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Online classes can be enlightening, edifying, and engaging — but they're not college

Heading back to school with a seven-week MOOC

The future of higher education online is, at present, clear as mud. Do Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs — college-level classes offered online through a number of corporate providers — offer students better tools for study, increased opportunities at lower cost? Can they provide access to higher education to those who wouldn't otherwise be able to afford it? Or do these canned classes portend the selling out of American education to Silicon Valley profiteers?

I took the best MOOC I could find over the last several weeks in order to try to answer these questions, as well as the one perhaps too seldom asked: Are even the best of these classes any good, or not? Are the best ones now, or could they one day be, as rewarding, informative and useful as a real class?

Could the best online courses one day be as rewarding, informative and useful as a real class?

University professors founded or helped to found all the companies that provide online platforms for serving MOOCs, the largest of which (Coursera, Udacity and edX) all have affiliations of one kind or another with Stanford. San Jose State University made headlines earlier this year by offering course credit for certain online classes hosted and administered by Udacity. California has consequently emerged as the front line in the MOOC wars, and the debate here seems likely to be repeated across the country. Here, academics defending traditional classroom-based college education are finding themselves pitted against cost-cutting administrators and government representatives (and even against their fellow academics, since many MOOCs consist of lectures and exercises developed and recorded by sometimes quite eminent professors from all over.)

California's educational system, once the pride of the state, has experienced drastic cuts over the last 30 years, and has deteriorated accordingly. A little research indicates that the alleged "need" for cuts to educational funding is more a matter of changing priorities than the result of fixed imperatives. The watchdog group California Common Sense pointed out last year that "after adjusting for inflation, higher education in 2011 received 13 percent less state funding than it did in 1980. Corrections, on the other hand, expanded its share of the state’s general fund by 436 percent."

In this atmosphere, San Jose State's move to grant credit for MOOCs has exacerbated fears that administrators will soon consider online classes an adequate substitute for the real thing. The pushback began in earnest as a direct result of this move.

Earlier this month, "An Open Letter to Professor Michael Sandel From the Philosophy Department at San Jose State University" was published in The Chronicle of Higher Education. Sandel is a professor at Harvard University; SJSU's faculty had been asked to use Sandel's MOOC course, "Justice," in their own classes. The letter details the reasons for their refusal, and it's a scorcher.

The philosophers began by explaining exactly how and why using Sandel's canned course would shortchange San Jose State's students:

In addition to providing students with an opportunity to engage with active scholars, expertise in the physical classroom, sensitivity to its diversity, and familiarity with one's own students are simply not available in a one-size-fits-all blended course produced by an outside vendor.

Then they go on to address an entirely different concern:

The thought of the exact same social justice course being taught in various philosophy departments across the country is downright scary — something out of a dystopian novel.

And another:

We fear that two classes of universities will be created: one, well-funded colleges and universities in which privileged students get their own real professor; the other, financially stressed private and public universities in which students watch ... videotaped lectures and interact ... with a professor that this model of education has turned into a glorified teaching assistant.

There's a real appetite for online learning

Professor Sandel's feet having thus been placed to the fire, he responded with unequivocal (if terse and rather lofty) support for his colleagues: "I strongly believe that online courses are no substitute for the personal engagement of teachers with students, especially in the humanities ... The last thing I want is for my online lectures to be used to undermine faculty colleagues at other institutions."

But if academics are responding with hostility to the idea of being replaced by glorified YouTube videos, it's also obvious that there's a real appetite for online learning, and that it is colossal. MOOC enrollments routinely number in the tens of thousands. Clearly, it would be a great thing for those with a desire to continue learning, but who don’t have access to traditional college classes, to be provided expert guidance to facilitate their studies.

It would be wrong, then, to dismiss these efforts without an exact understanding of what their proponents are really trying to achieve.

"The Ancient Greeks" is a free, seven-week course offered through MOOC provider Coursera. I started my own undergraduate career more or less convinced that I would one day become a classicist (didn't happen!), and was familiar with much of the assigned reading.

The class was being taught by a professor at Wesleyan. So first, I contacted Wesleyan to get an idea of the school's exact arrangements with Coursera. Lauren Rubenstein of Wesleyan's Department of Media Relations provided answers via email.

