Friday, June 7, 2013

On "super-professors" and the MOOC pushback

As with all new things that receive a lot of (arguably "too much") positive press, the backlash necessarily ensues. So it is now with MOOCs. Early, simplistic pushback came in the form of noting the lack of the student-professor interaction possible in a live classroom (e.g., this NY Times article and associated NPR interview). As statistics came out on the early MOOCs, attention focused heavily on poor completion/ high "failure" rates (e.g., this Money magazine article). The most recent negativity is different and warrants more attention, highlighted recently in a letter by San Jose State University professors to a MOOC-teacher. Specifically, there's an assertion by several in academia now that professors (or, as negative writers like to hyperbolize, "super-professors") who teach MOOC courses are providing a tool that reckless universities are using to dismantle departments, reduce costs by hiring cheaper, non-expert teachers, etc. I find this last criticism the most troubling, since it's leveled by colleagues and possibly friends rather than random writers (e.g., this blog, or the rather scathing comments at the bottom of this blog).

I'll present my thoughts on each of these, in turn. Honestly, I think the first two arguments display naiveté of how MOOCs are used by the majority of users, but the last merits extensive discussion and continuing dialogue-- I think now that both sides (including mine) had overly hasty responses before.

On fewer interactions and/ or lower quality of MOOCs relative to regular college classes: My initial reaction to this was a mere, "Duh!"  Of course there's more potential for student-professor interaction in in-person classrooms and campuses than via MOOC. I'd be surprised if anyone thinks taking a set of MOOCs is equal to "having a college education." I've certainly not heard any professor say that the MOOC version of their class was "equivalent" to interacting with them directly. I also have not heard of thousands of high school students who previously planned to go to college deciding now that they don't need to and will just take some MOOCs. This  latter non-effect is punctuated by noting that most MOOC students are older, and many already have college degrees.

On the high "failure" rates: This is partially the fault of MOOC-participants (venues, faculty, and colleges) "overselling" enrollments. For example, my first MOOC iteration peaked at 33,000 enrolled students, yet something like 2000 got certificates of completion. These numbers are totally deceptive-- the first is fictitiously high, and the last is fictitiously low. The "33,000" is the number of people who clicked a link to "enroll". When you "enroll" in a college class, you commit funds and time to doing the entire thing, and you anticipate a grade that will help or hurt your probability of subsequent advancement. For MOOCs, you may "enroll" just to see the full syllabus-- it's more an expression of potential interest than a commitment in any way. Given you may enroll months before the MOOC even comes online, it may be just a way of being added to the e-mail list about the class to possibly peek in on it later.

Related to both of the above criticisms-- MOOCs present college class material, but MOOC viewers, by and large, are often just curious people, not people choosing it as an alternative to college. They want to peek at what's offered, perhaps not with much more thought or intention than when you change the channel to see what's showing on TNT. Do you "fail" a MOOC if you don't watch all the videos or complete the assessments? Only in the same way you "fail" Law and Order on TNT if you end up turning it off after 40 minutes. I'll give a few personal examples-- I signed up for two MOOCs over the past few months: Useful Genetics and Irrational Behavior. I signed up for Useful Genetics just because I wanted to see the coverage and style in which it was taught. I watched one complete video, a few pieces of others, and a few Discussion Forum threads. That was all I wanted out of the class-- did I "fail" it? Technically yes, I was enrolled and did not complete the assessments, but in reality, I was neither "truly" a student in it nor did I fail it. For Irrational Behavior, I did one assessment and watched the first three weeks of videos, but I got busy after that. The class is over now, but I downloaded all the remaining videos and intend to watch (many of) them sometime later. Again, did I "fail" it? You decide.

On MOOCs dismantling college classes: Perhaps I was naive myself, but I never imagined this would arise as a criticism of professors offering MOOCs. As discussed in a prior blog entry, the main reason I embarked upon a MOOC was to motivate myself to record videos in order to offer my on-campus students a "flipped class" experience. This type of format is normal for humanities (presumably few or no literature professors spend entire periods reading Shakespeare to enrolled students), but they have traditionally been less common for introductory science courses. My impression, as discussed in another blog entry, was that the flipped class format, leveraging the MOOC for videos, was an asset for my students. Indeed, I naively thought other faculty may "want" to use a few of my MOOC videos (or any others) rather than go to the trouble of creating their own. Keep in mind I spent literally hundreds of hours preparing the MOOC-- why duplicate efforts?

