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My Problem With MOOCs

August 6, 2013

Giving college credit for a massive open online course will devalue degrees, but the moment I write that, a voice in my mind asks, "Why do you believe that?"

Although I don’t think colleges and universities should equate MOOCs with other courses, I’m no Luddite. I’m happy to see digital humanities breathe life into literary studies, and at one point I took an online class to prepare to teach in that format. Since then I’ve taught several courses entirely online, but the results discouraged me: Committed students did well, but the rest did poorly or vanished.

Although some students have problems in my face-to-face classes, I’m able to intervene and provide help earlier in that format, so far fewer disappear. Currently I use digital resources to enhance the classes I teach, but I have no desire to run a course entirely online again. Therefore I assume that instructors who favor MOOCs have taught online classes with quality equal to or better than their face-to-face classes.

My skepticism about MOOCs also comes from the size of the face-to-face classes I’ve taken and taught. I earned my undergraduate degree at St. John’s University, a small liberal arts college in Minnesota, and I teach English at a similar institution, Aquinas College, in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Almost all my experience comes from classes with 25 or fewer students, but perhaps I would champion MOOCs if I had had educational triumphs while taking and teaching face-to-face courses with hundreds enrolled.

Some MOOCs feature lectures by professors at Ivy League and other top research universities. The assumption that the most-esteemed researchers give the best lectures certainly makes great advertising, but the quality standard that I set for undergrad education comes from an Intro to Philosophy class taught by Professor Robert Joyce at St. John’s, who is now retired. Rather than lecture on the great speculations of the ages, Professor Joyce wanted his students to experience philosophy. To accomplish this, he plunged us into the Socratic Method. He might begin a session by asking "What do you think of capital punishment?"

I would say, "I’m against it. Taking another person’s life is wrong."

Professor Joyce would reply, "Why do you believe that?"

I would say, "I don’t know. It just is."

Professor Joyce would ask, "What if a criminal kills a relative of yours? Doesn’t justice require that murderer to die?"

“No. An eye for an eye isn’t always right.”

Professor Joyce would persist. “Why do you believe that?”

“I don’t know.”

These exercises made me realize that I couldn’t defend easily what I accepted as self-evident truths. Could students in a MOOC have a comparable experience? I have a hard time imagining it, but perhaps my pro-MOOC colleagues have found a digital substitute for Professor Joyce’s one-on-one attention and cheerful intensity as he looked a person in the eye and asked repeatedly, "Why do you believe that?"

In high school I believed multiple-choice tests were great because I could guess which isolated factoids would appear on them. When the first Intro to Philosophy exam loomed on the horizon, however, I thought our in-class exercises unlikely sources for multiple-choice questions. We had read several Socratic dialogues, but would Professor Joyce ask me to match the names of befuddled Athenians with the titles of dialogues? I doubted it.

To prepare for the first test, I organized a study group that spent a couple of hours tossing around speculations about how Professor Joyce thought and what he might ask. I concede that a MOOC could provide an experience similar to my study group, especially if the thousands of enrollees were divided into close-knit groups of a couple hundred.

That first Intro to Philosophy test offered not a single multiple-choice question.

No true/false or matching, either. Instead, it required me to construct a dialogue between myself and Socrates, a dialogue asking him to reconsider a belief about forms or ideas existing in a realm separate from earthly matter. From the study group session I’d developed a Dr. Seuss-like image of pink and blue cotton-candy words such as VIRTUE and TRUTH floating in the air above Socrates and his buddies, but the test required me to argue against that image. I dreamed up something about people constructing ideas by contrasting one experience in life to another. I proposed that alternative, but because the professor admired Socrates, I let the ancient Athenian talk me out of it. That shift in direction might confound a computer program for scanning and grading 100,000 essays, but a human being judged my blue book. Fortunately, my answer connected with Professor Joyce’s idea of an A.

According to Ronald Legon, executive director of the Quality Matters Program, first-generation MOOCs often rely on multiple-choice tests, but he thinks second-generation MOOCs will “incorporate many of the best practices of distance learning.” I hope that MOOCs improve, but because of the sheer number of students, I fear that many second-generation MOOCs will follow the easy route mapped by the first generation. I also confess that I create exams entirely of essay questions for my own classes, but I might change if someone shows me how to make multiple-choice tests that lead students to construct knowledge involving multiple abstractions.

Legon and others wrestle with the issue of students getting meaningful guidance from an instructor. I have yet to see a proposed model that handles this issue well, especially given that real classes — not picture-perfect imaginary ones — frequently face unanticipated problems. I recall that Professor Joyce once assigned a book that assumed the reader had a large disposable income and cosmopolitan experiences far removed from my small-town Minnesotan background. These assumptions angered me so much that I threw the book against the wall of my dorm room. In class the next day other students voiced similar frustrations with the reading. Professor Joyce set aside his planned lesson and encouraged us to look beyond the specific details and find worthwhile principles behind the discourse. Because the instructor knew and understood his class, he could change the course to match our needs.

I have a hard time envisioning a MOOC designed for the millions that could respond to the needs of students in a specific class and change direction for a teachable moment. Of course, I also have a hard time imagining the algorithms the National Security Agency uses to locate the terrorist messages among the millions of private communications it spies upon, so perhaps someone has developed equally useful algorithms to identify the students among the MOOC multitudes that need to have a lesson created on the spot.

The most important lesson I learned from Intro to Philosophy surprised me. At lunch one day with friends from my study group, I asserted an opinion about some current issue. As I did so, I involuntarily imagined Professor Joyce asking, "Why do you believe that?" I told my friends and even did an imitation of the man, which got a good laugh. I discovered, however, that the professor’s voice couldn’t be laughed away. In fact, the voice stayed with me throughout my formal education, and to this day, about once a week I imagine my Intro to Philosophy instructor saying, "Why do you believe that?"

I associate the voice in my head so closely with the flesh-and-blood individual that I cannot imagine a MOOC having a similar lifelong effect, but I give the MOOCs a pass on this one because they haven’t been around long enough for anyone to determine their long-term influence. Fortunately, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is funding a MOOC Research Initiative.

MOOCs are becoming acceptable in higher education because people richer and more powerful than I am declare them to be good. I still expect MOOCs to devalue the worth of degrees, but having performed the Socratic self-examination that Professor Joyce taught me, I have a better understanding of why I believe what I do.

Bio

Brent Chesley is a professor of English at Aquinas College, in Michigan.

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