Monday, July 21, 2014

We Are the MOOC

Sebastian Thrun of Udacity and Locutus of Borg

While there are lots of views about whether Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs) should supplement or replace classroom instruction in higher education, at least everyone can agree that MOOCs are bad.  And I mean everyone. Every single person who has ever defended or attacked MOOCs agrees that they are bad.  We might even say that the most widely shared proposition in all of higher education would be these three words: MOOCs are bad.

The main reason we know that MOOCs are bad is that even those people who try to promote and defend them tell us that they are bad.  Take this defense of MOOCs:
Schools like MIT should not be forced to dilute the power of their brand by being forced to give their regular degree to students who simply take some of their tuition-free online courses. However, it is equally inappropriate to give no value to the online learning that occurs in a MOOC, particularly if a student can complete a high-quality, rigorous course and then prove mastery of the material on a separate, proctored, certifying exam.
In other words, schools like MIT know perfectly well that MOOCs will "dilute the power of their brand" but MOOCs are fine for less prestigious educational institutions (ie., schools that failed to develop "brands" because they were preoccupied with the work of teaching students).  But while there is unanimous agreement that MOOCs are bad, we are called to support them because they are "innovative." Take these recommendations by the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology:
Encourage accrediting bodies to be flexible in response to educational innovation. PCAST recommends that the Federal Government urge regional accrediting entities to be flexible in setting standards for online degrees to accommodate new pedagogical approaches and to avoid stunting the growth of a burgeoning industry.
So MOOCs should be allowed to compete.  But MOOCs cannot compete because MOOCs are bad.  Therefore, accrediting bodies need to lower the standards so that MOOCs have a chance to compete on a level playing field.  And by level playing field we mean that the MOOCs will offer bad education and we will decide that this just as good.  If this logic doesn't make sense to you, then you are one of those benighted intellects that fails to understand innovation.

A few months back, MOOC guru Sebastian Thrun of Udacity (a MOOC provider that promises that its students "will marry skills with creativity and humanity to learn, think, and do") confirmed that MOOCs were "a lousy product."  But no worries. Thrun assures us that MOOCs just need to be "rethought."  As Thrun points out, the empirical proof that MOOCS are bad is actually a sign of success when looked at through the lens of innovation.  As he explains,
To all those people who declared our experiment a failure, you have to understand how innovation works. Few ideas work on the first try. Iteration is key to innovation.
An idea that worked "on the first try" wouldn't really be innovative.  It would just be a good idea.  But innovation isn't about good ideas.  It's about finding fancy new ways of producing many, many bad ideas to replace the few good ideas that we have.

I've written previously about how innovation functions as a magical word that substitutes the work of fixing problems with belief in easy market-based solutions.  The conviction that innovation promises inevitable progress has come under increasing critical scrutiny, as in this description by Jill Lepore in a recent New Yorker essay:
The idea of innovation is the idea of progress stripped of the aspirations of the Enlightenment, scrubbed clean of the horrors of the twentieth century, and relieved of its critics.
What I want to consider in this post is what kind of thinking is implicit in the culture of innovation, especially in relation to Thrun's concession that MOOCs need to be "rethought."  In innovation culture, thinking is fun.  Ideas are "thrown out" and "batted around" in fora like "thinkpieces" or "thinkubators" or "idea festivals." These idea parties are favorably compared with the boring, laborious, stuck-in-the-mud thinking done by scholars.

So what kind of thinking is this? In the best analysis I have seen of MOOC discourse, Aaron Bady notes:
I would put it to you that the logic of the MOOC is a function of shallow thinking, of arguments that go no deeper than a David Brooks or Thomas Friedman column. But they also valorize and reward that level of depth, even make it compulsory. MOOC’s are literally built to cater to the attention span of a distracted and multi-tasking teenager, who pays attention in cycles of 10-15 minutes. This is not a shot at teenagers, however, but an observation about what the form anticipates (and therefore rewards and reproduces) as a normal teenager’s attention span. In place of the 50 minute lectures that are the norm at my university, for example, MOOCs will break a unit of pedagogy down into youtube-length clips that can be more easily digested, whenever and wherever. Much longer than that, and it falls apart; the TED talk is essentially the gold standard. But I want to suggest that the argument in favor of MOOC’s can’t handle all that much complexity either; it makes sense at the speed of a TED talk, or the length a NY Times column, but starts to come apart very quickly if you go any deeper or longer than that.
The allure of MOOCs is they promise ease and accessibility in place of the work, rigor, and precision required to think.  Part of what makes this easy is that the innovators who produce ideas do not bother with the labor of evaluating them.  In lieu of the difficult work of making and defending decisions, an innovator produces options.  The reason that Thrun's call to "rethink" is a misnomer, then, is that there was no thinking in the first place.  Activities like brainstorming or spitballing or thinkubating might have a superficial resemblance to thinking, but they are substantially different.  Thinking is about making choices.  It involves intelligent discernment among ideas with the aim of deciding what is persuasive.  Educators, unlike MOOC providers, do not offer products for passive consumption.  Educators teach students to criticize choices, to provide evidence for choices, to evaluate the logic that supports choices, and to think about the consequences of choices. An educated thinker is someone who has learned to be accountable for the effects of his or her decisions.  By letting the market decide, innovation culture abandons thinking's most important function.

By inviting us to abdicate the work of thinking in favor of passive acquiescence to conventional wisdom, innovation culture recalls the warning from the Borg of Star Trek fame:
We are the Borg. Your biological and technological distinctiveness will be added to our own. Resistance is futile.
For all of the talk of creativity and freedom, innovation culture asks us to give up independent inquiry.  Rather than make the decisions of a marketplace subject to critical thought, the innovator makes thinking subject to the decisions of a marketplace.  By reminding us that resistance to markets is futile, MOOC advocates do not seek to supplement a university education as much as they call into question the need for education in the first place.  After all, education does not make things easy or accessible.  Education empowers students to do difficult work. As Benjamin Bratton puts it in a Ted talk on Ted talks, innovation culture's belief in inevitable change works as a "placebo technoradicalism" that inculcates habits of passivity that prevent meaningful structural change:
If we really want transformation, we have to slog through the hard stuff (history, economics, philosophy, art, ambiguities, contradictions). Bracketing it off to the side to focus just on technology, or just on innovation, actually prevents transformation.
A critical thinker, unlike an innovator, is equally suspicious of new and old ideas.  The problem with the view that MOOCs are simply a new educational technology is that it overlooks a more fundamental disagreement about the purpose of education.  The question, then, is should we educate students to be passive market actors or should we educate students to be the kinds of active thinkers capable of criticizing what markets produce?

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