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MOOCs and their discontents

To say that MOOCs propagate inequality is to deny their fundamental mission and the thinking that conceived them.

Last Modified: 21 Oct 2013 11:34
Aaron Sekhri

Aaron Sekhri is currently pursuing a degree in Symbolic Systems at Stanford University and is the managing editor of opinions at The Stanford Daily.
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The fundamental principle that guides MOOC providers is to universalise the availability of knowledge and human understanding from the widest possible variety of academic fields [Reuters]

Coded into the DNA of MOOCs (the unwieldy acronym for Massive Open Online Courses) is a profound sense of social, educational, and economic justice. MOOCs are courses from the world's premier institutions of higher learning offered on a variety of platforms, the most notable of which are Coursera, edX, and Udacity. They aim to bring the knowledge and expertise housed in the most selective public and private universities and deliver them to anybody around the world who has little more than a computer or tablet and a working internet connection.

They are inherently egalitarian; the fundamental principle that guides them is to universalise the availability of knowledge and human understanding from the widest possible variety of academic fields. Anant Agarwal, the president of edX, said in a recent interview, "Education is our cause. It's really important that people around the world have access to a great education, much like the air we breathe."

All of these points ignore the most glaring error of [Kendzior's] article, which is to have neglected the question, what is a MOOC, and what isn't it?

Daphne Koller, in her landmark TED talk explaining the concept of the MOOC, began the discussion by somberly admitting, "like you, I am one of the lucky people", describing her relative fortune in the academic opportunities she was afforded throughout her life. She continued, lamenting over the fate of impoverished South Africans living with the legacy of apartheid and the educational disparities it produced, and offered the MOOC as one remedy to such inequalities. That's why I found Sarah Kendzior's probing yet misguided opinion piece, " When MOOCs profit, who pays?", which argues that MOOCs exacerbate inequality and "fail students", so fundamentally flawed.

To begin with, her assertions are steeped in basic errors regarding the workings and philosophies that govern MOOCs. Her judgement that MOOCs have been "failures" is harsh for the fact that Udacity, the oldest of the most well-known MOOC providers, only recently celebrated its second birthday. Kendzior critiques completion rates as being too low, but that metric is not one that is valuable as a definition of success for a MOOC.

The audiences of MOOCs vary, and so, many learners may have neither the intention nor the desire to finish the course as prescribed (that is, by completing all of the given assignments and examinations) and are simply taking the course for their own intellectual edification. For a MOOC open to a general audience, at this stage in time, success is a very different creature than what it is for a conventional university class.

She criticises MOOCs for their impersonal nature, without acknowledging the highly impersonal nature of in-person lectures, where getting the professor's attention requires disrupting, much to the chagrin of other students, the instructor's presentation that has the year-on-year fidelity of a videotape anyway. Many MOOCs do indeed allow students to ask questions, and those queries are then voted upon by the community of students.

The ones that are most pressing for the class are subsequently answered by the professor or the teaching staff in many courses. Additionally, quizzes in many classes are powerful enough to offer immediate feedback for both simple and complex problems, especially in math and computer science options (which Koller describes in her talk).

But all of these points ignore the most glaring error of her article, which is to have neglected the question, what is a MOOC, and what isn't it? A MOOC is not an effort to "replace traditional education". It is a pedagogical and andragogical experiment designed to capitalise on the technological capabilities of the current era that rethinks some of the core tenets of current educational practice (the most important one being that video lectures are an adequate substitute in some cases for in-person instruction and do not alter educational outcomes).

To say that MOOCs are an accomplice to the hardships suffered by students because of the tortured state of higher education is to fail to understand what one actually is and why the mode came into being

A MOOC is not a panacea for all that ails higher education. It is a creative way of reducing costs for those large, mandatory classes that are commonplace at almost all institutions of higher learning. A MOOC is not a standardised entity that does not vary according to the professor that is teaching it. A MOOC is only as good as its teachers, its organisers, its planners (just like any live, in-person class) and the sophistication of the platform that it is hosted on.

A MOOC is not a sinister plot conspired by Silicon Valley capitalists to create a two-tiered educational system that insulates elite students from their poorer, less powerful peers. In its current form, it is a product of a number of lifelong academics and career professors that is still very much in its infancy.