I won't speak on the San Jose State University incident, since all of it is second-hand to me. I will say that I think college administrations are doing their students a disservice if they do any of the following things:
1) replace knowledgeable, long-term faculty with a MOOC
2) replace knowledgeable, long-term faculty with a MOOC+TA (or MOOC+short-term faculty, or MOOC+ out-of-field, long-term faculty)
3) overburden faculty by asking them to teach more courses and pretending it's less effort since the courses can be associated with MOOCs
4) in any way "dictate" to faculty that they must teach with specific formats.
Basically, I think MOOCs should be available for any existing faculty to utilize if they see fit, but in no way "forced" upon faculty or as an excuse for dismantling departments from maintaining expert, long-term faculty. I think all parties agree on these points.

Now, if administrations dismantle departments, is it also the fault of the MOOC provider or MOOC instructor? Therein lies the point of potential disagreement. My word-choice was poor (and perspective initially quite naive) in my quote in the Chronicle's blog: I do bear responsibility for what happens with what I put out on the web. If I put a recipe for how to make agent orange on the web, and a kid gets sick or hurts others with it, I certainly bear blame. The analogy others used about atomic bombs also has some merit... if I had put out something that destructive.

But, let's explore these analogies all the way then. Is there a "good" use for agent orange? Do atomic bombs help most people? All the critics casually avoid the single biggest flaw in their arguments and analogies: millions of people around the world use MOOCs in very constructive ways to advance their knowledge and understanding. In contrast, to my knowledge, not one university has made any alteration to their faculty structure or imposed anything upon their faculty in response to my MOOC, yet thousands of students worldwide have completed it. Some of these students who completed the MOOC report changes in career direction or world perspective directly in response to this educational opportunity (e.g., this report, as well as MANY that have e-mailed me directly or written reviews of the course online). Somehow, these positive effects get swept under the rug by MOOC critics with their sweeping castigations and ridiculous analogies to atomic bombs or other weapons.

Further, MOOC critics often dance around the desired outcome of their critiques-- a sign the criticism may not be fully defensible. If MOOCs have such a net negative effect on the world and MOOC professors (or so-called "super-professors") are complicit, why aren't the critics being explicit in telling us, "Stop offering this free education to the world." I could continue to offer a flipped class to my Duke students with the videos I've already made, but stop offering the videos to anyone outside of Duke University (or distribute them myself directly only to colleagues who swear to never share their existence with administrators). What of the MOOC students? Watch this video to meet a few. Then, tell me-- why should I deprive Richard the train-driver in Sheffield (timestamp 12:55) from pursuing his interest? What about Aline, the high school student in El Salvador (timestamp 32:36) whose school never teaches genetics or evolution? Getting a "true" or "full" college education is not an option for them right now, so they should get... nothing? Or maybe throw them a few links on the web and tell them to go to college? And what about the millions of other Richards and Alines? Would critics really suggest that, because some university administrations are reckless in their actions, millions of people worldwide who are benefiting from MOOCs (and using them in the purest academic sense) should not get this resource any longer?

I really do sympathize with the concerned professors (to whom I'm being somewhat rude by referring to them merely as "critics" here). Faculty jobs are in jeopardy, including faculty that are doing a better job than their MOOC replacement. Some colleges are making decisions that are financially positive but pedagogically terrible. If the concerned professors have specific suggestions for me (rather than accusations), I'm eager to listen. I'm quite willing to write letters to deans or provosts about the importance of MOOCs in general and mine in particular NOT being used as substitutes for courses or mandates for faculty. I'm happy to ask both my institution and Coursera to help with these efforts as well. I'm happy to even bring the topic up with the scientific societies to which I belong and hold leadership roles (e.g., Society for the Study of Evolution, Genetics Society of America, American Genetic Association), to see if perhaps we could write something on behalf of the societies or take other constructive actions.

Nonetheless, some of the residual criticism seems to be coming primarily because the early MOOC professors 1) tend to be from so-called "elite" universities and 2) received a lot of positive press. I won't deny these facts-- I am fortunate to be employed at what is perceived to be an elite university. It's true that many of the public perceive MOOCs as good because they are offered by these elite universities, and I understand that faculty at colleges not-perceived-as-elite find the availability of my course (and other elite-university MOOCs) potentially threatening as a result. I've also received extensive positive publicity for my MOOC efforts (as well as the recent negative publicity I mentioned above), though I stress that, contrary to many insinuations, I've neither received one penny in compensation from my MOOC nor any reduction in my on-campus teaching load. I fully acknowledge that there are many more effective and engaging teachers than me or other MOOC professors in many colleges that are not offering MOOCs, and I'd tell anyone debating between having a class taught by an in-field professor (irrespective of college) vs. my MOOC (with or without a TA) to do the former. It's ludicrous to say that a course is "better" solely because it's offered from a Duke or Harvard than a San Jose State or Western West Virginia Community College. I was a student at the College of William and Mary (certainly not Ivy League), and I'm very proud of the education I received there. Rather than further castigating MOOCs and MOOC faculty, perhaps we can work together to fight misperceptions, given we all agree they're untrue?

