Let’s not turn “Chalk and Talk” into “Watch and Scratch”

We are now starting to get some real data on what happens when people “take” a MOOC (via Mark’s blog). You’ll note the scare quotes around the word “take”, because I’m not sure that we have really managed to work out what it means to get involved in a course that is offered through the MOOC mechanism. Or, to be more precise, some people think they have but not everyone necessarily agrees with them. I’m going to list some of my major concerns, even in the face of the new clickstream data, and explain why we don’t have a clear view of the true value/approaches for MOOCs yet.

  1. On-line resources are not on-line courses and people aren’t clear on the importance of an overall educational design and facilitation mechanism. Many people have mused on this in the past. If all the average human needed was a set of resources and no framing or assistive pedagogy then our educational resources would be libraries and there would be no teachers. While there are a number of offerings that are actually courses, applying the results of the MIT 6.002x to what are, for the most part, unstructured on-line libraries of lecture recordings is not appropriate. (I’m not even going to get into the cMOOC/xMOOC distinction at this point.) I suspect that this is just part of the general undervaluing of good educational design that rears its head periodically.
  2. Replacing lectures with on-line lectures doesn’t magically improve things. The problem with “chalk and talk”, where it is purely one-way with no class interaction, is that we know that it is not an effective way to transfer knowledge. Reading the textbook at someone and forcing them to slowly transcribe it turns your classroom into an inefficient, flesh-based photocopier. Recording yourself standing in front a class doesn’t automatically change things. Yes, your students can time shift you, both to a more convenient time and at a more convenient speed, but what are you adding to the content? How are you involving the student? How can the student benefit from having you there? When we just record lectures and put them up there, then unless they are part of a greater learning design, the student is now sitting in an isolated space, away from other people, watching you talk, and potentially scratching their head while being unable to ask you or anyone else a question. Turning “chalk and talk” into “watch and scratch” is not an improvement. Yes, it scales so that millions of people can now scratch their heads in unison but scaling isn’t everything and, in particular, if we waste time on an activity under the illusion that it will improve things, we’ve gone backwards in terms of quality for effort.
  3. We have yet to establish the baselines for our measurement. This is really important. An on-line system us capable of being very heavily tracked and it’s not just links. The clickstream measurements in the original report record what people clicked on as they worked with the material. But we can only measure that which is set up for measurement – so it’s quite hard to compare the activity in this course to other activities that don’t use technology. But there are two subordinate problems to this (and I apologise to physicists for the looseness of the following) :
    1. Heisenberg’s MOOC: At the quantum scale, you can either tell where something is or what it is doing – the act of observation has limits of precision. Borrowing that for the macro scale: measure someone enough and you’ll see how they behave under measurement but the measurements we pick tend to fall into the stage they’ve reached or the actions they’ve taken. It’s very complex to combine quantitative and qualitative measures to be able to map someone’s stage and their comprehension/intentions/trajectory. You don’t have to accept arguments based on the Hawthorne Effect to understand why this does not necessarily tell you much about unobserved people. There are a large number of people taking these courses out of curiosity, some of whom already have appropriate qualifications, with only 27% the type of student that you would expect to see at this level of University. Combine that with a large number of researchers and curious academics who are inspecting each other’s courses, I know of at least 12 people in my own University taking MOOCs of various kinds to see what they’re like, and we have the problem that we are measuring people who are merely coming in to have a look around and are probably not as interested in the actual course. Until we can actually shift MOOC demography to match that of our real students, we are always going to have our measurements affected by these observers. The observers might not mind being heavily monitored and observed, but real students might. Either way, numbers are not the real answer here – they show us what but there is still too much uncertainty in the why and the how.
    2. Schrödinger’s MOOC: Oh, that poor reductio ad absurdum cat. Does the nature of the observer change the behaviour of the MOOC and force it to resolve one way or another (successful/unsuccessful)? If so, how and when? Does the fact of observation change the course even more than just in enrolments and uncertainty of validity of figures? The clickstream data tells us that the forums are overwhelmingly important to students, with 90% of people who viewed threads without commenting, and only 3% of total students enrolled every actually posted anything in a thread. What was the make-up of that 3% and was it actual students or the over-qualified observers who then provided an environment that 90% of their peers found useful?
    3. Numbers need context and unasked questions give us no data: As one example, the authors of the study were puzzled that so few people had logged in from China, which surprised them. Anyone who has anything to do with network measurement is going to be aware that China is almost always an outlier in network terms. My blog, for example, has readers from around the world – but not China. It’s also important to remember that any number of Chinese network users will VPN/SSH to hosts outside China to enjoy unrestricted search and network access. There may have been many Chinese people (who didn’t self-identify for obvious reasons) who were using proxies from outside China. The numbers on this particular part of the study do not make sense unless they are correctly contextualised. We also see a lack of context in the reporting on why people were doing the course – the numbers for why people were doing it had to be augmented from comments in the forum that people ‘wanted to see if they could make it through an MIT course’. Why wasn’t that available from the initial questions?
  4. We don’t know what pass/fail is going to look like in this environment. I can’t base any MOOC plans of my own on how people respond to a MIT-branded course but it is important to note that MIT’s approach was far more than “watch and scratch”, as is reflected by their educational design in providing various forms of materials, discussions forums, homework and labs. But still, 155,000 people signed up for this and only 7,000 received certificates. 2/3 of people who registered then went on to do nothing. I don’t think that we can treat a success rate of less than 5% as a success rate. Even where we say that 2/3 dropped out, this still equates to a pass rate under 14%. Is that good? Is that bad? Taking everything into account from above, my answer is “We don’t know.” If we get 17% next time, is that good or bad? How do we make this better?
  5. The drivers are often wrong. Several US universities have gone on the record to complain about undermining their colleagues and have refused to take part in MOOC-related activities. The reasons for this vary but the greatest fear is that MOOCs will be used to reduce costs by replacing existing lecturing staff with a far smaller group and using MOOCs to handle the delivery. From a financial argument, MOOCs are astounding – 155,000 people contacted for the cost of a few lecturers. Contrast that with me teaching a course to 100 students. If we look at it from a quality perspective, and dealing with all of the points so far, we have no argument to say that MOOCs are as good as our good teaching – but we do know that they are easily as good as our bad teaching. But from a financial perspective? MOOC is king. That is, however, not how we guarantee educational quality. Of course, when we scale, we can maintain quality by increasing resources but this runs counter to a cost-saving argument so we’re almost automatically being prevented from doing what is required to make the large scale course work by the same cost driver that led to its production in the first place!
  6. There are a lot of statements but perhaps not enough discussion. These are trying times for higher education and everyone wants an edge, more students, higher rankings, to keep their colleagues and friends in work and, overall, to do the right thing for their students. Senior management, large companies, people worried about money – they’re all talking about MOOCs as if they are an accepted substitute for traditional approaches – at the same time as we are in deep discussion about which of the actual traditional approaches are worthwhile and which new approaches are going to work better. It’s a confusing time as we try to handle large-scale adoption of blended learning techniques at the same time people are trying to push this to the large scale.

