MOOCs: Skim Milk Masquerades as Cream

The New Yorker writer George Packer (who served in Peace Corps in Togo just a few years before I did–more on that in a minute) wrote a piece for The New York Times today. Entitled “Celebrating Inequality,” it blasts our new culture based around a new elite of celebrity and, of course, money. In it, Packer writes:

This new kind of celebrity is the ultimate costume ball, far more exclusive and decadent than even the most potent magnates of Hollywood’s studio era could have dreamed up.

That made me think of MOOCs, their origin and their supporters.

The MOOCs are centered around supposed “superteachers” from the most elite universities. It’s no accident that Harvard, MIT and Stanford are among those schools most often mentioned in discussions of MOOCs. These provide, supposedly, the “best” education in the world. Why not take advantage of technology to spread that wealth around?

First of all, it is the student who makes the education; no teacher or school “gives” it. It’s not that Harvard professors are elite educators, but that Harvard students are elite students. This is what makes the school so successful. Put a Harvard professor in front of most community-college classrooms and that professor will, most likely, fail. The name “Harvard” dresses up the professors, but it does not make them master teachers.

The best teachers are those who can help the worst students improve… while also assisting the best. You cannot do this if you have never tried to teach the worst… and the worst never darken the doors of Harvard lecture halls.

Which brings us to another point: The MOOCs center upon lectures and technological presentations that leave students, for long periods, passive. They make the teacher and the technology the center, and not the student. The ensuing focus on the teacher fits right in with the pattern Packer describes of an elite masquerading as expert–of everything emanating from a center and out to the periphery. That’s not how education works best, however. It is not a gift from those at the top but the result of work by the learners themselves.

I went to graduate school because I wanted to become a better reader and assumed (correctly) that I could find professors there who could direct my reading. I did not want them to tell me, but to aid me–and they did. MOOCs, no matter how they are dressed up, are a means of telling, not aiding.

Though I don’t know how much Packer’s Peace Corps experience formed his attitudes (he wrote about them in The Village of Waiting), but he must have seen, as I did, the tourists and occasional reporter as they whizzed by in their air-conditioned, chauffeured cars, windows tightly closed, hampers of carefully prepared food and bottled water at their sides–members of the elite taking a look at the poor and deciding, all too often, what is good for them. The Togolese were (and are) often told what’s good for them by people from far away, people who have more money and greater international prestige. People, however, who have absolutely no clue what life is like for the average Togolese.

What we are seeing with MOOCs is pretty much the same thing… people deciding for others (whose lives they know nothing about) what is good for them. The only way they could actually be in a position to know and to help is by stopping the car, getting out, and sharing local food, drink, and conversation with the people where they actually live and work. And by staying for a while, working with the people.  Few from the elite ever do that. In teaching, this means getting away from the elite institutions and coming into substantive contact with students who do not themselves come from elite families or who were not the stars of their high schools. Few from the elite ever do that.

Like the Togolese, these other students can learn–can do it just as well as the elite. But they cannot, if all they are offered is the vision of development or education without the real contact that makes it possible for them to take charge of it themselves. They have not gained enough of a foundation to make use of technological marvels or MOOCs on their own… as anyone who actually works with them knows. Without that foundation, their development or their education is little more than a facade.

Just as sustainable development starts with local communities, sustainable education starts where the students are–not in the vision of a professor at Harvard, MIT or Stanford. Given the obvious nature of this, I can only conclude that what we are seeing with MOOCs is not a mindset of understanding of students, but of worship of the elite. If it’s from a Harvard “superprofessor,” it must be good.

As we have learned from over half-a-century of third-world development, such a mindset rarely improves much of anything. All it does is allow the elite to admire themselves, to preen in front of their mirrors in their costumes as experts.

8 thoughts on “MOOCs: Skim Milk Masquerades as Cream

  1. The author doth protest too much, methinks. You write of elites that are told what is good for them by people who have no clue. You then turn around to assert that MOOCs are worthless. (“Worship of the elite”?) The point you’re missing is that self-paced training CAN be useful. I benefited from good teachers in grad school. In addition, I have used self-paced learning numerous times, especially on technical topics where there is a body of knowledge to learn. (You also sound suspiciously like those elites who are telling people what to think.)

