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The MOOC and the Meaning of “Teaching”

Professor Kaye Adkins, author of this guest post, teaches at Missouri Western State University in St. Joseph, Missouri.

In its May 15 edition, the Wall Street Journal  published an interview with Daphne Koller a co-founder and co-chief executive of Coursera (“Coursera Defends MOOCs as Road to Learning,” Managing, p. B5). In the interview, Koller explains “where teachers fit into the new model” offered by MOOCs (massive open online classes).  After reading the interview, I now have a better of sense of why MOOCs make me, and so many college professors, uncomfortable. The interview revealed that a fundamental misunderstanding of effective, engaging teaching is at the core of the MOOC philosophy.

In the interview, Koller states that the goal of companies like Coursera is to change the role of teachers, so that “a teacher will have more time to spend teaching, as opposed to spending time in content development and preparation and in grading endless repetitions of the same assignment.” This is the core of what is wrong with the MOOC model: Good teachers are not simply content delivery systems. Think about the best and worst classes that you took in college. The best ones included engaged teachers and students in a lively give and take. The worst ones consisted of a professor standing at a lectern, droning on, delivering the textbook material. To call someone a teacher when they simply communicate with students about course material that they did not develop, prepare, or grade is a bit like calling someone a chef who simply delivers a gourmet meal to your table that they did not plan, prepare, or taste.

That bothersome content development, preparation, and grading? It’s at the core of what good teachers do. Good teachers develop the content for their courses by conducting research and studying the research of others in their field. At the end of each class period, they take stock in what happened that day—what students seemed to “get” and what they didn’t, what interested them, and what current news and debates can be connected to the content of the course—and they adjust their plans for the next class accordingly.  Can grading be tedious? Of course. (As a writing teacher, I do a lot of grading.) But it is through grading students’ work that teachers understand how well their students are learning and how to adjust the course materials to improve the education experience for each student.

Separating content development, course preparation, grading, and content delivery does, indeed, change teaching, but for the worse. Koller herself recognizes that universities have “played a critical role in the shaping” of “amazingly gifted scholars, researchers, and teachers.” Those scholars, researchers, and teachers are gifted precisely because of their integrated approach to teaching.

Any good teacher will tell you that the primary work of education happens away from the classroom. MOOCs might be useful for self-enrichment courses, but as long as they deliver education in a piecemeal fashion, they will not be models of good teaching.

15 comments on “The MOOC and the Meaning of “Teaching”

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  7. callalilywriter
    May 24, 2013


    I just had an essay published in the Minnesota English Journal, “The Greatest Job I Never Thought I’d Want,” reflecting on the role teachers can play in students’ lives–if we are allowed to keep class sizes small enough to stay engaged with our students.

  8. Jim
    May 23, 2013

    This is the teacher as auteur model, where education is best done by knowledgeable, engaged teachers who have personally done the field research, put together the materials, teach the students face-to-fact, and provide detailed, meaningful, and personal feedback to each student. We all appreciate a great chef.

    Not everyone can afford this model and surely there are less good teachers. In any industry automation doesn’t replace the highest skills of the best practitioners, but instead automates and improves more basic tasks. Good automation systems typically require fewer practitioners and improve the quality of what they do, for instance by providing . (Typically by raising the abilities of below average practitioners to the level of the best.)

    Arguing against MOOCs because they aren’t as good as the best teacher is like arguing against a prepackaged dinner because it isn’t as good as what the best chef would make. That may be true but many people cannot afford the best chef. Thanks in part to technology, more Americans can afford higher quality food and arguably the best food from superior chefs is more widely available today than in the past.

    Arguing that MOOCs concentrate on delivery rather than student instruction misses the point. Sometimes delivery is more important and in any event MOOCs will augment rather than replace traditional instruction.

    Technologies are often oversold and it may take time to find the right application, but there is every reason to believe that MOOCs will, on the whole, improve education.

    • Aaron Barlow
      May 24, 2013

      So, Jim, it sounds like you are telling us that most of us should be satisfied with the second rate. One problem with the MOOC is that it doesn’t allow improvement, within its own model, to the first rate.

      Your analogy to the “auteur” model of filmmaking is a bit peculiar for it presupposes that students, like films, are creations, not independent actors. Learners are not something one makes, like a movie or a sculpture. Learners are people a teacher assists… an entirely different dynamic.

      Your analogy to automation, is just as flawed. Students, again, aren’t products.

      You are looking at education as if it were some sort of mechanical process, which makes me wonder if you have ever been a teacher. As any successful teacher knows, education isn’t a process–it’s an interaction.

      • Jim
        May 24, 2013

        No, I’m not saying that you should be satisfied with the second rate. I am saying MOOC has value even if it isn’t good as what the best teachers can do.