The very notion that MOOC providers are wedging income groups further and further apart is laughable after just a cursory read of the quixotic and lofty aims that their founders propagate. To say that MOOCs are an accomplice to the hardships suffered by students because of the tortured state of higher education is to fail to understand what one actually is and why the mode came into being.

Their founders talk of goals such as bringing the highest quality education to the remotest parts of the world, to offer students the same level and depth of instruction, irrespective of their financial or ethnic background. How can a concept so fundamentally egalitarian and open be accused of creating educational inequalities? MOOC providers can boast stories of their courses giving new leases on life to Syrians suffering the tolls of war and giving humanitarians new tools to inform their field work. Is this not the exact opposite of increasing inequality? And given that MOOC providers have not the ambition nor aspiration for their platforms replace the institutions of university, there is no immediately conceivable possibility of a two-tiered education system arising as a result of their existence.

Indeed, the MOOC is just one of many manifestations of changes arising in higher education and should not be considered as anything but. The ambitious Minerva Project is in fact using the concept of video lectures to create a strain of university education that offers "on a par with those at Ivy League institutions, at half the tuition". It is not inconceivable that the cost savings incurred by MOOCs for large, mandatory, impersonal courses, will actually allow physical universities to subsidize more seminars and scholarships for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Sebastian Thrun's newest venture with Georgia Tech to offer a Masters in Computer Science for $7000 could be that such venture, that such experiment which shows that costs in higher education can truly be bought tumbling down, and open up the doors to a more prosperous tomorrow to all those that could not have imagined such an outcome because of cost barriers.

Kendzior's arguments also implicitly assume that MOOCs are a second-rate, imitation educational mode, Diet College, that fundamentally leave students with poorer learning outcomes. Much of this thinking is predicated on the belief that consumers of MOOCs simply sit passively, gawking at their computers, without reinforcement or support, and so learn less than their live-instruction counterparts, and suffer from their wretched instructional medium. This is far from the truth.

As for credentials, there is admittedly a long way to go for the MOOC, but almost entirely because it has only just begun its journey

Arguably, MOOCs both empower and confer more agency to a student than a large, live, in-person lecture ever could. The video lecture that is the centerpiece of the MOOC may just be a passive broadcast lecture in another medium, but that very medium allows each student to adjust their instruction to their exact, personal, specifications, allowing them to learn in a manner that is ideal for them. Students can rewind for clarification and pause for reflection.

The same student could not do the same that in a university lecture, and even if they had a Nobel Prize-winner teaching them, if they are dumbfounded by a concept by minute 15 of a lecture, chances are that their comprehension and learning has not recovered by minute 60 when the class comes to an end. That is a not a problem with the versatile MOOC, but the fatal flaw of the inflexible live lecture.

As for credentials, there is admittedly a long way to go for the MOOC, but almost entirely because it has only just begun its journey. How do critics expect a MOOC to simply come in and present itself as a viable and legitimate replacement as a signal of student competence against some of our most revered and trusted institutions? Harvard, Yale, and Princeton opened their gates in 1636 , 1701 and 1746 . I daresay that it is asking a tad much of this nascent experiment to eclipse the prestige of these institutions after a meagre few years.

But in time, as the market sees the value of students that press on with the experiment and gain their educations in a blended learning style, credentials will appear to facilitate conversations between students and employers. This is also one of the main goals of MOOC providers and a critical aspect of their business models. It is thus in the providers' interest that their students earn prestigious and highly-remunerating jobs, and so, for their own sake, as well as the sake of their students, they will be working hard to ensure that their courses are sufficiently legitimized and not considered "knock-offs" of the real thing.

MOOCs are flawed. The Udacity debacle at San Jose State was one such indication. I often hear students complain about poorly integrated and ineffective MOOC experiments with their live, in-person classes at my university. MOOCs have received a tremendous amount of hype and have grand expectations to live up to, but to vilify them at such an early stage of their existence seems premature and thoughtless.

To say that they propagate inequality is to deny their fundamental mission and the thinking that conceived them - to argue that they do not yet signal competence to employers is to willfully suppress the fact that they have been around for a scant few years. The MOOC may succeed or fail, but it is essential to remember that its existence constitutes an experiment, an experiment that comes in many incarnations, and one that after many deaths and rebirths will, for better or for worse, make its mark on the educational system that so many of us long to reform and change.

Aaron Sekhri is currently pursuing a degree in Symbolic Systems at Stanford University and is the managing editor of opinions at The Stanford Daily. 

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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