SIGCSE 2013: The Revolution Will Be Televised, Perspectives on MOOC Education

Long time between posts, I realise, but I got really, really unwell in Colorado and am still recovering from it. I attended a lot of interesting sessions at SIGCSE 2013, and hopefully gave at least one of them, but the first I wanted to comment on was a panel with Mehram Sahami, Nick Parlante, Fred Martin and Mark Guzdial, entitled “The Revolution Will Be Televised, Perspectives on MOOC Education”. This is, obviously, a very open area for debate and the panelists provided a range of views and a lot of information.

Mehram started by reminding the audience that we’ve had on-line and correspondence courses for some time, with MIT’s OpenCourseWare (OCW) streaming video from the 1990s and Stanford Engineering Everywhere (SEE) starting in 2008. The SEE lectures were interesting because viewership follows a power law relationship: the final lecture has only 5-10% of the views of the first lecture. These video lectures were being used well beyond Stanford, augmenting AP courses in the US and providing entire lecture series in other countries. The videos also increased engagement and the requests that came in weren’t just about the course but were more general – having a face and a name on the screen gave people someone to interact with. From Mehram’s perspective, the challenges were: certification and credit, increasing the richness of automated evaluation, validated peer evaluation, and personalisation (or, as he put it, in reality mass customisation).

Nick Parlante spoke next, as an unashamed optimist for MOOC, who has the opinion that all the best world-changing inventions are cheap, like the printing press, arabic numerals and high quality digital music. These great ideas spread and change the world. However, he did state that he considered artisinal and MOOC education to be very different: artisinal education is bespoke, high quality and high cost, where MOOCs are interesting for the massive scale and, while they could never replace artisinal, they could provide education to those who could not get access to artisinal.

It was at this point that I started to twitch, because I have heard and seen this argument before – the notion that MOOC is better than nothing, if you can’t get artisinal. The subtext that I, fairly or not, hear at this point is the implicit statement that we will never be able to give high quality education to everybody. By having a MOOC, we no longer have to say “you will not be educated”, we can say “you will receive some form of education”. What I rarely hear at this point is a well-structured and quantified argument on exactly how much quality slippage we’re tolerating here – how educational is the alternative education?

Nick also raised the well-known problems of cheating (which is rampant in MOOCs already before large-scale fee paying has been introduced) and credentialling. His section of the talk was long on optimism and positivity but rather light on statistics, completion rates, and the kind of evidence that we’re all waiting to see. Nick was quite optimistic about our future employment prospects but I suspect he was speaking on behalf of those of us in “high-end” old-school schools.

I had a lot of issues with what Nick said but a fair bit of it stemmed from his examples: the printing press and digital music. The printing press is an amazing piece of technology for replicating a written text and, as replication and distribution goes, there’s no doubt that it changed the world – but does it guarantee quality? No. The top 10 books sold in 2012 were either Twilight-derived sadomasochism (Fifty Shades of Unncessary) or related to The Hunger Games. The most work the printing presses were doing in 2012 was not for Thoreau, Atwood, Byatt, Dickens, Borges or even Cormac McCarthy. No, the amazing distribution mechanism was turning out copy after copy of what could be, generously, called popular fiction. But even that’s not my point. Even if the printing presses turned out only “the great writers”, it would be no guarantee of an increase in the ability to write quality works in the reading populace, because reading and writing are different things. You don’t have to read much into constructivism to realise how much difference it makes when someone puts things together for themselves, actively, rather than passively sitting through a non-interactive presentation. Some of us can learn purely from books but, obviously, not all of us and, more importantly, most of us don’t find it trivial. So, not only does the printing press not guarantee that everything that gets printed is good, even where something good does get printed, it does not intrinsically demonstrate how you can take the goodness and then apply it to your own works. (Why else would there be books on how to write?)  If we could do that, reliability and spontaneously, then a library of great writers would be all you needed to replace every English writing course and editor in the world. A similar argument exists for the digital reproduction of music. Yes, it’s cheap and, yes, it’s easy. However, listening to music does not teach you to how write music or perform on a given instrument, unless you happen to be one of the few people who can pick up music and instrumentation with little guidance. There are so few of the latter that we call them prodigies – it’s not a stable model for even the majority of our gifted students, let alone the main body.