        “Auteur” is a riff on the comparison from the original post of teachers to great chefs. It seems to fit.

        Yes, of course (snapping fingers impatiently) students aren’t products. The point is that MOOC is a technology that makes it easier, better, faster, cheaper to teach. Technologies typically improve the process, and cause people to focus on different things. I expect the result of MOOCs will be teachers spending more time coaching students on analysis and writing, and less time drilling basic facts. That’s a typical pattern seen when automation systems are deployed.

      • Aaron Barlow
        May 24, 2013

        Jim, it is easy to snap your fingers at something when you have no experience with doing it. You say, “The point is that MOOC is a technology that makes it easier, better, faster, cheaper to teach.” Not so. The MOOCs are nothing more than teaching machines writ large, and teaching machines did not improve teaching efficiency in the fifties and the will not do so today. “Technologies typically improve the process, and cause people to focus on different things,” you write… but that is nonsense: technology “causes” nothing. That has to come from within, from motivation. You say, “I expect the result of MOOCs will be teachers spending more time coaching students on analysis and writing, and less time drilling basic facts.” If that’s what you think MOOCs do, I sincerely doubt you have ever tried one. Certainly, that’s what the older teaching machines tried (and failed, except in the short term) to do, but MOOCs make claim for much more. Finally, you claim, “That’s a typical pattern seen when automation systems are deployed.” Is it really? And are you really claiming that the pattern of automation can be applied to the raising and teaching of children?

      • Jim
        May 24, 2013

        Well, you’re either ignorant of automation or misreading my comments. You assert (without proof) that MOOCs will not (ever?) improve teaching efficiency. My belief is that adding new technology should (eventually) improve efficiency. The history of automation is that the OVERALL system becomes more efficient. Individual tasks might not change. Hence applying technology tends to shift tasks. Certain tasks lend themselves to automation; others do not. Again, rote tasks such as drilling, certain types of assessment, and presenting facts seem to be good candidates for automated systems to take over, which frees teachers to do more valuable stuff. A claim that something failed in the 50′s is not proof that it can’t succeed in the future. (There were, for instance, electric cars over a hundred years ago, but they failed.) New technologies often end up being most effective in ways not originally anticipated and can take quite a lot of experimentation before the best applications are found. I won’t argue that the current MOOC approach is optimal or that, by itself, it will lead to major changes. I will argue that the MOOC approach looks promising. I know my bit about automation and the history of technology.

        Yes, I’ve tried MOOCs. I’ve taken courses this way, put together material for MOOC-style training, and shared experiences with others.

        I didn’t saying anything about raising children. Otherwise, yes, I’m claiming that the pattern of automation can be applied to education.

        Perhaps where you misunderstand is that I’m arguing that MOOCs can and will be effective in some situations, meaning that the idea is, on the whole, good. You seem to be arguing (1) MOOCs aren’t as good as the best teachers and (2) they will never be good enough to be useful. I’m not debating the first point. I strongly disagree with the second.

      • Aaron Barlow
        May 24, 2013

        So… I have to “prove” and you can simply “believe.”

        Again, you are using that false analogy of automation and education. There are no “certain tasks” in education that have been shown to be more effective through automation. Programmed instruction has been around for more than half of a century yet it has not managed to do that.

        What makes you think “the pattern of automation can be applied to education”? What experience do you have, what knowledge do you have, that allows you to argue that two things so different as industry and education can make use of automation in the same way?

        Finally, I have never said MOOCs cannot be useful. As a whole, the sorts of technological presentations associated with MOOCs can be useful within, for example, a Personalized System of Instruction (the “Keller Method”) framework. On their own, though, they are more often presented as a substitute for real education. That’s my objection.

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  10. Richard Hake
    May 22, 2013

    Professor Kaye Adkins writes: “Good teachers are not simply content delivery systems.” Well said!

    Unfortunately, MOOCs, like most Higher Ed institutions, concentrate on DELIVERY OF INSTRUCTION rather than STUDENT LEARNING, to the detriment of their effectiveness – - see “From Teaching to Learning: A New Paradigm for Undergraduate Education” [Barr and Tagg (1995)].

    Richard Hake, Emeritus Professor of Physics, Indiana University

    Barr, R.B. & J. Tagg. 1995. “From Teaching to Learning: A New Paradigm for Undergraduate Education,” Change Magazine 27(6): 13-25, November/December; online as a 111 kB pdf at . See also Tagg (2003).

    Tagg, J. 2003. “The Learning Paradigm College,” with a forward by Peter Ewall. Jossey-Bass, publisher’s information at . information at . Note the searchable “Look Inside” feature. See also Tagg’s website “Reflections on Learning” at .

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This entry was posted on May 22, 2013 by in faculty.

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