As part of his global lecture tour touting the miracle of MOOCs, and Coursera in particular, Dr. Andrew Ng made a stop at UT Austin. The presentation itself did not offer anything new to anyone who has been following the MOOC conversation over the past year. It rehearsed the birth of Coursera at Stanford and offered a show and tell of some of the platform's functionality. It was also packed with vague platitudes about learning, education, and pedagogy. Dr. Ng is clearly an intelligent guy; yet, if this had been a presentation for one of my classes, it would have earned a solid C with exhortations to be specific and argue from evidence. I was especially frustrated with the absence of a clear "so what". That is, what, exactly, is the rationale for Coursera? What does it do and how does it do it? I've taken a few Coursera courses and, for the most part, enjoyed them (while recognizing the extreme limitations of the mode of instruction). What about student motivation (and the high dropout rate)?
On the one hand, Dr. Ng tells us, education is a human right; and his goal is to educate everyone, regardless of social origins or financial status. Everyone, he thinks, is entitled to the kind of first rate education that his institution, Stanford, has to offer (I'll leave my thoughts on that particular issue for another post). Never mind that "an education" at Stanford is far more than the 4 years of courses taken by its students. Let's assume for now that, in fact, the "best professors" do in fact teach at the most prestigious (i.e. highly ranked) universities (a remarkably bad assumption). I am sympathetic to the goal of making knowledge open access, particularly in places where students can't afford textbooks and don't have easy access to libraries. I can also see how, for certain disciplines like computer science, a MOOC might work pretty well. Dr. Ng repeatedly stated that a MOOC could certify someone's learning and allow them to get a better job. Again, this makes sense to me in a field like computer science--a field which relies a lot on certifications of various kinds. A smart kid in India can take a MOOC, learn the content, get a certificate from Stanford, and then use that to get a better job. This strikes me as an enormous social good.
The problem is, it only makes sense for highly technical fields which rely on certifications. That is, for fields which might easily be taught in technical schools rather than at universities. It makes no sense whatsoever for most disciplines currently taught at universities. Sure, disciplines like political science or classics can package a course as a MOOC--but it is basically just a group of lectures with multiple choice quizzes. Now, to be fair, this is often the same product that is being delivered on campus to smaller audiences. Yet, because the learning outcomes aren't easily quantifiable and measurable using machines, it is impossible to test deep learning or certify much of anything. Certainly, getting a certificate in Greek Mythology is not going to position anyone for a better job.
Dr. Ng and Coursera are very proud of their apparent solution to teaching course content that requires assessments that can't be machine graded (e.g. analytical essays): peer grading. Suddenly, the talk is all about grading rather than learning. Whereas the discussion of hard science/math disciplined focused on certifying skills (aka learning), now it's about grades. One study has shown that peers grade roughly the same as professors. All well and good, if the point of assigning an essay was to get a grade. It is at this point that Dr. Ng's (and Coursera's) lack of familiarity with and understanding of humanities disciplines becomes a serious impediment. They seem totally unaware that written work is generally assigned as a way to assess student progress and help them improve. 300 word essays are not going to do any of that; as well, despite lauding peer grading, the fact is that it has yet to be a real success or do much of anything apart from assigning an arbitrary letter grade to a piece of writing. Serious humanities scholars ought to be outraged and scared by this aspect of Coursera's self-presentation. It is very clear that the platform cannot support the delivery of a serious humanities course, that involves real and demonstrable learning. In fact, Coursera seems to not take humanities courses very seriously. They want to have some of them on their menu, of course; but, as is often the case in bricks and mortar universities, these courses are treated as second-class citizens, where it is grades rather than learning that matter. I don't mean to single out Coursera for this attitude; unfortunately, all other MOOC platforms share this approach and nothing is going to change unless humanities scholars get serious about figuring out how to deliver our content in a pedagogically sound way to large audiences.
So, to sum up: certain classes have the capacity to perform a real social good. These are classes where the content is highly structured and relatively easy to transfer and assess if student motivation is high. Dr. Ng's class is a perfect example of one such class. Coursera's platform is not well-designed for a serious humanities class. If the aim is to broadcast a series of lectures and check retention with short quizzes, fine. But if the aim is to do serious instruction, well, Coursera isn't there yet nor does it seem to really care. In fact, it is convincing itself that peer grading is the ideal solution.
The real value of Coursera isn't really for the supposed "target audience" but instead, for the paying customers at universities. In fact, when one registers for a Coursera course, one is volunteering to be a research subject in a great experiment on learning. As Dr. Ng admits, they are amassing an incredible amount of high specific data that is giving important insights into student learning--and, because of the scale, is making visible patterns that would otherwise be invisible to instructors. As someone who has experienced this phenomenon on a smaller scale, I know how much my teaching has changed thanks to data about student learning behavior.
But there's an important point to be made here: the real benefit of these MOOCs isn't for the 40,000 students taking them--even if a few students will, in fact, benefit. It is for the 40 students who are taking that course on campus. Thanks to the data gathered from the MOOC audience, an instructor can improve content delivery; identify and address trouble spots; and make better use of in class time by having students watch content outside of class. I am quite certain that, in this regard, MOOCs will pay off great dividends for paying customers in the form of much better classes and more meaningful engagement with the instructor. But it is important not to confuse this benefit with the claim for a larger, more global benefit of making a Stanford (or Princeton or Harvard) education available to the masses. MOOCs are not doing that. They are simply giving the masses the opportunity to sit at the feet of a living textbook for a few weeks. That is not teaching and is not a model that is particularly supportive of learning. Indeed, Dr. Ng tacitly concedes this point when he points out the benefits for the paying students, that is, the students who will actually benefit from evidence-based pedagogy that supports learning.
I am a big fan of universities doing a better job of sharing their resources with the outside world; and I do think MOOCs have an important role to play in education, especially continuing education. The data about learning behavior that they are collecting is going to be an incredible resource as we instructors continue to learn how to better teach our students. But I also feel strongly that we all need to acknowledge what MOOCs can't do (deliver courses where learning can't be machine-graded); and companies like Coursera need to be more honest about what they actually are doing: providing the resources to improve dramatically the quality of on campus education for paying customers; offering universities the chance to advertise their wares (and professors the opportunity to sell vast numbers of their own books); and perhaps appealing even more directly to their alumni (just as alumni cruises and lecture series do). These are worthy goals; but they should not be confused with delivering high quality, online instruction. Even more, they shouldn't distract university administrators from investing in platforms and the development of courses which can, in fact, deliver the serious online learning that MOOCs promise but fail to deliver.