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As a politics professor, I feel I should know something about health policy, but it is mostly dread that made me sign up for Ezekiel Emanuel’s class, Health Policy and the Affordable Care Act, through Coursera. Word is that higher education is about to be disrupted by online providers, like Coursera and Udacity, and their MOOCs (massive open online courses). If students can take political philosophy with Harvard’s Michael Sandel for free, why will they pay to take it with me?

 Have you seen Professor Sandel’s course? I bet I am not alone in wanting to take his more than I want to take mine. Sebastian Thrun, co-founder of Udacity, predicts that in 50 years there will be no more than 10 higher education institutions. Thrun isn’t quietly waiting for his prediction to pan out, either. Pearson VUE recently contracted to administer proctored final exams for some of Udacity’s courses, an important step toward offering credit that most colleges will find hard to reject.

But the “college credit monopoly” may have been the only thing protecting me from Sandel. Dean Dad explains that students who can get college credits for free will have more incentive than ever to max out the transfer credits they are allowed and less incentive than ever to buy my college’s expensive products, including, I cannot help emphasizing, me.  It is just my luck that, amid what some are calling a great stagnation, one of the few big advances in the offing wants to eat my job. I signed up for Health Policy and the Affordable Care Act, then, half-hoping for a bad experience.

But at first, the course seemed alarmingly good. Emanuel, as health policy adviser to the director of the OMB, helped craft the Affordable Care Act. An oncologist, author and food critic, he is disgustingly accomplished. No wonder that over 30,000 students wanted to be in a virtual room with Emanuel, now a vice-provost and professor at the University of Pennsylvania. A wry and engaging lecturer, Emanuel delivered. Though he did not hide his affection for the Affordable Care Act, he also revealed some of the cynical calculations that went into the law.

Had we paid any money, we would have gotten our money’s worth: an insider’s account of the challenges the American health care system faces, of how the Affordable Care Act seeks to meet them, and of obstacles to the new law’s success. Professor Emanuel’s lectures were supplemented by informative readings that covered in depth the very topics, like malpractice reform, cost control, and innovation, that a health policy novice wants to know more about.

After completing the eight-week course, however, I am optimistic that this kind of MOOC will not eat my job because it and I are not really in the same business. At Ursinus College, where I teach, the faculty and administration work individually and collectively to help our students cultivate judgment, the capacity to decide what to think or how to act in areas, like health policy, where no formula can generate the right answer. While we cannot help our students without demanding that they take an active role in their education, we also assume that they do not come in with their judgments already cultivated. College should be a transformative experience for them, and they will need guidance.

For all its virtues, Health Policy and the Affordable Care Act offered almost no guidance, and I now think, as I will explain later, that this absence of guidance is not a temporary defect that tweaks will soon correct, but rather a built-in feature of the Coursera model. Dean Dad advises colleges that plan to survive the coming age of free credits to “focus more clearly on what they can offer that MOOCs can’t.” Our present focus should therefore be our continuing focus. While one cannot know the future of MOOCs without knowing the future of information technology and artificial intelligence, what we know so far suggests this motto for the bricks and mortar college of the future: “guidance does not scale.”

Our potential guide, Professor Emanuel, was not really in the virtual room. Our lectures were excerpts of lectures he had previously given at Penn. If lectures merely transmitted information, Emanuel’s absence would not have mattered. But good lecturers do more than transmit information. An adept teacher can try to read the expressions on the faces of her students, and invite a student to share his thoughts or objections when he seems to have something on his mind. An adept lecturer can allow her students to test her, test them in turn, and convey the sense that they are engaged in a high-stakes enterprise together. In this way, students not only weigh competing ideas but also acquire or further develop a taste for weighing them with the help of others. I know, thanks to Will Oremus,  that MOOCS are now “streamed in real time” and “increasingly interactive,”  allowing a professor “to pause and instantly poll the students to see if they understand what she’s just said.” But that’s not the same, and how could it be in a course whose reason for being is to put a superprofessor in front of a massive number of students, more than even a superprofessor can meaningfully attend to? 

Our syllabus underscored that such attending to was not to be expected by providing no contact information for Emanuel or his staff. Occasionally a staff member would pop up in the discussion forums to answer an administrative question. But more representative was the “Peer Review Not Credited” thread, consisting of some 222 variations on the theme that one should not be penalized 20 percent for not doing peer reviews when one has actually done them.  No staff member commented on this thread. I thought that was funny, until the final week, when my peer review was not credited. It is no surprise, given our numbers, that course staff neglected such details, but if one could not hope to hear from a professor or TA about being docked 20 percent, the message on guidance about substantive health policy questions was clear: you people are on your own. Guide yourselves.

For this, we had the discussion forums, but they felt, to me anyway, nothing like a class discussion. Being in a discussion forum was like visiting a loud, very crowded public place, in which you could pick up snippets of conversation:  “thank you Dr. Emanuel!”; “anyone else docked a point for 'social security?' ”; “does masturbating daily improve our health?” That’s a tough place to get your bearings in. The discussion forums are Coursera’s equivalent of the sections typically attached to university lecture courses, but the forums are immense, and there is no teacher in the room, though there does seem to be someone in charge of deleting salty language.

To assess our knowledge, we had, as I have already indicated, peer grading. In a classroom setting, peer review can work wonders. With a teacher’s guidance, students learn to evaluate complex material, to criticize and to benefit from criticism, and to participate in a community that takes ideas and their expression seriously. But “peer assessment in a class of thirty is very different than peer assessment in a class of several thousand,” in which a teacher cannot oversee the difficult transformation of a student into a critic and of a class into an intellectual community. In our MOOC, no such transformation was needed because “essay” questions called for brief, simple answers, easily checked against a key, and we were not required to explain the grades we assigned.

In a non-MOOC setting, peer review is typically one part of a pedagogical strategy. For Coursera, peer grading is the “answer to the challenge of running a course with tens of thousands of students and only one professor.”  But the same scale that forces this answer on Coursera means that comparing Coursera’s peer grading to real peer review is comparing a bug — the inability to provide guidance — to a feature.

“Guide yourselves” could be Coursera’s motto, and there is nothing wrong with that. Coursera and similar products are, for the most part, not designed to replace the kinds of undergraduate institutions that catch students during a period of momentous change in their lives, and respond to their need to discover and bring to completion their best mature selves. The strongest such institutions feature a faculty and staff who have deliberated about how to respond to that need, and who marshal the resources of the college, inside and outside of the classrooms, to fulfill their missions. Coursera offers, instead, classes and teachers united by nothing apart from its platform to students who are expected to know what they want and to pursue it with minimal guidance. In this sense, while Coursera’s mission of open access is democratic, its education is elitist, designed for those who already possess the judgment, independence, and discipline to teach themselves well. One thing I learned from Professor Emanuel’s course is that colleges like mine have little to fear from Coursera and its cousins. They are in the self-improvement business. We are in the self-formation business.




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