    Recently I took an online computer science course from a major university. Enrolled students watched the same taped lectures and then attended a seminar. Outsiders like me watched the lectures and had access to an online forum where questions could be asked and answered by the professor, TAs, or other students. We submitted the same homework. I felt that I learned a great deal. The seminars could have helped but, hey, I have a full time job, don’t live in the same city, and I still got a good grade. The point is that MOOCs CAN work out for the students. (Maybe they don’t work out so well for the faculty, but someone needs to make a case for why I would care.) Not all courses, not all subjects, not all students–but SOME students will benefit from SOME courses.

    As far as that goes, how is an MOOC different from today’s giant lecture halls, where professor lectures to 500 or 1000 faces, and all of the personal contact comes from TAs?

    This isn’t an all or nothing proposition. New technologies often supplement rather than replace older approaches. Where personal contact with tenured professors is valuable, it will survive. Where it isn’t, it will be replaced. A new technology is not likely to be suitable for everything and everyone. But to dismiss it out of hand, without any consideration of what it does well, smacks of the Luddite.

    • I never said MOOCs are worthless. They can have their place, but they are no more the answer to the needs of education than are huge lecture halls.

      My concern is that most of the world is being sold a bill of goods under false pretenses–just like the third world has been for years. If you want to learn more of this, read this by, Binyavanga Wainaina, a Kenyan thinker and writer:

      • You wrote an impassioned cri de coeur against elites deciding what is good for others, with not a single positive word about MOOCs in your post. Not one. You don’t actually specify what it wrong with the programs advocated by these unnamed elites, just hint darkly that “what we are seeing with MOOCs is … worship of the elite”. Which sounds like a warning against both MOOCs and elites. If you want to make a nuanced argument about when MOOCs should and shouldn’t be applied, please do so. I just can’t find it in your post.

        As far as that goes, don’t most people on this site belong to an education elite? What is a tenured faculty if not an education elite? In essence, you warn against trusting … you.

    • Jim, I don’t think the author ever said that moocs were useless, and I don’t think that is the point of this article anyway.

      Mooc businesses try to lure students into thinking moocs hold great promise for them, and that moocs will make our lives better – we are told over and over that moocs will give us a Harvard education for free, the “best education on earth,” so we should give up our current education format.

      But moocs are full of false advertising, directed at naive students and parents. A large part of what makes harvard “HARVARD” is the community and culture of the harvard students and their elite families, the exclusiveness of harvard, the networking that goes on, etc. Frankly speaking, I doubt Harvard students even need a professor: they will read the books, do the homework, etc., because they have been rewarded their whole lives for being good students – they are already self-learners. So I don’t understand why Harvard/stanford professors are leading a movement to “teach” students they have no experience with (remedial, disadvantaged, etc).

      I must ask: if moocs are so great and effective, then why do they need all of the false advertising and tech hype? I have read rumors that mooc companies might be working with politicians to quickly draft legislation that will divert taxpayer money into the pockets of private companies and schools. That seemed to make more sense to me, but I hope that 10 years from now, students still have a choice.

      Personally, as someone who is not privileged or elite, I find the mooc movement to be kind of insulting. It is as if harvard/stanford professors think that educating people like me is a waste of money, and society would be better off just posting some videos online as some sort of consolation prize. That really hurts.

  2. Jim, I think you are trying to avoid my point. It has little to do with the efficacy of the MOOC (I could write about that as well, but that’s another issue) any more than I would be worrying about the efficacy of tractors were I writing about the problems of agricultural development in West Africa. Tractors don’t work within cultural contexts necessitating small fields… though they are fine for large-scale agriculture. MOOCs can have their place. In something like Fred Keller’s Personalized System of Instruction, there is plenty of room for MOOCs. But MOOCs are in no way the “answer” for higher education any more than tractors are for Togolese village agriculture.

