Thursday, March 21, 2013

Mocking Friedman's MOOCs

Thomas L. Friedman is the Op-ed columnist for foreign affairs at the New York Times. He has won three Pulitzer Prizes (1983, 1988, 2002).

According to Wikipedia, Friedman has an undergraduate degree from Brandeis University (Boston, USA) and a Master's degree from Oxford (UK). He taught a class at Brandeis in 2006 but as far as I can tell that's his only experience with university outside of being a student. He does not appear to be an educator and he doesn't appear to have any expertise in pedagogy.

That hasn't prevented him from writing three opinion pieces on the imminent demise of universities and the glorious future of online courses—especially MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses).

Come the Revolution May 15, 20012
Revolution Hits the Universities January 26, 2003
The Professors’ Big Stage: March 5, 2013

I've written before about the hype over online courses but that was mostly an attempt to refute several myths that have clouded the debate [On the Quality of Online Courses]. It's simply not true that because a professor is famous, the course must be good. Lot's of famous professors teach crap [see Is Canada Lagging Behind in Online Education? for a biochemistry example]. It also not true that just because an online course comes from a "prestigious" university (e.g. Harvard, MIT, Stanford) that the course is good (see previous example).

There are other objections to online courses and several bloggers have specifically written about Friedman's articles. As it turns out, rumors of the death of universities are exaggerated—but not totally unwarranted.

The best blog article is by Mathew Pratt Guterl, a professor of African and American studies at Brown University (Providence, Rhode Island, USA). I completely agree with his post from March 7, 2013: Why Tom Friedman is Wrong. Here's an excerpt ...

I will simply say this, earnestly: most of our students do not know how to read a film, or dissect a book, or think critically about a lecture, or an idea. If you ask them to analyze an object, they can't do this intuitively. They do not know how to watch a lecture online and take notes on it. With the exception of the most privileged, they come from a primary and secondary education landscape denuded of funded, pruned of intellectual ambition, and yoked to poorly-thought-out standards. They have parents who have made every decision for them, and who still oversee much of what they do. They do not understand that the frantic pace of the semester is a part of the lesson, that what they are doing can't be slowed down, or consumed at their own leisure.

And even the best and the brightest - all shiny and fancy - aren't prepared to think, aren't taught, really, to do the hard, close, dirty work of learning enough about one thing to teach it thoroughly to someone else. That, after all, is the true measure of competency. They flit, like so many others, on the surface. Just like Friedman himself. The world always looks flat from the penthouse, but it isn't.

In short, our students arrive not knowing how to learn. This is why they go to college. And it takes time for them to figure it out. This is why they stay for four years. Or more. We aren't just giving them information and competency; we are making it possible for them to recognize both. That is much more difficult. And it can't be delivered by youtube.
That's the way we should be teaching. If we did, then MOOCs would be clearly recognized for what they are—low quality education.

We all know that Mathew Pratt Guterl's (and my) ideal university doesn't exist. Many of the courses we teach are simply memorize and regurgitate exercises with silly multiple choice exams.


That leads me to the second blog posting that I'd like you to read. It's by Cathy Davidson and she posted it in January, 2013 [If We Profs Don't Reform Higher Ed, We'll Be Re-Formed (and we won't like it)]. Her point is that university education is in bad shape and that's partly what makes MOOCs look attractive. The take-home lesson for all professors is that if you can be replaced by an online course then you should be.

I don't agree with Cathy Davidson's philosophy of teaching and neither will Mathew Pratt Guterl, but she does make some cogent points about the problems with online courses. What I'm mostly interested in is promoting the idea that if a professor's course can be converted to an online course without any loss in quality then this says more about the quality of the course than the advantages of online courses.


15 comments :

  1. Should his "only having taught one course" reasonably "prevent him from writing three opinion pieces" on the education system?

    I know lots of professors with an extremely myopic and "uneducated" view of the education system; I know lots of outside observers with a excellent grasp of the relevant politics, economics, educational theories, and/or national trends.

    Of course, there are professors who are competent on the topic, and outside authors who are incompetent. But, I expect that there is very little correlation between the two factors (quality of opinions on education vs. "being an educator").