Maria Bustillos: What I'm most interested in is the nature of Wesleyan's partnership with Coursera from a financial perspective. Specifically, are professors of Wesleyan's Coursera offerings compensated by Coursera separately? Is Coursera compensating Wesleyan, and if so, how?

Lauren Rubenstein: Coursera does not compensate Wesleyan faculty for offering a Coursera course. There is a revenue share agreement between Coursera and Wesleyan that delineates what percent of revenue beyond Coursera's costs would go to Coursera and what percent would go to Wesleyan if there comes a point when there is revenue beyond costs ... Wesleyan currently pays faculty members a small stipend for developing a Coursera course. If a particular course earned significant profits, a revenue sharing agreement exists to split proceeds between Wesleyan and the faculty member teaching the course.

I did not ask how the Coursera expenses would be calculated; I'm from LA, where Hollywood has given the "net deal" rather a bad name.

"The Ancient Greeks" is taught by Andrew Szegedy-Maszak, and he is basically the flower of the American university system. His own training is utterly traditional, and top-notch: Michigan, Princeton, Wesleyan, Princeton. He comes from a distinguished Hungarian emigré family. Furthermore, as many a glowing recommendation (complete with chili pepper) on will attest, listening to the voice of Andrew Szegedy-Maszak is exactly like soaking in a huge stone bath scented with rose petals while being fed grapes and gently serenaded by a distant lute.

There are no papers, no grades, no final

So is "The Ancient Greeks" a serviceable introduction to the history and literature of ancient Greece? And how! It's fantastic: serious, fun, beautifully presented and engaging as anything. What it is not is a class. There are no papers, no grades, no final; just seven short quizzes, one administered at the end of each week. It is quite possible to skip the readings entirely, to just watch the lectures and get a perfect score on the week's quiz. Discussions in the Coursera fora provided for the class are quite like those in an ordinary literature listserv: The noise-to-signal ratio is sky-high. In short, what comes from the instructor is highly valuable, sublime even: What is expected of the student is next to nothing.

"Professor Andy," as he signs himself in class correspondence, has an uncanny gift for communicating complex ideas with lucidity, humor, and elegance. Each week there are several video lectures, each about 20 minutes long, on a topic relating to the readings assigned for that week: long excerpts from Homer, Aristotle, Plutarch, Sophocles, Euripides, and many others; the most concentrated time is spent on Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War. Though Plato is not discussed in very great detail, the course ends with a fine, touching lecture on the career, trial, and death of Socrates.

I especially loved the way this great teacher interrupts the brisk pace of the survey to focus more closely on details like the beguiling and terrible character of Alcibiades, or the reaction to the Peace of Nicias (between Athens and Sparta, in 421 BCE):

We are told that on hearing of this peace the Athenians reacted with joy; they sang a chorus from an old play, a tragedy by Aeschylus which includes the lines, "Down with my shield! Let it be covered with cobwebs!"

If only. Not so fast... the peace is fragile. Open hostilities are suspended for a bit. But one of the things Thucydides doesn't talk about is what we might call the opposition movement at home. To get some sense of that we have to turn to a very different kind of source, and that is comedy. And that's what we will do in our next lecture.

This leads to a reading of The Acharnians, and Aristophanes' conception of "everyman": "It's an example of how an ordinary person gets caught up in these massive events, and does what he can to survive. You don't want to look at it too closely, because then you move from laughing to tears, or outrage. That's how comedy works."

My feeling about the course is twofold: First, the quality of the lectures is far in advance of all but the very best documentary television (such as Robert Hughes's Shock of the New). Add to this the value of the reading list and bibliographic information given in the lectures, and you have a whole new form, and a quite exciting and pleasurable one: a template for study that is intellectually rich and stimulating, first-rate, providing up-to-date scholarship for those with the time and inclination to work carefully through the reading list.

It's not even remotely like a real class

Secondly, though, as I said earlier: It's not even remotely like a real class. In no way did the rudimentary quizzes and forum discussions substitute for having to write papers, participate in class discussions or sections, swap information and notes with fellow students, talk with profs and / or TAs — all of the things that amount to supplying concrete proof, to teachers and to yourself, that you've learned something specific from your studies. Furthermore, humanities classes wherein we're made to write essays have the more advanced goal (again, for those who can and wish to flex a bit more muscle) of getting students to generate their own new ideas from what they've learned — say by relating the lessons of history or literature to other books or ideas or periods of history, or to their own lives, societies, or circumstances.

