A recent article in The Economist, “Learned Luddites,” described liberal arts instructors who refused to adopt MOOCs as “Luddites,” a term made famous in the 19th century by English textile workers who were so paranoid that machinery would replace their jobs that they took to the task of physically destroying the machines they used. To conclude there is a connection between what the Luddites did and the arguments against online learning is reaching, if not absurd, and devalues the discussion happening in academic departments nation wide.
In America, after the launch of Sputnik in 1957 and the creation of the National Defense Education Act of 1958, emphasis was placed on math, science, and foreign language studies, as these three disciplines were deemed crucial to national security. Move forward 10 years and by the late 1960s one out of seven Americans was employed in the defense industry, military spending had risen from 1 percent to 10 percent of the gross domestic product, and corporations were increasingly profiting from an infusion of money from government contracts.
At the same time, high debt from domestic spending combined with outside competition from foreign markets was having an affect, and by the mid-1970s America had slipped into post-industrialism as jobs moved away from manufacturing toward more office based and service type employment opportunities.
The end result of shifting from assembly line to office tech, resulted in a college degree becoming a necessary component to a career, and as universities and community colleges began to accept more and more applicants, higher education began to trend course loads to part-time instructors.
Today, in 2013, a majority of those teaching in academia are working on a contingent basis. Tenure is nearly nonexistent, and liberal arts professors are being made to feel as though they are simply no more than an application, a helpmate, so to speak, that guides the student along as though they were a navigator steering a ship, following a mapped course not set by them, but by some far-off captain who serves as a default programmer for a higher purpose that is kept hush-hush until the time is right, a captain whose job it is to make sure the cargo arrives on time and without any scuffing from the occasional rogue wave.
At worst, more than a few professors feel they are becoming little more than a retention tool, a gimmick or novelty act whose entire future depends on whether or not one can “get with the program” of algorithmic evaluation, spreadsheet printouts, and constant barrage of software programs designed to make keeping track of grades easier, as if a pen and pad were inherently inferior, and all the while the academic is asked to maintain a classroom atmosphere that is not only educational but also so entertaining that even the most mind-numbing of subjects can compete against the fixative trance of the portable handheld device.
Ironically, the analog education one received before the Digital Age, an educational model that emphasized literature and writing, is admired for its fine attention to detail, as detail is considered to be hallmark of success. Yet that style of learning, though suitable for Fitzgerald and Stein, will not work in world where students are groomed as future customers and national security is commingled with corporate wants that drive the areas of study that schools find most lucrative.
It is pathetically sad to think that a classroom could be reduced to a rectangle screen on a distant wall, or thought to be comparable to that of a interior space where a qualified human stands as the moderator before eyes that are watching. A cold, sterile scene from Orwell's 1984 comes to mind in a world where the educator is 20 miles away and the students are considered close.
As a professor, I am not opposed to online teaching, but I do believe we are losing more than we are gaining from a technological hypnosis that has the potential to reclassify the teacher as a network administrator. I am not a lab rat, nor do I want the classroom considered a lab. Our culture is fascinated with language bewitchment and making the obvious appear novel. Yet at the end of the day the MOOC is still no more than a student interacting with a computer regardless how convenient or user friendly the experience has become.
If our embracing and use of technology becomes more important than our mission to teach, to meet in groups for discussion, or to sit one-on-one with a student seeking guidance, then not only should online education be critically evaluated for its unintended affects but also the very system itself that would interpret skepticism as a regress.
Brooks Kohler is an adjunct instructor with an M.A. in history.
Sebastian Thrun, founder of the massive open online course provider Udacity, is no stranger to controversy. The Stanford University research professor and Google fellow has previously said higher education in 50 years will be provided by no more than 10 institutions worldwide, and Udacity could be one of them. Thrun dropped another bombshell last week in a profile published in Fast Company, which claimed the “godfather of free online education” had changed course. “The man who started this revolution no longer believes the hype,” the article read. Instead of teaching hundreds of thousands of students in one session, Udacity’s future could look something like the company’s partnership with the Georgia Institute of Technology and AT&T to create a low-cost master’s degree.
In reality, Thrun’s shift is more nuanced. Call it a refinement -- not a loss of faith.