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  2. Should his "only having taught one course" reasonably "prevent him from writing three opinion pieces" on the education system?

    Let's put it this way. Friedman is well versed in foreign affairs and he can be considered an expert on the Middle East. I've visited Hawaii. Does that make me an expert on foreign affairs?

    I'm not saying that every professor is an expert on university education. What I'm saying is that there are very few people outside of the university community who really understand the problems we face.

    I expect that there is very little correlation between the two factors (quality of opinions on education vs. "being an educator")

    That's nonsense. You don't really believe that do you?

    Is there any correlation between quality of opinions on the law and being a lawyer?

    Is there any correlation between quality of opinions on medicine and being a doctor?

    Is there any correlation between quality of opinions on plumbing and being a plumber?


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    1. Is there any correlation between quality of opinions on medicine and being a doctor?

      Little to none.

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    2. The earth is flat, and don't let no geologist tell you different!

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  3. That's nonsense. You don't really believe that do you?

    Is there any correlation between quality of opinions on the law and being a lawyer?....


    This is a very fair point. If I can clarify what I mean:

    I *do* think there is a correlation between quality of opinions on education and being an "educator" -- ie, someone who specializes in education (as a lawyer specialized in law and a doctor in medicine, etc).

    However, I don't think *most* university science professors specialize in education. Most specialize in being scientists. They are experts in doing research, and publishing, and running a lab, and writing grant proposals, and analyzing data in their field -- and they teach a class or two per semester, in which they talk about the science they are experts in. Most don't know the evidence-based "best practices" in science ed or in higher ed; they don't follow education policy debates; etc. They haven't specialized in education, they've specialized in science.

    Obviously there are many exceptions, and examples of professors who specialize in both. (I think you've periodically mentioned learner-centered science education, or active learning techniques, which suggests that you are more interested and familiar with the education side of things than most.)


    Let's put it this way. Friedman is well versed in foreign affairs and he can be considered an expert on the Middle East. I've visited Hawaii. Does that make me an expert on foreign affairs?


    I'd say that a vacation to Hawaii isn't quite comparable to the experience of being the instructor of record for an econ course in higher ed...

    Regardless, I don't think whether or not he's taught one course, or zero courses, or a dozen courses, is a major factor when assessing whether or not someone is worthy of weighing in with their opinion on trends in education.

    The fact that his primary expertise is in foreign policy is definitely a major strike against him.

    The fact that he's an expert in globalization and economics, and that he's written a book (That Used to be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back) in which he knowledgeably discusses such topics as the revolution in information technology and the importance of investment in education, is a point in his favor.

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    1. The fact that he's an expert in globalization and economics, and that he's written a book (That Used to be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back) in which he knowledgeably discusses such topics as the revolution in information technology and the importance of investment in education, is a point in his favor.

      And the fact that he's talking nonsense in his op-ed pieces is definitely not a point in his favor. It shows us that he's not very knowledgeable about university education.

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  4. This is an origin issue and I never went to university. i'm self taught about what i'm taught.
    What is a university for?
    its just a place for learning and the official acknowledgement one has learned. A degree.
    If its subjects then why not online courses. Its fixed knowledge.
    If its professors or fellow students that are helping one learn then its variable knowledge.
    So the equation is between fixed and variable knowledge.
    My impression today is that the kids are useless. its not the old days when the kids tened to be from the upper classes and smarter and more motivated for right reasons.
    I suspect professors also were a bit better for many reasons.
    It should be that university is about both fixed and variable and truly a gain for everyone.
    There are bigger problems with universities today however then on line issues.

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  5. Would Sal Khan's videos also be classified as MOOCs? Some of them are pretty good and they seem to widely utilized.

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  6. And even the best and the brightest - all shiny and fancy - aren't prepared to think, aren't taught, really, to do the hard, close, dirty work of learning enough about one thing to teach it thoroughly to someone else

    I don't think that someone whose credentials consist mostly of writing pseudo-scholarship like "Josephine Baker’s Colonial Pastiche" is even remotely qualified to say a single word about critical thinking.