These features are crucial not only to develop and mark out individual progress, but in a broader sense, to lay the foundations for future scholarship for our whole culture. It's relatively easy to learn about complicated subjects, online or off, if you already have the discipline and research skills to follow through, abilities that educated adults already possess. The trouble is that these skills are just what undergraduates go to school to acquire. Only those who've been through the traditional kind of college education have the ghost of a chance of becoming the next Andrew Szegedy-Maszak.

All this is to say nothing of the fact that a newly-hatched adult, someone in his late teens and early twenties, is soaking in an enormous amount of information from each new adult he meets. Much of what college teaches us, if we are patient and paying attention, is how to behave as autonomous citizens and individuals in the adult world. There are so many subtle signposts, little skills, jokes, shades of meaning that most younger people won't grasp for a long time. Help in acquiring all these subtle skills is far, far more important in the case of a young person whose parents and family don't already belong to the educated class.

We go round and round about what all that means but let us be clear, for the purposes of this discussion: It means, primarily, a way of speaking, of making oneself understood, and of listening, of conducting conversation in a rational, patient, and respectful way. If you don't need that modeled for you because you got it at home then sure, with a lot of initiative and imagination and discipline, you'll be able to learn quite a lot on the computer. But if you never had it modeled at home, going to school and being exposed to articulate, patient, sensitive teachers will show you how professional grown-up life is done, so that you won't be weirded out when you have to apply for jobs or meet people who can help you, lead you to work, mentor you, help you shape your own future.

I spoke with Andy directly in order to learn exactly how a brilliant lecturer and MOOC participant feels about the future of online learning. I first asked him how he felt about the possibility of undergraduate degrees being awarded, eventually, online, given the current limitations of MOOCs.

Andy Szegedy-Maszak: I remain pretty skeptical about getting a full degree online. The main difference between MOOCs and residential learning isn't even the writing, but more the interaction and the exchange between the faculty member and the students.

Now, Coursera's platform makes it fairly easy for the instructor to check in on the fora and add a post or a comment. But that's very different, as you know, from being in group of people where you are interacting and engaging and encouraging them to link up with one another and to link up their insights. But who knows? I mean, maybe down the line, as technologies evolve we will be able to get to that.

Maria Bustillos: I enjoyed your lectures so much and thought they would be just the greatest launch pad, if you wanted to learn about Greek literature and history as a hobby. But I did not feel that anything was demanded of me as a student. For instance, it's not at all necessary for me to do the reading: I could just watch your lecture, do the quiz, and get a perfect score, more or less.

AS: Well that was the idea. Again, that is something very different from the way I could do it with an in-person course, where I would spend a lot more time actually talking about the reading. I have described this — and this may come back to haunt me — but I've described this course as kind of a highlights reel, you know like on a sports show?

MB: You're so expert, though, and you're able to transmit that… It's more like a book, I kind of thought, where everything that's coming at me is so first-rate, made with such care, but basically it is a one-way street; something to take in.

AS: I'm supposed to teach the Greek history survey at Wesleyan this coming fall, and I think that what I will do is to incorporate the course lectures as part of the assignment, use them as a sort of introduction, and then I'll have more class time to engage the students in discussion of some of the interpretive problems, and issues of the sources, that otherwise I would have to skim by. Here, the class is 80 minutes twice a week; we were very strongly advised to keep the Coursera lectures between 12-20 minutes. This isn't adhered to by all the Coursera folks by any means, but I really felt that I had to distill the main points of the Wesleyan lectures, and in some ways intellectually that was the most interesting challenge.

MB: Right now this is an experiment, a pilot. What is Wesleyan's goal for this thing, given that it's not for credit? Your institution has got their star dudes spending a lot of time developing these courses.

AS: Well, we are going to continue. This is a very big topic around here. Five courses have been offered, including one by our president, Michael Roth, who is doing this course on “The Modern and the Postmodern,” which has also gotten a very positive response. There was a course in economics, another in psych statistics, another in film, and this summer my friend and colleague, Scott Plaus, who is also a social psychologist, is doing a social psych course — the course launches sometimes in June or July — and the enrollment is already bumping up just under 100,000.

