The fine blog Not of General Interest asks the right questions about UD's MOOC-mucking, so let's do Part Three of my series on my experience as a lecturer in Udemy's Faculty Project (I've now recorded two talks for Poetry) as a kind of interview.


March 18, 2012

The fine blog Not of General Interest asks the right questions about UD's MOOC-mucking, so let's do Part Three of my series on my experience as a lecturer in Udemy's Faculty Project (I've now recorded two talks for Poetry) as a kind of interview. Here's NOGI:

[I]n addition to hating plagiarism, corruption in sports, online for-profit education, and Big Pharma, [Soltan's] been as scathing about the use of technology in the classroom as she is about poor writing... If you hate the idea of PowerPoint or technology in the classroom and also hate online courses, why would you participate in this?

Yes, she has been scathing.  So why has she embraced this form of technology?

Well, first of all, as a veteran blogger, several of whose students at George Washington University read and respond to her blog, UD has never been a throw all the bastards out sort, onlinewise.  We need to make distinctions about forms of, and settings for, educational technology. 

Let's start with settings.  If you are at a college, a good liberal arts college, you may well be enjoying an expensive but very valuable experience - a chance to be in classrooms with a mix of smart people with smart things to say in response to a lively, provocative professor - a professor able to make her subject intriguing, and able to respond in a creative, extemporaneous way to the things you and your fellow students say. 

You are part of a world - you see your professors about, you go to campus concerts with your friends and join political and social organizations with them.  You share dorms and houses. 

Slowly, over four years, you develop a sense of what intellectual seriousness looks like, how to interact with people in settings dedicated to the life of the mind, etc.  Slowly, over four years of deeper, more challenging, coursework, you develop a sense of the texture of certain scholarly fields, a sense of the direction you might like to take with your life when you graduate. 

Not all good liberal arts colleges will give you this, or will give you very much of this; and of course not all students in such colleges want this (let me major in biz and leave me be!), but this is often on offer at good liberal colleges.  It is an experience lots of graduates of such places get to have.

Now as to forms of technology at colleges.  If you're going to go to the trouble of having a physical campus where people can do the things I just mentioned, you are depriving your students of the liberal arts college experience if you

1. encourage them to bypass the classroom and take their classes online;

2. allow them to have laptops in the classroom while their professors use lots of PowerPoint in their teaching.

If you want to shut down and be an online institution, go ahead and do so; but if you value the core elements of a liberal arts education, you're going to need to feature the humanity of your professors and students before all else.  What you're offering is humanity - the embodied reality, the emotional as well as mental immediacy, the flux, of ideas.  You are creating a world in which the living excitement of minds engaged in ongoing understanding is central.  Anything you do to dilute that excitement - sticking people behind screens, allowing them to distract themselves in a thousand ways from the primacy of the classroom encounter - is a betrayal of the liberal arts college idea.

MOOCs are not liberal arts colleges; far from it.  Here's a way to think about MOOCs:

[MOOCs] belong to an honorable and well established tradition of continuing adult education that has been offered by universities since the turn of the 19th century. They belong philosophically within the context of thinkers such as R. H. Tawney, Ivan Illich and Paulo Freire, who believed strongly in self-education, as part of their broader socialist views on equality, the need [for] open access to knowledge, and [the need] to educate the workers in order to break the existing hegemony, etc. ... Furthermore, lifelong learning is critically important in the 21st century, but is not well done by most universities. MOOCs are an important development that supports lifelong learning..

[MOOCs] ...are more a threat to current university continuing education departments than they are to the traditional credit programs. In recent years, most university continuing education departments have been forced to move away from providing a free (or very low cost) public service to adult learners. Instead their mandate is to to provide profit to support the more formal side of the university. MOOCs are a direct challenge to this part of conventional universities.

Back to the interview.

Is Udemy and its system of MOOCs something Soltan sees as a way to counter for-profit online education?

Well, first of all Udemy is two different things, one of which is for-profit.  Its main business is charging people to take the courses it offers (though even here, some courses are free, and prices differ a lot among the others).  Soltan's involved in the other thing Udemy does, which is to have professors give a series of lectures for free.  Do MOOCs of Udemy's sort counter the vile for-profit ed industry?  No, because this MOOC model doesn't give out credits and degrees.

Do the "best Professors from the world's leading Universities" (tm) get paid for participating in these, and do they have any responsibilities beyond recording lectures?

No, and no.  Not a damn penny.  As to other responsibilities - these are up to the professor.  One does get emails and comments from students, but it's up to you if you want to respond to them.  Again, it's not a university course, with credits and assignments and all.  It's a freely given set of lectures on a subject about which a professor feels strongly.

My course has been available for a few days.  I've got, so far, 49 students. 



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