Now is the time for us to balance the (over)exuberance from early MOOC publicity with the concerns raised about MOOC misuse. I ask that my critical colleagues avoid gross hyperbole like suggesting that my words or actions show "gross indifference to the welfare of nearly everyone else in their profession". In return, I promise to be more aware of the misuse problem and to engage with faculty in how we might mitigate such misuses of MOOCs by reckless college administrations. But, I ask that further discussion of negative effects be balanced-- even if those not fond of (or negatively affected by) MOOCs don't rave about the benefits of MOOCs, at least don't insult me and the millions of MOOC students out there by pretending those benefits don't exist or that the MOOC professors are solely delivering online courses for money, glory, or the title of "super-professor."


  1. Amen, brother. Keep doing what you are doing. MOOCs are not at the root of the many problems in higher education. They merely provide a tool that can be used inappropriately or abused by university administrators who are under tremendous financial pressure due to shrinking revenues and budget cuts. The real problem, at least at state-supported universities, is that higher education is not sufficiently valued or supported so that universities are looking for any and every way to cut costs (and corners), including considering the possibility of replacing highly qualified faculty in the classroom with recorded lectures from top professors at elite universities. There is a fair amount of anxiety on my campus about what role MOOCs will play in our future, especially given the recent surprise announcement that our university system has entered into an as yet poorly defined agreement with Coursera to do...what?...with MOOCs. It is up to higher education faculty collectively to oppose such abuses and for students to demand better. Thank you for offering your course to the world, and thank you for including yourself in the struggle against misuse and abuse of your course and other MOOCs in higher education classrooms.

    1. Thanks Brian, you're very kind, and agreed completely. Please keep me posted what you hear about the agreement with Coursera and Columbus State, too.

  2. Just as doctors are dedicated to their patients, professors should be dedicated to their students not job security, a hippocratic oath for professors if you will. As such, arguments against MOOCs should only be based on student benefits/disadvantages. I don't buy those criticisms about dismantling classes, this can and has been done without MOOCs.

  3. Really good post. I am watching this debate somewhat confused and bemused, because I have no direct experience, but certainly see the value for people who are outside traditional academe to be able to take, or even just sample, courses taught by excellent professors who may introduce ideas and facts to which the students would otherwise not have access.

    But it does seem like some kinds of courses are better suited than others (e.g., ones that rely on lectures that can logically lay out material or have a narrative drive, such as history of some topics, but not literary criticism or discussion courses on contemporary fast-moving topics).

  4. Mohamed,

    I'll accept that deal.

    So much to say here. Since I'm typing on my phone I'm going to restrict myself to a single point. You may work for free, but Coursera doesn't. They talk about educating the world, but course replacement is where the money is. Even if you kept copyright to your course, someone somewhere will try to get credit for completing your MOOC. Maybe they deserve it, but that's one less student for someone else to teach. The first people to feel the effects of this will be adjuncts as they're the easiest to remove.

    1. Thanks Jonathan-- that means a lot to me since I know you've been at the other end on this topic. I apologize for my overly-hasty words and perspective in the Chronicle interview, and I hope we can work together to maintain the benefits of MOOCs while mitigating their misuse. If you have ideas of how I can help on the latter in particular, please let me know!

  5. Mohamed,

    Do you control the rights to your own lectures?

    1. Good question. I've always been told "yes" on this, but I just received some paperwork this week that I was asked to sign that, I think, makes that a bit more murky. Based on my now-greater-awareness of potential misuse (partially thanks to you), I'm waiting on signing this paperwork until I can get better clarity on exactly what rights I do vs. don't control, and trying to be more conscious of not facilitating misuse.

  6. Would you blog about the answers to your questions? A lot of people would like to know.


    PS I'm putting you in my RSS reader right now.

    1. Only 6 months later, but I finally got paperwork. :-) One piece we were asked if we wanted to sign had this text: "Coursera will provide schools and/or other organizations access to a private version of this course, for the purpose of educating their own students or employees. Credit, if provided, is given by the external institution, subject to its own academic standards. No involvement from the instructor or University is required." I refused to sign to accept that, based partially on your eye-opening comments and fear of potential misuse.