And then we are going to have, I think, three or four new courses from colleagues next year. So we're moving forward at a steady pace.

As to the question, what is Wesleyan getting out of this? There are a number of answers; for one thing, it was a real boost, an honor, to be the first liberal arts college to be asked to join this consortium of what were otherwise Research 1 universities. That Wesleyan was recognized, along with Stanford, Princeton, Michigan, and Columbia was great. It was also a way of making Wesleyan known to people elsewhere in the world who might have heard of Harvard or Princeton or Yale, but wouldn't have heard of a small liberal arts college in Connecticut.

So to be in at the beginning of what may well be a revolutionary change in higher education? It was great to be asked. Those of us who have done these courses can now give our successors a sort of clearer idea of how much time and institutional support it's going to take.

MB: It was obviously a massive amount of work to put this together. How long did it take?

AS: Oh, hundreds of hours.

MB: I bet. Did you have a lot of help?

AS: Yes, some valuable help from undergraduates.

MB: In California we have a lot of wariness, because of the business of San Jose State offering actual credits through Udacity. Can you comment on that?

AS: I honestly don't know. I'm not dodging… well, I am dodging, but it's out of genuine uncertainty. That is to say, I worry about cash-strapped public universities, and now I'm not talking about the flagship ones, like Berkeley or UCLA, but the Cal State system: Are they going to start using MOOCs instead of hiring flesh-and-blood faculty to be in a real classroom with flesh-and-blood students? That I would find deeply regrettable.

I think of these courses as a kind of enhancement; a way of enriching the educational experience.

MB: How is this educational revolution going to take place, exactly? If the class is not asking anything of me yet, as a learner — how you get from Point A to Point B is completely opaque to me.

AS: One of the revolutionary aspects is just making this material accessible to a genuinely worldwide audience. You know, that's huge. It's no longer just for the folks who can get to one of the universities here or abroad; folks who bring just an interest in a topic and a passion for it can now get at least some sense of how it's being approached within the academy. This is starting to sound like a thumping cliché, but I would hope that people would just keep maybe thinking about this, reading more, taking another course… That's one of the revolutionary potentials of this medium, is that anyone with an internet connection and a basic command of English can have access to this kind of material.

MB: If you're a grown-up and you don't need to learn how to do research, understand something of logic and have basic rhetorical skill, you can study and learn by yourself. But those aren't skills that kids have. The main thing that undergraduate profs are giving college students, as Aaron Bady once said, is that they are modeling a kind of intellectual engagement, and the space in which to practice it. I don't think this is something you can get any other way.

AS: It's different from the full-scale engagement that one can, to use your absolutely correct term, model for the students in a classroom.

I do this stuff because even after all these years I find it fascinating, and I love the way interpretations change.

The needs of real students, and teachers, must come first

If we are to figure out how best to use technology for the improvement of education for everyone, and to protect our existing system of education from the depredations of rent-seeking entrepreneurs, a nuanced approach could be adopted whereby we can appreciate and build on the efforts of professors like Andy Szegedy-Maszak, while refusing to throw out the baby with the bathwater. (In case anybody cares, I would love to take, and would gladly pay for, a 10-week class from him on the role of the Golden Mean in Greek math, philosophy, history and literature.)

But the needs of real students, and teachers, must come first in assessing the next steps for higher education online. And it seems clear that the best teachers out there also espouse this moderate, balanced, inclusive view. When I asked Andy for a comment about the SJSU Philosophy Department's letter to Michael Sandel, he responded: "I read the letter, and I have to say that the authors make several good points. I'm pretty sure the current obsession with MOOCs will subside, and, I hope, administrators will then realize that such offerings can enhance but cannot substitute for in-person instruction."

The difficulty of maintaining such a balance in the face of twisted rhetoric and warped priorities, calls for efficiency and cost-cutting and "disruption," calls to mind a comment from one of Andy's lectures on Thucydides and his views on political corruption:

Thucydides goes on to say that 'words had to change their accustomed meanings.’ A reasonable caution? — that was cowardice. A brash willingness to do anything for your side? — well, that was courage ... When words change their meaning and only action is possible, human nature being what it is, that action is going to be self-seeking and violent. In these circumstances the ones who suffer most are the ones who try to be moderate, in the middle, because they are subject to attack from both sides.

Illustrations by Steve Kim