Scaling Education: The Absurd Case of the MOOC

Theatre at the Temple of Apollo

Theatre at the Temple of Apollo

The Chronicle of Higher Education (online) recently reported results of a survey looking at faculty teaching on MOOC’s (massive open online course) and found much interest and expectation around this new format.

The survey, conducted by The Chronicle, attempted to reach every professor who has taught a MOOC. The online questionnaire was sent to 184 professors in late February, and 103 of them responded.

Hype around these new free online courses has grown louder and louder since a few professors at Stanford University drew hundreds of thousands of students to online computer-science courses in 2011. Since then MOOCs, which charge no tuition and are open to anybody with Internet access, have been touted by reformers as a way to transform higher education and expand college access. Many professors teaching MOOCs had a similarly positive outlook: Asked whether they believe MOOCs “are worth the hype,” 79 percent said yes.

The survey of professors was not scientific, particularly because it was of those who are already teaching MOOC’s, but it paints a picture of enthusiasm among those — many who were initially reticent about the potential of online education at that scale – engaged with the medium.

Global Potential vs Global Hype

NY Times columnist Thomas Friedman, never one to resist enthusiasm for global movements, speaks of the MOOC as a revolution. Friedman suggests how a MOOC-driven education system could potentially change foreign aid given its promise to do good things.

Anant Agarwal, the former director of M.I.T.’s artificial intelligence lab, is now president of edX, a nonprofit MOOC that M.I.T. and Harvard are jointly building. Agarwal told me that since May, some 155,000 students from around the world have taken edX’s first course: an M.I.T. intro class on circuits. “That is greater than the total number of M.I.T. alumni in its 150-year history,” he said.

Yes, only a small percentage complete all the work, and even they still tend to be from the middle and upper classes of their societies, but I am convinced that within five years these platforms will reach a much broader demographic. Imagine how this might change U.S. foreign aid. For relatively little money, the U.S. could rent space in an Egyptian village, install two dozen computers and high-speed satellite Internet access, hire a local teacher as a facilitator, and invite in any Egyptian who wanted to take online courses with the best professors in the world, subtitled in Arabic.

For Friedman and many of those writing on MOOCs, the potential for this new format to bring the world’s best higher education to anyone, anywhere, in any country is enormous. It is an example of taking an innovation to scale on perhaps the most extreme. With the click of a mouse the entire world can learn together easily.

Except, it is a lie.

Writing as a guest on the Worldwise blog as part of the Chronicle of Higher Education, professor of writing and rhetoric Ghanashyam Sharma  puts truth to the lie of the modern online education movement’s hype. In an article called A MOOC Delusion: Why Visions to Educate the World Are Absurd, Sharma illustrates the faulty thinking that underpins much of the MOOC enthusiasm for transforming global education. His critique is less about MOOC’s as an educational vehicle in itself, but the global, culture-free scale at which they seek to operate.

There is a dire need for some healthy skepticism among educators about the idea that MOOCs are a wonderful means to go global in order to do good. For our desire to educate the whole world from the convenience of our laptops to be translated into any meaningful effect, we need more research about how students learn in massive open online platforms, and a better understanding of how students from different academic, cultural, social, and national backgrounds fare in such spaces.

Education at Scale

Drawing on his own personal experience with teaching in different contexts, beginning with Nepal and then moving to the University of Louisville and now SUNY Stony Brook, Sharma points to the subtleties in cultural learning styles that did not translate from space to space. He speaks of enormous challenges and, fortunately, the opportunity to meet these with resources to aid him in adapting his teaching from context to context. In doing so, he points to the myth that the global classroom will be filled with people all learning the same way, from a compatible perspective, and using the same language. Even simple differences in the way he presents as a teacher can change the manner in which students learn – and those differences are rooted in culture.

As a teacher myself, I know much of what he writes. Even a ‘simple’ face-to-face graduate course presents considerable pedagogical challenges for me. As an instructor  in public health I need to consider things like:

  • Disciplinary background. Each discipline has communication ‘sub-cultures’ and traditions that differ. A student with a sociology background might be used to rhetoric while one from the basic sciences may be used to communicating through technical reports. Each discipline also uses language in different ways, with terms unique to that discipline.
  • Cultural backgrounds. Students from around the world will present differently in the way they approach the material, the presentation of arguments, and the level of participation in class. Even within a narrow band of cultural contexts that present within my classroom (usually there is perhaps 10-20 per cent of students are international) I am always amazed at the nuances that play out in the classroom. Race, gender and language all add additional complex layers that would require volumes to unpack here.
  • Personality and motivation. Students that are more reserved in class will experience each lesson differently than those who are outgoing. Personality and motivation change the type of discussions learners engage in and shape their interactions with other students. This is not to say that one personality style is better than the other, but whether you’re introverted or extraverted, confident, clear spoken or highly social shapes the classroom. Face-to-face encounters allows for some modulation of these effects to encourage participation with those of different needs.
  • Literacy. Whether it prose, numeracy, or discipline-specific language use, the literacy of students is tested when they have to take in material — whether through lecture, small groups, video, audio or text — and convey arguments.

These are constraints (and opportunities) in most modern universities, whether the course is delivered face-to-face or online. The amount of effort to engage a room full of eager learners is enormous if I attend to these various issues. As an educator, it is effort that I believe makes for a good experience for everyone and is a joyous part of the job. But I am speaking to a room of about 25 graduate students at one of the best universities in the world who are all present and sharing the same environmental context even if it is as a visiting student.

What happens when we are teaching to a ‘room’ of 150,000 people from all over the world?

Understanding scale

I do believe that we can learn much from online courses and that much can be conveyed via the MOOC that brings content to the world in ways that are appropriate and useful for a general audience. I am not against the MOOC, but I do think we need to carefully consider what it means to take education to scale and ask some deeper questions about what the learning experience is intended to achieve.

We need to design our educational experience using the same principles or design thinking we would apply to any other service of value.

The lie is in believing true education of a global audience in the rich way that a university or college intends is not only possible, but appropriate. What is being lost in the effort to make a common experience among a global classroom? Are we just sending out information or are we creating a learning environment? To what degree does the MOOC serve this purpose well. That is what a designer might start with as they move to asking how might we bring learning from one context to another.

Ghanashyam Sharma points to the folly in those who think the jump from culture to culture can be easily made when teaching the world at one time. The MOOC offers enormous potential to re-shape the way people learn and promoting access to content and expertise that many in this world could have only dreamed of years ago. But the naivete that such learning can be done in an monocultural way without losing something special about the context in which people learn and use what they learn might lead to some expensive lessons.

Sharma is right to ask for more research. Thomas Friedman is right to inspire us to think of creative ways to bring the wealth of the west’s educational treasures to the globe. The key is to figure out what parts of this global vision are real or possible, which are illusions, and which are delusions.

Unlike the auditorium at the Temple of Apollo at Delphi (pictured above) the audience for what we teach now are not from one place, time and shared cultural perspective; they represent the world. Without an understanding of what scale means in education we might be producing more ignorance than knowledge.

Photo: Cameron Norman

2 Comments on “Scaling Education: The Absurd Case of the MOOC

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