Fred Martin spoke next and reminded us all that weaker learners just don’t do well in the less-scaffolded MOOC environment. He had used MOOC in a flipped classroom, with small class sizes, supervision and lots of individual discussion. As part of this blended experience, it worked. Fred really wanted some honest figures on who was starting and completing MOOCs and was really keen that, if we were to do this, that we strive for the same quality, rather than accepting that MOOCs weren’t as good and it was ok to offer this second-tier solution to certain groups.

Mark Guzdial then rounded out the panel and stressed the role of MOOCs as part of a diverse set of resources, but if we were going to do that then we had to measure and report on how things had gone. MOOC results, right now, are interesting but fundamentally anecdotal and unverified. Therefore, it is too soon to jump into MOOC because we don’t yet know if it will work. Mark also noted that MOOCs are not supporting diversity yet and, from any number of sources, we know that many-to-one (the MOOC model) is just not as good as 1-to-1. We’re really not clear if and how MOOCs are working, given how many people who do complete are actually already degree holders and, even then, actual participation in on-line discussion is so low that these experienced learners aren’t even talking to each other very much.

It was an interesting discussion and conducted with a great deal of mutual respect and humour, but I couldn’t agree more with Fred and Mark – we haven’t measured things enough and, despite Nick’s optimism, there are too many unanswered questions to leap in, especially if we’re going to make hard-to-reverse changes to staffing and infrastructure. It takes 20 years to train a Professor and, if you have one that can teach, they can be expensive and hard to maintain (with tongue firmly lodged in cheek, here). Getting rid of one because we have a promising new technology that is untested may save us money in the short term but, if we haven’t validated the educational value or confirmed that we have set up the right level of quality, a few years now from now we might discover that we got rid of the wrong people at the wrong time. What happens then? I can turn off a MOOC with a few keystrokes but I can’t bring back all of my seasoned teachers in a timeframe less than years, if not decades.

I’m with Mark – the resource promise of MOOCs is enormous and they are part of our future. Are they actually full educational resources or courses yet? Will they be able to bring education to people that is a first-tier, high quality experience or are we trapped in the same old educational class divisions with a new name for an old separation? I think it’s too soon to tell but I’m watching all of the new studies with a great deal of interest. I, too, am an optimist but let’s call me a cautious one!

4 Comments on “SIGCSE 2013: The Revolution Will Be Televised, Perspectives on MOOC Education”

  1. VanessaVaile says:

    Reblogged this on MOOC Madness and commented:
    Good, balanced discussion of MOOCs in education and recap of SIGCSE 2013 ( panel of the same name, although (obviously) such a panel at a computing conference will tend to self-select for supporters and against critics. By contrast, UMW’s 21st Century Studies’ “What’s the Matter with MOOCs? A Critical Conversation” seems to have self-selected the other direction. Dialogue, anyone?


  2. Good posting and I’ll read more on the conference. I particularly like the idea of delivering quality entering into to the discussion on MOOCs which to me seem to have become the proxy for online learning as in “MOOCs don’t work so online is second rate.” It would be a real shame to see the idea of a wider distribution of learning across the whole of society be scuttled over the idea that face to face is the single proper way to deliver an education. (Especially when the experience of “campus life” as a value beyond compare is restricted to the few and sounds elitist to many).

    Quality education has made itself scarce and not present in the realities of the majority and without examples and experience how can we expect people to stand up for it? At least (the better than nothing argument) MOOCs have started a debate on education and invited more people into the circle which has to be positive. And personally, being able to participate in discussions as if I might be welcome to speak in MOOCs (cMOOCS here) has brought education into the reality of the rest of my life than staring at the blank walls of the houses of education that I’m neither qualified for nor able to attend.


  3. […] Long time between posts, I realise, but I got really, really unwell in Colorado and am still recovering from it. I attended a lot of interesting sessions at SIGCSE 2013, and hopefully gave at least…  […]


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