“I am much more upbeat than the article suggests,” Thrun said in an email to Inside Higher Ed. “Over the summer, we had students pay for services wrapped around our open classes, and the results were about [20 times] better when compared to students just taking open MOOCs. We have now built the necessary infrastructure to bring this model to more students, while keeping all materials open and free of charge as in the past.”
Some critics of Thrun’s vision interpreted the article as a bit of poetic justice:
“After two years of hype, breathless proclamations about how Udacity will transform higher education, Silicon Valley blindness to existing learning research, and numerous articles/interviews featuring Sebastian Thrun, Udacity has failed,” wrote George Siemens, associate director of the Technology Enhanced Knowledge Research Institute at Athabasca University. “This is not a failure of open education, learning at scale, online learning, or MOOCs. Thrun tied his fate too early to VC funding. As a result, Udacity is now driven by revenue pursuits, not innovation.”
Beyond schadenfreude, many responses cautioned against taking the profile as a sign that Thrun was abandoning higher education:
“It’s tempting to say good riddance,” wrote Michael Caulfield, director of blended and networked learning at Washington State University at Vancouver.
“Thrun can’t build a bucket that doesn’t leak, so he’s going to sell sieves,” Caulfield wrote. “Udacity dithered for a bit on whether it would be accountable for student outcomes. Failures at San Jose State put an end to that. The move now is to return to the original idea: high failure rates and dropouts are features, not bugs, because they represent a way to thin pools of applicants for potential employers. Thrun is moving to an area where he is unaccountable, because accountability is hard.”
Others said the profile marked a premature obituary for MOOCs, which exploded onto the higher education stage as recently as in 2012:
“After a long period of unbridled optimism and world-changing claims about the transformative potential of MOOCs, journalists are now proclaiming that MOOCs are dead, or at the very least broken,” wrote Shriya Nevatia, an undergraduate at Tufts University. “This is extremely dangerous. Instead of companies taking their ambitious proclamations and working hard to make them true, they say that MOOCs have failed, before they’ve even had a chance.”
Among MOOC skeptics, Audrey Watters, an education writer (and blogger for Inside Higher Ed), cautioned against thinking the format is dead:
“The Fast Company article serves as the latest round in MOOC hagiography: Thrun, the patron saint of higher education disruption,” Watters wrote. “And whether you see today’s Fast Company article as indication of a ‘pivot’ or not, I think it’s a mistake to cheer this moment as Udacity’s admission of failure and as an indication that it intends to move away from university disruption.... So yeah, perhaps it’s easy for many in higher education to shrug and sigh with relief that Thrun has decided to set his sights elsewhere. But if we care about learning -- if we care about learners -- I think we need to maintain our fierce critiques about MOOCs.”
Elsevier on Tuesday became the latest academic publisher to add an adaptive learning component to its products. The company announced it will use a memory management tool provided by Cerego, a company based in California and Japan, to help nursing students learn basic concepts.
Cerego is content agnostic, meaning the technology can be applied to any topic. With textbooks, for example, subject matter experts can go through a chapter, highlight important concepts and feed the data to Cerego, which will turn the concepts into review exercises. As students complete the exercises, the system will tailor the content to test students on gaps in their knowledge, and also calculate how often they should review.
“Our vision for this goes beyond what we have today, but our current app is really, really good at translating that foundational information into personal knowledge,” founder and executive chairman Andrew Smith Lewis said.
Elsevier is looking to add the adaptive learning technology to the majority of its titles, Smith Lewis said. The company will roll out titles throughout the year.
The tech company Intel announced Friday that it has purchased Kno, which produces interactive versions of textbooks. TechCrunch and other tech analysis blogs view the purchase as a significant push by Intel into the education space.
Trinity College Dublin and the University of Melbourne will become the first international participants in the course consortium Semester Online, the education technology company 2U announced on Wednesday.
Semester Online enables students to enroll in for-credit online courses offered by faculty members at participating institutions -- or keep up with their studies while away from those campuses. Students complete coursework on their own time, but the courses also include online face-to-face sessions. The effort is being piloted this fall and will launch in January.
Trinity College and Melbourne will supply one course each to the spring semester offerings: "Ireland in Rebellion" and "Classical Mythology," respectively.
With the addition of the two new partners, the Semester Online consortium now includes 10 institutions. Trinity College and Melbourne join Boston College, Brandeis, Emory, Northwestern and Wake Forest Universities; the Universities of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Notre Dame, and Washington University in St. Louis.