Saturday, August 25, 2012

To MOOC or not to MOOC?

As a way of keeping  tabs on the development of MOOCs, I signed up for Chuck Severance’s Internet History, Technology and Security MOOC on the CourseEra site.  While one can’t officially enroll in the course this late in the game it is still possible to visit the class.  Chuck has collected excellent oral histories for the course, including interviews with Robert Caillau (Co-inventor of the Web), Joseph Hardin (who played an important role in the development of Mosaic), and Brendan Eich (the inventor of JavaScript).   Interspersed among the interviews are videos of Chuck pretending to confide the real narrative that lies behind his interlocutors stories.   (The “confiding” aspect is a little ironic since the class is open to the public.)  The material is superb and much of it is Creative Commons licensed so I’m considering incorporating a bit of it in my own course on Web development that I’m teaching this fall.

Of course with the ouster and reinstatement of president Teresa Sullivan at UVA at the hands of a board who didn’t think she was jumping quick enough into MOOCs, we’re all wondering whether MOOCs are the next disruptive innovation that are going to turn the academy on its head.  Are we about to get left behind if we don’t sally forth into this brave new world?  One provisional answer to this can be found in a Times op ed piece titled “The Trouble With Online Education” by Mark Edmundson who teaches at UVA.  In the closing paragraph of that piece Edmundson writes:

“You can get knowledge from an Internet course if you’re highly motivated to learn. But in real courses the students and teachers come together and create an immediate and vital community of learning. A real course creates intellectual joy, at least in some. I don’t think an Internet course ever will. Internet learning promises to make intellectual life more sterile and abstract than it already is — and also, for teachers and for students alike, far more lonely.”

An eloquent soliliquey but does Edmundson describe the student experience in a MOOC accurately?  Here’s my provisional answer based on my own MOOC experience:

First I’m in agreement with Edmundson that a MOOC is lonely.  This is because there’s very little two-way interaction between the instructor and the students (how could there be very much in a class where the instructor-student ratio in my particular class started at 1 to 42935?).

Second, the peer learning that is supposed to replace the lack of student-instructor interaction mitigates this loneliness to some degree but not very much.  And, by way of illustration, in the P.S. to this post I include our first writing assignment, my response, and the peer feedback I received.  Since the feedback is anonymous I still feel like it’s a little impersonal; no tonic for overcoming loneliness there.

Third, pace Edmundson, and in spite of the loneliness, there’s still some “ intellectual joy” to be found in a MOOC.  The videos (check them out) are really interesting and personalize the historical development of the web in a very rich way.  There’s true erudition and edification happening even if it’s not based on a lot of student-to-student or student-to-instructor interaction.  Moreover, the peer feedback I’ve received on my essay isn’t that much less substantive than many comments I’ve gotten back on essays I wrote as an undergraduate.  And they compare favorably (at least in number of words) to the amount of commentary I’ll give back to a student who I grade in my own online courses.  The comments might be anonymous, and they might not be as substantive as they could have been, but I still experienced at least a modicum of intellectual joy in reading them.

There are no grand conclusions to draw from all of this except to say that instead of pronouncing from the sidelines about online’s relative worth, it’s helpful to actually participate in a course and use it to shed light on how serious a threat MOOCs pose to traditional forms of pedagogy in higher education. In a Tech Therapy podcast last month George Siemens (who was one of the first academics to host a MOOC) put it this way:

When you hit a time of uncertainty when you don't have an answer to a question you begin to experiment. You try different approaches to get ahold of the phenomena you are trying to grapple with.  Well today the university system itself is becoming the subject of that research. Greater numbers of researchers are starting to recognize that maybe the university system isn't the optimal model.  So I would say open online courses are just one attempt at trying to research what might a university look like in the future.

In other words, we need to investigate these options.  But even Siemens would agree that we don't have to adopt them wholesale.  Such explorations can help steer a middle ground between educational boards (like UVA’s) who might be attendant to markets but are hardly expert teachers, and professors, who know more than boards do about teaching , but are embracing change a little less quickly than many boards would like.

Faculty should take heart in the symbolic victory represented by the reinstatement of Teresa Sullivan and the fact that the views of Professor Edmundson are being given a voice on the national stage.  Faculty after all deserve to set the direction of their university as much as any board does.  But that victory isn’t a pretext for ignoring the way that technological innovation and market forces are challenging traditional pedagogical arrangements.  To share influence responsibly means that we need to investigate these new developments first hand – by participating in their development we have a better chance of making them serve the ends of education.  In charting a path forward our best counsel isn’t so different from that which was pronounced by Alexander Pope during a former revolution:  “Be not the first by whom the new are tried, Nor yet the last to lay the old aside.”  Between a board like UVA’s and the conservatism of professors like Edmunson are a large group of people who embrace change but are interested in doing so at Pope’s pace.  Discovering the virtues and liabilities of MOOCs through actual hands on practicums can help clarify what that sensible rate of change actually is.


