, precocious high schoolers wanting something more advanced than what they’re getting in school, or people in poor/developing countries wanting a taste of US higher ed.

                  Yeah. I’ve taken classes with people who only show up to take tests because they work during class hours. A credit-giving MOOC seems a pure win to them relative to status quo.

                  Additionally, not all schools have faculty with expertise in all subjects. Even in undergrad I sometimes wanted to take courses offered at other schools because they aligned more closely to my academic goals than anything offered at my own school. There’s a quantity/quality tradeoff now because most MOOCs aren’t particularly good (I think they will improve with time), but sometimes something is better than nothing.

                • Chatham says:

                  When people say MOOC they seem to throw a pretty wide net. You’re right that open courseware isn’t usually classified as a MOOC, but there are EdX classes that are pretty much the classes on open courseware with extra bells and whistles (the professors and the lecture content are the same, but interactive exercises are added on). Then you have EdX that’s a non-profit, Udacity and Coursera which are free but are trying to make money, and online college classes being used to replace brick and mortar ones.

                  It seems it’s the last one that Erik is mainly concerned with, but he attacks the others as well because they’re also considered MOOCs. I don’t think the effort to replace brick and mortar classes is a problem with MOOCs so much as one part of our much larger general education program.

                  As for MOOCs and self learning, I’m not sure I get the histrionics. I (like many) enjoy learning things. I usually do this through books, websites, brick and mortar classes, from friends, etc. I’m not sure why if I listen to a series of lectures or do a series of exercises it’s fine, but when a series of lectures is combined with a series of exercises and called a MOOC, it’s suddenly insidious.

      • And it should be pointed out – this is a relatively good result for MOOCs. Non-completion rates of 90% are fairly standard.

        Let me repeat that – 90% of students don’t even get to the point where they pass or fail, because it’s really easy to drift away when you don’t have a place you’re scheduled to be every week that takes attendance (at least in section if not in lecture).

        • firefall says:

          Takes attendance? at university level? seriously?

          • Deadly serious – and section attendance is hard-coded into the grading system for the course. The usual rule is that if you miss 3 out of 10 sections without a valid excuse, you fail section, and if you fail section you fail the course.

            Taking attendance at lectures is less common, in part because having people sign their names on an attendance sheet is really time-consuming and inefficient. But I know a bunch of classes where attendance is done through electronic clickers which are also used to allow the professor to ask questions in lecture and see how the students are absorbing the materials.

            If you don’t have attendance requirement, attendance drops way down, which really hurts their grades. Students who don’t attend don’t absorb the lectures, which means their exams and papers don’t include that material, but it also means they don’t understand the formats, due dates, and expectations for assignments, which hurts their performance there. They’re also much less likely to do the reading, because no one’s checking to see if they’ve done the reading.

    • shah8 says:

      You cannot teach chemistry in a MOOC format. It’s resource intensive. You probably cannot teach physics in a MOOC format either. For the things you *can* teach in a MOOC format, they are all things that good students can do at home with a good textbook. In such a case, more efficient to use exit exams for skipping classes.

      For not so good students, I suspect that you can’t avoid the necessity of physical proximity to other students and the teacher.

      • Warren Terra says:

        I have really, really deep suspicions about MOOCs as they’re likely to be implemented, but I don’t understand flat assertions like these. I took a number of large lecture courses, including Chemistry and Physics, in which there were never fewer than a hundred students in the room and I had no personal interaction with any instructor. Except for the social pressure to show up to lectures and possible subtle aspects of keeping a large audience engaged, it wouldn’t have made much difference if the lectures had been given by someone a thousand miles away, or from recordings of someone dead for years.

        I don’t think MOOCs are likely the answer, because I think it’s important to train and to employ academics, and in addition to the large, theoretically replaceable lectures there are other teaching and non-teaching functions requiring a faculty. But I do think it’s silly to assert that one couldn’t learn chemistry from a television screen, when that’s effectively what I did.

        • wjts says:

          What kind of lab time did you have in those classes, though? For some of the types of courses you’re talking about, that’s at least as important as the main lecture component and much more difficult (in some cases, impossible) to replicate using the MOOC model.

          • Warren Terra says:

            I had lab classes for both, and, yeah, bricks-and-mortar is pretty important. I regard the lab courses as an important thing, but they were fairly well separate from the lecture courses, and I don’t really think they greatly contributed to my performance in the lecture courses.

            And, of course, there are other massive lecture courses (calculus, history surveys) that could in theory be delivered by monitor and have no labs. I’m not a great enthusiast of MOOCs, as I said above, but that’s not because I feel many large lectures aren’t replaceable with TV screens.

            • Don't Go to Law School says:

              This was my experience as well. My chemistry, math and physics courses had about 400 students in each class. Students never answered questions, the professor had a microphone and power-point, and I don’t think it would have made any difference if the lectures were recorded and students could access them. Laboratory courses were taught separately from the large lectures. I wouldn’t see a big issue if universities started to single out the most effective teachers and then filmed those lectures for future students. I guess this may differ from a MOOC because it’s not done for profit and the courses probably wouldn’t have distribution outside the campus.

              • (the other) Davis says:

                As Steven points out below, this would exacerbate the problems students have with large lecture courses, rather than solve them. Students struggle with large lecture courses because they don’t get enough interaction with and feedback from humans who can identify where their difficulties lie.

                The solution to this problem is to move to smaller lecture sections, not MOOCs. And I say this as someone who has in fact taught both small and large-ish sections of introductory (math) courses—that increased interaction makes a huge difference in the student experience.