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  7. As always in these cases my first question would be how a laboratory practical in physical chemistry or a botanical excursion to a beech forest would be turned into an MOOC. Only people who have studied something in the humanities can come up with a fever dream like this.

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    1. As always in these cases my first question would be how a laboratory practical in physical chemistry or a botanical excursion to a beech forest would be turned into an MOOC. Only people who have studied something in the humanities can come up with a fever dream like this.

      On the contrary... lots of physicists, chemists, ed researchers, etc. are developing tools for online learning(not originally intended for a MOOC environment, but certainly applicable there). For example: http://phet.colorado.edu/en/simulations/category/new

      Those folks also studied, under controlled conditions, how well it worked to replace a particular physics lab (a circuits lab) with a computer-based equivalent. In at least this one instance (http://prst-per.aps.org/abstract/PRSTPER/v1/i1/e010103), they found that the students who did the computer-based lab did *better* (on conceptual test questions, and even in a physical circuit-building skill test) than the students who did the original physical lab.

      Of course, this doesn't mean that it's possible to do that with *every* lab (and it doesn't say anything about whether MOOCs are a good idea), but it does demonstrate that sometimes it's possible to do a good job transferring "hands-on" labs to the computer. Cool stuff.

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    2. ... that sometimes it's possible to do a good job transferring "hands-on" labs to the computer. Cool stuff.

      The experience of working in a good lab course with lab partners and a class of students interested in the same things can't be reproduced in a computer.

      There are lots of benefits that can't be measured with a simple test. This is what student-centered learning is all about and it's what everyone misses in these discussions. Furthermore, we all know about the "extracurricular" benefits of high school but somehow these get ignored when we're talking about university education.

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  8. After an entry you did last fall about McLatchey (??) I think encouraging his ID followers to take an online Evolution and Genetics course with Mohammed Noor of Duke, my wife and I signed up for the course too. We wanted to see what MOOCs are like and learn a bit. The course was enjoyable and we did get some new content, learning about genetic mapping and calculating problems associated with Natural Selection and Genetic Drift. Overall the course was well done, but hardly perfect. But it gave us the chance to learn from someone we would otherwise never have contact with, while we traveled through Europe. We have since signed up for other courses, one on Astrobiology which was very basic indeed, a chemistry course which is boring in style (to me anyway) but bills itself as having a new approach (which attracted us both as we are science teachers) and I am also in a physics course, by Louis Bloomfield, very basic but he is an enthusiastic presenter.

    Overall, these are for people who cannot get to university and who simply want an idea of a university education, some connection to it. But that could be a boon to universities; by connecting universities more to the people the universities may get greater support in the long run from the people and funding may be protected.

    I agree that a true education demands more, far more, than online isolation can provide now, although student fora and perhaps tutor groups and a Skype-like basis may improve this. Courses that attract 30 to 100 thousand students will never be personalized, but they have a place, just not in replacing universities.

    A place where they can help in particular is truly technical skill based learning. I am taking (in a rather intermittent fashion, I admit) a course through Udacity on Python programming. It is basic of course (and I have programmed in other languages, so I am ahead there anyway) but one does not need classmates for programming - just instruction, a task and feedback. I am also studying Spanish on Duolingo - Spanish in group immersed would be best, but I live in Pembroke, Ontario and Spanish speakers are uncommon here. Duolongo is excellent in my view. I am also studying Urdu with Livemocha, as my wife and I will move to Karachi soon to teach. Livemocha is a different model than Duolingo, a social network model, but is very good. So online learning of various types has a real place. But anyone wanting to replace universities and colleges, perhaps to save a few public dollars, will ultimately be disappointed.

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  9. One thing to remember about pundits: they are in no way judged by their accuracy of their predictions. One is an "expert" if they appear in the "right" newspapers and magazines and have a large enough following.

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  10. I heartily second the comments above regarding lab and field experience.

    That said, be careful. The argument that MOOCs can't serve the same role as hands-on courses doesn't mean they won't replace hands-on courses. It just means that university education for many will be turned into something different. And less.

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