Sunday, August 26, 2012

The Marking of The Beast


This morning I read "Is MIT Giving Away the Farm: the surprising logic of MIT's free online education program" and it dawned on me that I - like so many other educators - had been focusing what attention I had been giving to MOOCs on entirely the wrong things.

Until this morning, I thought about MOOCs in terms of pedagogy, student engagement, and accessibility to higher education.

Where was I wrong?

I'll give you a hint. It's not the video that's important. There have been video lectures in the classroom for decades now. Heck, when I was doing my undergrad at McMaster, they were showing the video re-enactments in the first year psychology course that featured Martin Short who was filmed when *he* was a student at Mac. (Yikes! Evidently they still show the same videos).

I'll give you another hint. It's not about accessibility to higher education. The Open University - not the first example but the one that comes to mind first - has been around since 1969. All the venture capital  that's amassing for online education isn't doing so for such lofty aims.

And it's not about student engagement with other students. Both MOOCs  and MMOGs are Massive and Online but only Massively Multiplayer Online Games are designed as entire cinematic worlds built for exploration and filled with a curriculum of missions that demand real-world collaboration.

No. That's not the revolution that edX, Coursera, CodeYear and Khan Academy allude to.  Nope.

It's the marking.  Automated, scalable, marking.

That's where the millions of dollars are being applied to. It's the demonstrable and incremental success that has made these online educational ventures so very different than all that have gone before. This is  why this field is being led by Stanford and MIT and why other universities are being content with content.  Marking is where the entire enterprise weighs in balance. It's really the only thing what matters if you want to make the course scalable. Or profitable.

And it matters to the student, because it's the ability to get timely and useful feedback that is crucial to  any educational enterprise.  If you, like myself, have struggled during Code Year with a program that won't validate your code and won't tell you why, then you know why having a responsive learning environment is an absolute necessity before you can design any other metics on it.  Audrey Watters of Hack Education knows this; her posts on robo-grading and MOOCs primed me for my own insights today.

And the strange thing is, that the vulnerable soft-underbelly of our educational system has always been the inability of teachers to give meaningful feedback to each student due to a lack of time. Why do first year students come to university with poor writing skills? There's a simple answer to this question. Here's the answer from Dave Eggers in his talk about his (unfulfilled) TED Wish in support of teachers, students, and schools.

And so they would talk to me about this and say, "You know, what we really need is just more people, more bodies, more one-on-one attention, more hours, more expertise from people that have skills in English and can work with these students one-on-one."Now, I would say, "Well, why don't you just work with them one-on-one?" And they would say, "Well, we have five classes of 30 to 40 students each. This can lead up to 150, 180, 200 students a day. How can we possibly give each student even one hour a week of one-on-one attention?" You'd have to greatly multiply the workweek and clone the teachers

I have some more feedback on that same MIT Technology article. It pertains to this passage:
He says the program will actually enhance the value of an on-campus MIT education, letting professors and teaching assistants work more directly with students by liberating them from the time-consuming obligations to lecture and grade. Undergraduate courses could adopt what Agarwal calls the "apprenticeship model," in which students pursue semester-long research projects under faculty guidance. "People on campus get a whole different experience," he says. "You can create a much better, augmented experience than a pure online experience." And only on-campus students can receive MIT degrees.
Notice that what that lecturing and grading are considered time-consuming obligations to be liberated from the faculty member.

You see, if you are a world-class researcher (or if you aspire to be one), you want to spend your time doing world-class research. Your only motivation for teaching is to attract the best possible students to your field of study and turn the brightest and hardest working elite among them into graduate students who can work for you in the lab.  The promise of edX means that you, the world-class researcher, can structure the educational experience completely around your lab work and call it an apprenticeship model.

And I think the truly sad thing about this, is that compared to the math-science-death march of the traditional undergraduate science and engineering experience, that MOOCs -- with all their flaws - will still bring a better pedagogical experience to those students in STEM.  At least with A/B testing of teaching and testing at least half the class will be getting a better experience than what's currently being offered.

Yes this will be on the test.
This is only a test.

2 comments:

Jonathan Rochkind said...

This is an interesting observation.

I find the MIT claim a bit curious though. Even if you record the lectures so you never (never?) need to give them again, and automate the marking (what in the US is usually called 'grading') -- will MIT professors _really_ have time to do a one-on-one apprenticeship with every enrolled MIT undergrad in their classes?

I remain fearful that -- despite the notable examples of very well known universities (for now) providing free online courses -- the real goal of those driving the online courseware trend is simply getting money from more students with much less cost per student to 'deliver', compared to 'traditional' education.

Mita Williams said...

I'm also deeply cynical about the declared motive of turning classes into one-on-one apprenticeship programs that take into account the needs of the student.

On a more hopeful note, I am seeing signs that the threat of MOOCs has increased institutional pressures to provide students a richer experience from their traditional education. First year seminar courses, peer mentoring programs, capstone projects and student portfolio - these, I think, are more positive responses away from traditional lecturing and testing.