Sunday, February 24, 2013

MOOCs: The New York TImes gets it wrong again; Europe is not lagging behind the U.S.

I feel compelled to again write about MOOCs, but this time because of a recent New York Times article entitled:

“Europeans Take a More Cautious Approach Toward Online Courses”

which can be found here:

The Times has been lately thrilled with MOOCs as a subject but has shown no interest in addressing the real issues in education in their discussions of them. Take for example this quote from Adrian Smith of the University of London printed in the Times article:

“However, you ignore them at your peril,” he said. “The challenges they pose to the traditional classroom model of knowledge transmission are obvious. The question is no longer whether we should consider MOOCs, but how quickly to get involved.”
According to Mr Smith, and one would assume, to the Times, MOOCs challenge the traditional classroom model in some important way. But how do they do that? The very idea of education as “knowledge transmission” is the problem in the first place. Yes, MOOCs transmit more knowledge to more people but knowledge transmission as education is exactly what is wrong with the standard university education model and most education of any sort.

The idea that people can learn by being told, has been ridiculed by movie makers and by philosophers (like John Dewey and Immanuel Kant, not to mention Plato.) Still we persist. Do you know how many life rafts there are on a 757 and where they are located? Why not? That knowledge has been transmitted to you tens or even hundreds of times every time you board a 757. No one listens. Still we talk.

The TImes does quote John Zvereff from Barcelona’s Open University saying:

“I think we should be responding to challenges to the learning model,” Mr. Zvereff said. “At U.O.C., our philosophy is based on accompaniment — each student is assigned a tutor who stays with him or her all the way through till graduation. None of the MOOCs I’ve seen offer anything like that.”
What a weird idea. Teachers are important. Yet, teachers are exactly what MOOCs don’t have. The valid part of the classroom model is not the lecturing and not the tests, it is is the idea that there is a teacher present who you might engage in some intellectually stimulating way. The idea of school, at least in principle, is the interchange of ideas that cause you to challenge cherished assumptions and grow intellectually. This requires a good teacher. That is the teacher’s job, not knowledge transmission. MOOCs pretend to do this of course by having students talk to teach other, which is probably as useful as all the comments sections after a New York Times article. If the Times let one interact with the author of its articles and it we the author’s job to respond to every comment, then maybe the Times would show that it knew something about teaching. Perhaps the Times likes MOOCs so much because they are so much like newspapers -- great at the one way transmission of knowledge.

Another quote from the article, this time from Drummond Bone master of Ball College who: 

told the conference that his university “was very strongly associated with face-to-face, and very expensive, one-to-one learning,” and was unlikely to change.
Good for him.

But, here is the most honest quote from the article:

Veronica Campbell, the dean of graduate studies at Trinity College Dublin, said her school had no open online courses, nor plans to offer them, but “there is a fear of being left behind, so we are considering what to do.”
This is the truth of the matter. Universities everywhere, not just in Europe, are afraid. The Times and others are promoting MOOCs, so universities are afraid of the MOOC tidal wave (for which the Times is, in part, responsible.) 

But this is what universities are actually afraid of:

  1. High quality education, the face to face challenging interaction type, is very expensive to produce. Even the best universities offer mostly lectures. The reason: small seminars taught by famous researchers are too expensive to do too many of. They must be balanced by lecture halls that have a 1000 students even though most everyone knows this is not real education.

  1. On line learning will clearly beat classroom learning eventually. By on line learning I do not mean MOOCs. Why will on line win? Because one can produce authentic experiences, where students learn by doing, with mentors available to help student produce things, at less cost than it takes to run a giant campus.   Build the best Search Engine Optimization course, or Data Analytics course, for example, and no university ever has to put up the money to build another. They just have to provide mentors for that course.

By the way, Europe is not lagging behind at all. A new open university offering on line learn by doing has just been launched in Andorra:

They offer an experiential MBA that I built for them. No U.S. university would dare offer anything like it. Why not? Because universities in the U.S. are run by their faculty and faculties wants no challenges to the existing model. A faculty member may be happy to be the lecturer in a MOOC just for fun, but if that became their actual job they would be running for the hills. Faculty control of U.S. universities means they will never change since faculty have a pretty cushy life that they want to protect. 

But, this is less true in other countries where the bets university education is not private. The Times needs to stop thinking that the U.S. is at the centre of the university world. It may have that position in research but not necessarily in teaching. And, other countries may well be willing to change a broken teaching model that relies on knowledge transmission because their citizens are demanding it.