    As to belonging to an elite, yes, most of us do… which is one of my underlying points about the Peace Corps experience. We Americans, in African eyes, are all part of an elite. We need to recognize our position and should not pretend that anyone can join it ‘as long as they have the will.’ There is a lot of luck involved, which is why we should not pride ourselves on being part of the elite and why we should not say that others could get there, too, by following our example.

    • Hi, Aaron,

      Your blog offers plenty to think about.

      What does an underprepared, underprivileged community college student need? Motivation, good study habits, remedial help (tutors, counselors), emotional and financial support, structure, someone to hold her accountable, role-model, someone to make content relevant to her life, guidance, a caring individual, a supportive community, a social/professional network. Does a MOOC offer any or most of these?

    • Your original post started by quoting a blast of a culture of celebrity and money, and likening that to MOOCs. You described MOOCs as centered around superteachers. You make two points, that it is the student who makes the education, not the teacher, and that MOOCs are passive. You compared that to elites visiting Togo to tell people what to do without having a clue: people deciding for others what is good for them, and talk about the importance of getting away from elite institutions to talk to real people about what they need. You assert that students without an elite background cannot learn “if all they are offered is the vision of … education without the real contact. … Without that foundation, their … education is … a facade.” You concluded by saying that “sustainable education starts where the students are” and “what we are seeing with MOOCs is … worship of the elite.”

      Your original post made no mention of any positive aspects of MOOCs for anyone, elites and otherwise, and I concluded that you don’t think much of MOOCs. You’ve said a couple of times that I’m missing your point. I don’t think I’m mistaking your dislike for MOOCs. You don’t like the superteacher model and you think that active personal contact between student and teacher is best,

      Your latest post says efficacy isn’t the point, that MOOCs can have a place but [?] “MOOCs are in no way the answer for higher education.”

      No one is asserting that MOOCs are the “answer”. All I’m saying that MOOCs are a tool, useful in a range of circumstances, that allow reaching students in new ways. I suspect that MOOCs actually have more potential to help non-elites than elites. Consider: my father grew up on a farm and had a high school graduating class of 9. He didn’t take advanced math or science until he went to college. I grew up in a university town and took numerous AP classes in high school (back before AP was big). I had more opportunities from the traditional teaching model than he. Had MOOCs existed then, he might well have benefited more than I as it is simply not practical to put the perfect set of teachers in every small school. More generally, MOOCS stand to benefit poor, rural, nontraditional, non-elite students more than elite students.

      Dpedeva notes that MOOCs can’t provide motivation, study habits, emotional and financial support, etc. True, although the point again is that MOOCs don’t need to be better than traditional models in every particular to be good. MOOCs just need to be useful to some set of students. She worries about unmotivated students; I worry about capable poor or rural students who don’t have access to elite programs. Those aren’t in opposition–far from it–just different populations to serve.

      You don’t say (but probably think, and I would agree) that elite institutions are driving MOOCs and stand to benefit at the expense of less elite institutions. Yes — so what? You do say (and I agree) that elite experts often give bad advice and implement poorly thought out policies. Yes — so what? (Bloomberg’s soda tax must drive you crazy. Let’s agree to hate on social authoritarianism.) I contend (and you appear to agree) that MOOCs have benefits to some students in some cases. You argue that “most of the world is being sold a bill of goods under false pretenses.” I contend that MOOCs are developing and finding their market and am impatient with the “being sold” clause. MOOCs are attracting attention because (some) people want what MOOCs offer. MOOCs aren’t going to replace the personal student/teacher model, any more than off the rack clothes replaced bespoke suits. MOOCs will supplement the traditional classroom, not replace it.

      Incidentally, why can’t anyone join our position as long as they have the will? Presuming that we have a sensible immigration policy and assuming it usually takes a generation or two for immigrants to catch up. Yes, we are lucky in our parents and some of our current success is due to a lucky starting point. But any immigrant to these shores who works hard has a chance to get started. That’s the American way.

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