MOOCs evolve

Would Abe have been a MOOC student? (Cover of a publication from the International Correspondence Schools, c. 1908).

Now that we are half a decade or so into the MOOC revolution it’s interesting to see it sort out and calm down a bit. Although it hasn’t quite fulfilled the utopian aspirations of the early evangelists, it has provided a useful means to get content to learners (particularly in tech areas).  While it’s unclear how the business models are doing (probably not all that well), people and institutions have benefited.

As somebody who is interested in curriculum, class structure, and the rhetorical forms that educational content take (why 13 weeks? why lectures? etc.), I was puzzled by the slavish effort of MOOCs to reproduce the highly artificial structure of an on-campus course. This seemed to me a clear example of the Marshall McLuhan adage that the first thing that happens with a new medium is that you use it to deliver an old form. (Radio shows were the first thing on TV.)

There still is an excessive amount of ‘course-ness’ to the average MOOC, but Dhawal Shah reports that the format is moving from scheduled semesters to basically on demand. A “Netflix” of education.

He writes, “MOOCs are gradually being transformed from virtual classrooms to a Netflix-like experience. Many courses are no longer offered just once or twice a year, but rather are now available as a self-paced, sign up whenever you want experience Coursera courses are now offered regularly throughout the year, with new sessions starting automatically on a bi-weekly or monthly basis.”

A very welcome development, not just because mapping academic calendar conventions on MOOCs was silly, but because opening up things on demand may lead to content innovation. It happened with Netflix, and helped usher in new blood, and arguably even new formats into fiction and non-fiction television.  Education could do worse…



Reasonable Words: Outcomes and “epistemic suicide”

A think piece in the Chronicle of Higher Ed by philosopher Steven Hales takes on one of today’s most sacred of educational sacred cows, “Outcomes assessment.” Pretty easy to show that you get stuck in an unending chain of inferences about whether some educational objective has ever been met. (If you can’t trust grades, then you can go to high stakes tests, if you can’t trust high stakes tests, you can go to oral exams, if you can’t trust exams you could go to papers. But at some point, you just have to give up the ghost and trust that there is some relationship between how you are evaluating something and the thing itself, even if it is as tenuous as the shadows on Plato’s Cave.) From his article:

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“Yet the mavens of outcomes assessment do exactly the wrong thing—they pretend to have some other method that is the royal road to truth when, prey to the same doubts, it is no more than the path to ignorance.”

Hales is surely right about the shaky philosophical grounds for this current fad of objective assessment (to me part of a much larger obsession with data which has created all kinds of philosophically corrupt endeavors). Not sure that any assessment would escape his philosophical charges, though.

To somebody who has done a lot of work documenting K-12 teaching practice, a more mundane problem occurs: Outcomes assessment in the form of high stakes tests takes too much time and money away from experiencing the content itself. And although contentious, there are definitely some people who have raised quality concerns about the tests and the grading. The “upshot,” as my calculus teacher liked to say, Outcomes assessment, often badly done and probably not worth doing anyway?

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