        • shah8 says:

          The lecture to 400 students model was never the best way to educate people, though. Moreover, the lab courses ultimately are more important than the lecture version in the very basics. It’s bad enough to deal with Indian computer science grads who have never really done lab work in their clean and simple computer lab. It would be worse to deal with chemists who have never touched a beaker, for that matter an undergrad in her first serious science class never having written a lab paper or developed any lab instincts at all.

          Seriously, what about MOOCs for these courses are any better than AP courses in high school? If we’re talking about students from poorer schools, I’d think they need more hand holding and not less. If we’re talking about continuing education folks, what makes you think approach would be very appealing to most of them? It might not be readily apparent to people invested in MOOCs, but there is an elaborate ecology for the continuing education folks, with a dedicated infrastructure committed to helping educational needs fit into an otherwise busy schedule. They probably can outcompete MOOCs for customers.

    • justaguy says:

      Have you ever taught a large introduction/survey course? In my experience, student those courses need more attention than upper division courses because they’re not as familiar with the material, and they’re often taking it as a requirement and aren’t especially motivated. Its often not an issue of the dynamism of the lecture, but of the individual feedback given to students.

      • Exactly. That’s why intro/survey courses usually come with discussion sections or labs, because you need a second point of connection with the student to check that they’re understanding what’s going on, that they’re doing the work, etc.

        As someone who’s been a TA a dozen times, almost always for intro/survey courses, the second point of connection is barely adequate as it is.

    • ” many lower division or general education classes would be ideal for MOOCs. Introductory chemistry, math, physics, etc.”

      No no no no – that’s exactly the wrong kind of course to set up as a MOOC. The only kind of course that has been shown to work via MOOC – work in the sense of a majority of students completing and passing the course – are professional courses geared to particular jobs (think medical assistant or technician). In large part, this is because these kind of courses attract the kind of invested, self-motivated students who are going to follow through with the course.

      Intro courses, by contrast, are largely filled up with people who are taking the course to satisfy some requirement of their major or the university, or because they’re brand new to the subject. These are students who by and large haven’t developed the learning and studying habits needed to carry you through a course when the distance of the internet further lowers the barriers against goofing off, and who don’t have the drive to succeed at this course because at the end of the day it’s just a stepping stone to what they’re really interested in.

    • (the other) Davis says:

      This is akin to what BarBri has done, that company has high quality lecturers…

      The BarBri lecturers are of inconsistent quality–a few are quite good, many are middling, some of them downright suck. And the 3+-hour lecture format is absolutely terrible, completely flouting everything we know about how attention works.

  5. Pooh says:

    I’m no huge fan of “reform” in education, but my guess is the failure rate has as much if not more to with with the content of the course than the mooc format itself – I have some experience in a related area, and simply posting the lectures and readings and calling it a course is a pretty good way to ensure high failure rate.

    Which is a roundabout way of saying that one of the key arguments for moocs (lower cost), is basically bullshit when you consider the amount of time that needs to be spent developing and curating a quality online class.

  6. It’s always important to experiment and learn when students’ grades are at stake.

    I don’t feel particularly invested one way or another in this ongoing argument, but it would really behoove you to dial back on the silly reactionary “zingers” like this. You’re not really doing it right.

    • ChrisTS says:

      Hwy/how is that a reactionary zinger? The experiment did require, after all, the participation of those students, and 56% – 76& of them failed the courses they took. Perhaps those failing grades will be expunged from their records,* but if normal policies apply, those Fs will affect their records.

      *and they will get their $$ back. Haha.

      • Bijan Parsia says:

        Indeed. Actually, it’s very ethically tricky to experiment on students, moreso when their grades are at stake. Now perhaps this isn’t research but “classroom exploration”, but there is a duty of care toward students, esp. within the classroom wrt teaching. (For universities, that’s where the duty of care is strongest and most fundamental.)

        At the very least, you need a risk management plan to mitigate the kind of harms Chris details.

        (Of course, it’s all within some bounds on reasonableness.)

  7. With havin so much content and articles do you ever run into any
    issues of plagorism or copyright infringement? My website has a lot of exclusive content I’ve either written myself or outsourced but it looks like a lot of it is popping it up all over the internet without my permission. Do you know any ways to help prevent content from being ripped off? I’d genuinely appreciate it.

  8. wengler says:

    I don’t think anyone would pay anywhere close to normal tuition for these MOOCs. They had remote classroom instruction being offered when I was in high school a little after 2000, and it was terrible.

    This whole idea is as old as the video cassette. Even if the instruction isn’t a recording, the incentive to learn is lessened. Don’t understand something? Too bad. You can rewind all you want but if a concept isn’t getting through, it’s not like the instructor is going to show you another way.

  9. One of the things that I find truly bizarre about this latest education-technology fad is that one of the chief criticisms made of the existing model of education is that the traditional model of university education – the large lecture, combined with supplemental texts for the student to read on their own, the results of which are assayed by a couple of exams and maybe a paper – is ancient, alienating and abstract, doesn’t really grab the student or pay attention to their individual qualities, etc.

    But MOOCs are the same damn model as the lecture, just Taylorized so that fewer professors can teach more students at once, but even worse because the remove of technology means that it’s harder for the student to raise their hand and ask the professor to explain something, or get one-on-one instruction in office hours, etc.

    The diagnosis and the cure are completely contrary.

    • firefall says:

      so just like secondary school educational reform, then? Don’t forget, education isnt a public good, it exists to rent-seeking. Just like everything else in the res publica

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