I’m worried that I seem to be spending most of my time explaining what MOOCs are to people who are asking me why I’m not using a MOOC. I’m even more worried when I am still yet to see any strong evidence that MOOCs are going to provide anything approaching the educational design and integrity that has been building for the past 30 years. I’m positively terrified when I see corporate providers taking over University delivery before we have established actual measurable quality and performance guidelines for this incredibly important activity. I’m also bothered by statements found at the end of the study, which was given prominence as a pull quote:

[The students] do not follow the norms and rules that have governed university courses for centuries nor do they need to.

I really worry about this because I haven’t yet seen any solid evidence that this is true, yet this is exactly the kind of catchy quote that is going to be used on any number of documents that will come across my desk asking me when I’m going to MOOCify my course, rather than discussing if and why and how we will make a transition to on-line blended learning on the massive scale. The measure of MOOC success is not the number of enrolees, nor is it the number of certificates awarded, nor is it the breadth of people who sign up. MOOCs will be successful once we have worked out how to use this incredibly high potential approach to teaching to deliver education at a suitably high level of quality to as many people as possible, at a reduced or even near-zero cost. The potential is enormous but, right now, so is the risk!


One Comment on “Let’s not turn “Chalk and Talk” into “Watch and Scratch””

  1. […] that extends everything I’m talking about with short video sequences and attention spans. I wrote something ages ago about not turning ‘chalk and talk’ into ‘watch and scratch (your head)’. […]

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