Monday, June 17, 2013

Education Technology Roundup: MOOCS

I recently met the technology guy for one of the most highly reputed private schools in our area. He enthusiastically enlightened me on just how revolutionary the latest technology-enabled classroom reforms have been. Not only are lectures dead; so are seminars. Apparently students sit in groups at computers and look things up.

Meanwhile, a recent New York Times article reports on a study that found that "no state was collecting data to evaluate whether technology investments were actually improving student achievement."

Technology within the classroom may have killed the lecture and the seminar, but technology between the classroom and the rest of the world has been elevating the lecture (not the seminar) to new heights. This new phenomenon, the MOOC (Massive Open Online Course), suggests that the lecture mode, however dry and boring the edworld claims it is, is more popular than ever.

Is this a good thing? A recent New Yorker article isn't so sure--especially when it comes to humanities courses. It profiles Harvard Professor Gregory Nagy's “CB22x: The Ancient Greek Hero,” which now has over 31,000 students. In classes like these, online discussion forums substitute for in-person discussion seminars, scripted conversations with pretend students substitute for question and answer sessions and office hours, and multiple choice tests substitute for essays. Each has its problems.

Online discussions:

 “You have a group who are—they talk about Christ,” Kevin McGrath, one of the co√∂rdinators of CB22x, told me soon after the discussions started up. “Or about pride. They haven’t really engaged with what’s going on.”
Scripted conversations with pretend students:
When presenting Achilles’ kleos quandary, for example, he [Nagy] was sitting at a table with two members of his skunk-works [production] team, Claudia Filos and Jeff Emanuel, both posing as students. They nodded as he talked. Then Filos spoke up:
FILOS: So this one small passage, actually, has a lot to teach us about the whole epic tradition.

NAGY: In a way, it’s a micro-narrative of the whole Iliad, Claudia. I couldn’t agree more.
Multiple choice tests:
Nagy read... some questions that the team had devised for CB22x’s first multiple-choice test: “ ‘What is the will of Zeus?’ It says, ‘a) To send the souls of heroes to Hades’ ”—Nagy rippled into laughter—“ ‘b) To cause the Iliad,’ and ‘c) To cause the Trojan War.’ I love this. The best answer is ‘b) To cause the Iliad’—Zeus’ will encompasses the whole of the poem through to its end, or telos.”
He went on, “And then—this is where people really read into the text!—‘Why will Achilles sit the war out in his shelter?’ Because ‘a) He has hurt feelings,’ ‘b) He is angry at Agamemnon,’ and ‘c) A goddess advised him to do so.’ No one will get this.”

The answer is c).
"No one will get this." In one brief scene Nagy manages to underscore several big problems with multiple choice tests. When it comes to literary interpretation in particular (not math, not science), multiple responses can be astutely defended. Back in the dark ages when people wrote literary analysis essays, my English teachers repeatedly assured us students that we could potentially argue any number of points so long as we argued them well. But Nagy's cleverly inviting choices leave you no chance to defend yourself. While it's true that after you submit your answer, you get feedback about "the reasoning behind the correct choice," that reasoning doesn't (and shouldn't) trump alternative interpretations.

Second, while there are plenty of very good multiple choice tests out there (on subjects other than literary analysis), it takes a lot of thought, effort, and experience to devise them. Among novices like Nagy, there's a tendency to confuse teaching with trickery, and tricky choices with legitimately hard choices.

But Nagy claims, in the words of the New Yorker, "that multiple-choice questions are almost as good as essays... because they spot-check participants’ deeper comprehension of the text." And so sanguine does he feel about CB22x that he's redesigning his classroom course so as "to make the Harvard experience now closer to the MOOC experience."

To be fair, CB22x does offer one thing that most brick and mortar classes on Greek literature probably don't: footage of the mist at Delphi. In traditional literature classes, students are stuck with their imaginations.

But, as the New Yorker reports, "When MOOCs are a purely online experience, dropout rates are typically more than ninety per cent."

This, of course, hasn't stopped the juggernaut:
In the past two years, Harvard, M.I.T., Caltech, and the University of Texas have together pledged tens of millions of dollars to MOOC development. Many other élite schools, from U.C. Berkeley to Princeton, have similarly climbed aboard.
One factor, of course, is money:
MOOCs are also thought to offer enticing business opportunities. Last year, two major MOOC producers, Coursera and Udacity, launched as for-profit companies. Today, amid a growing constellation of online-education providers, they act as go-betweens, packaging university courses and offering them to students and other schools. Coursera, a Stanford spinoff that is currently the largest MOOC producer, serves classes from Brown, Caltech, Princeton, Stanford, and sixty-five other schools; Udacity, also the progeny of Palo Alto, focusses on tech and science.
Another is ego:
When Nagy decided to turn his popular class into a MOOC, he was thinking not only of its global reach—he’s already working to secure CB22x inroads into Greece, India, China, and elsewhere—but of the long half-life that the course would have once it’s circulating on the Web.
Aside from the replacement of in-person discussion sections with online discussion groups, live Q and A and office hours with scripted conversations with pretend students, and essays with multiple choice tests, there's one additional problematic substitution. That would be the lecture itself: the live, subtly interactive traditional lecture with its remote, canned, slickly produced counterpart. Towards the end of the article, author Nathan Heller discusses what it's like to physically attend a lecture given by Chinese historian Peter K. Bol:
He speaks energetically and clearly, gesturing briskly with both hands, as if making two marionettes dance. His jokes get full-classroom laughs. It was the first time I had been in an active university class since my time in college, and I fell back into old habits and a long-forgotten rhythm. I found myself taking lots of notes, college-type notes, notes more nervously dutiful and conceptual than I often take today. Once, when Bol was speaking, I glanced at my phone to see whether an important e-mail had come through. When I looked up, I found Bol’s eyes on me, and flinched. I had adopted again the double consciousness of classroom students: the strange transaction of watching someone who watches back, the eagerness to emanate support. Something magical and fragile was happening here, in the room. I didn’t want to be the guy to break the spell.
But Bol, too, is jumpting on the bandwagon--with ChinaX, "a survey of Chinese cultural history from the neolithic period to the present day."

As for me, I, too, must plead guilty to recording canned lectures and designing automatically graded multiple choice tests for online classes. But my classes contain no more than 20 students apiece, and I also assign essays and grade them myself.

And I, too, am a huge fan of MOOCs. But not because I think they can provide typical students with an appropriate education in the humanities. I'm thinking, rather, of my autistic son. J gets nothing out of the interpersonal aspects of classes and discussion sections, and nothing out of humanities classes. Nor will he ever feel the spell of the live lecture. J learns best when working through lectures and materials independently, at his own speed, choosing only the subjects he's interested in. Those would be subjects like math and computer science, which just happen to be suited to online instruction in ways that "The Ancient Greek Hero" decidedly isn't.


FedUpMom said...

Quite apart from the question of how effective on-line learning is, I'm concerned about the bigger picture. Human beings need social interaction. For brainy people, school is probably the most comfortable social environment they'll ever experience; you'll notice many brainy people never leave school at all if they can help it! I think it would be a shame to lose that community and disperse everyone to sitting alone at their computer.

Anonymous said...

Upside down world... literary analysis with just one correct answer, and math with whatever answer you want, so long as you're willing to write/discuss your feelings about it.