The Assignment

In many ways, the Internet is the result of experts exploring how people, information, and technology connect.

Describe one example of these areas (people, information, and technology) intersecting, and how that connection ultimately helped form the Internet. Your example should be taken from the time periods we covered in the first two weeks of course (Week 1: 1930-1990).
Write 200-400 words (about 2-4 paragraphs) and keep your answer focused. Don't make your answer overly long. In your answer connect back to concepts covered in the lecture. You can also make use of sources outside the course material. If you use material from outside the course to support your essay, please include a URL or other reference to the material that you use.

My Submission:

I appreciated Chuck’s short history of store-forwarding which seemed (based on the presentation anyway) to eventually be replaced by packet-switching. Both of those developments seem relevant to the assessment question in that they represent examples of people (academics mostly), and institutions (universities and the national government) and technology (forwarding-computers and routers ) connecting and forming larger and denser networks in ways that seem to anticipate the Internet as we know it today.

In the store-forwarding narrative I really keyed in on Chuck’s point that universities had a financial incentive to increase their connections and that the local connections in some ways were the most fiscally rewarding to cultivate: even if academics in Ann Arbor wanted only to connect and communicate with colleagues in Cleveland, their university had a financial incentive to connect with intermediary institutions (like University of Toledo’s) because doing so reduced the cost of their leased line. I hesitate to say that this development and concomitant economic imperative formally represents an example of “experts *exploring* how people, information, and technology connect.” But the fact that it’s a story about a growing electronic network, and one that was undoubtedly supported by experts who were trying to reduce connection costs for their universities (if not formally exploring these relationships) qualifies as an example in my book.

The packet switching narrative, and Chuck’s talk about Arpanet, is in many ways an example that is more germane to the assessment question (which specifically asks us to focus on the enterprise of “exploration”) since it was a formal research project about networking and connectivity and research, by definition, is about “exploration.” That example, speaks for itself; it powerfully elucidates how government sponsored research, and the appropriation of monies to expand our understanding of how best to form human connections via electronic means, were key drivers in the development of the modern Internet and all of the positive legacies that brings to us today. (Let that be a lesson to all of you Grover Norquist fans out there!). But if government was a key player (especially in the Arpanet story), the store-forwarding example suggests that markets, and the sheer desire to reduce the cost of one’s leased line, also played a role in incentivizing the exploration and refinement of electronic connection.

Peer Feedback:
 student1 → Great job, written with an interesting perspective. The style is a bit conversational, but otherwise it's a good paper.
student2 → Well-written and enjoyable to read. A question that I have for Dr. Chuck is whether he finds it acceptable to be writing responses as informally as you have done. That is, your response is in the first person and presents a subjective position rather than sticking to a third-person perspective with positions that are entirely supported with historical examples.
student3 → Well written piece , my only suggestion would be include a specific example from outside the covered material . Have a look at LISTSERV as an example where people information and technology was used to provide a solution to the problem of shared interest communication.
student4 → Loved this one the best of the five I was sent. I think that someone who knows who Grover Norquist was would appreciate reading this! I don't :-( ....But I will Google him and start learning. Thanks for a great read. You should submit it to the forum. I'd vote for it.
student5 → This is quite an interesting take on the classes so far and very well written. It is an interesting point where you say "That markets, and the sheer desire to reduce the cost of one’s leased line, also played a role" I had often though of the markets as companies like AT&T that had been against the idea of the internet but you make a good point that there was non-government pressure as well. Certainly made me think, well done.
student6 → Nice work


  1. What are your thoughts on how coursera might make room for more community building? I wrote about the forums in my blog and I've a feeling that the highly negative experience occurring in the course I'm taking is not endemic throughout coursera. I feel that if there were a stronger sense of community amongst the students, some of the abusive chatter would fade away or not manifest at all.

    I have some ideas but am curious to know what you think would help reduce or even get rid of the isolation you, as a student, experience.

    1. Good question. I guess the short answer is that community building is often anchored and fostered by place-bound interaction. The default MOOC isn't place-bound so it doesn't take advantage of that as much as a brick and mortar classroom. Maybe what MOOCs need to do is provide a utility (maybe this utility already exists?) that allows you to quickly identify classmates who are enrolled in your geographical proximity. Then you could meet in person and get rid of some that loneliness!