Shirky, Udacity and the University

by John Holbo on January 7, 2013

Very interesting – and long – bloggingheads discussion on the future of higher education in the age of MOOCs – Udacity, Coursera – between Tamar Gendler and Clay Shirky. Shirky’s thesis: Napster got killed but its brief and dramatic algae-bloom of a life changed the ‘story’ of music distribution. No going back. So now we have iTunes and other stuff and record companies don’t look like they once did. Likewise, maybe Udacity isn’t the future, but the ‘story’ changes after recent, dramatic successes. That’s a wishy-washy way for me to put it, but it is one of those ‘the revolution is coming but we can’t know what it will be like yet’ prophecies, which are inherently – and sensibly! but frustratingly! – bet-hedging. Here’s a slightly more concrete way to cash out ‘story’: we tend to operate with notions of the proper form and function of the university that are too closely tied to pictures of the ideal college experience that are, really, too atypical to function as paradigms. ‘We’ meaning pretty much everyone still: academics, our students, their parents. Shirky’s idea is that MOOCs are going to unbundle a lot of stuff. You don’t have to buy the 4-year package to get some learning. It’s pretty obvious there’s more unbundling to come – it’s gonna make buying individual tracks on iTunes seem a minor innovation – and it will put pressure on current higher education’s strong tendency to bundle a lot of functions together to the point of indistinguishability (teaching, research, socialization, credentialing). Beyond that, the success stories about these MOOC’s are going to shift our sense of what is ‘normal’ to such a degree that there will be no going back. It has a lot to do with how previously under-served populations will inevitably be much better served; that’s going to become too obvious for old ways of doing it to continue to seem at the center of higher education. (Now I’m back to being vague, while also sounding radical. Sorry about that. Read Clay’s piece on all this – probably you’ll have to wait for his blog not to be down, which it appears to be at the moment.)

I talked about this stuff a few months ago. Clay showed up in comments and we chatted a bit. (I also know Tamar Gendler, slightly – full disclosure of my social network!) I think I pretty much agree with what Clay is arguing in his piece. Do you?

In other news, right after reading Chris’s post about self-consistency I stumbled on a paragraph from G.K. Chesterton, pining for the good old days, when men were men – or rather, they weren’t. More than one of them. When men were a man each, or even fewer. (The occasion is scholarly doubts about single-authorship of Old Testament works. But you would have figured that out.)

Believe then, if you will, that the prologue of Job and the epilogue and the speech of Elihu are things inserted after the original work was composed. But do not suppose that such insertions have that obvious and spurious character which would belong to any insertions in a modern individualistic book. Do not regard the insertions as you would regard a chapter in George Meredith which you afterwards found had not been written by George Meredith, or half a scene in Ibsen which you found had been cunningly sneaked in by Mr. William Archer. Remember that this old world which made these old poems like the Iliad and Job, always kept the tradition of what it was making. A man could almost leave a poem to his son to be finished as he would have finished it, just as a man could leave a field to his son, to be reaped as he would have reaped it. What is called Homeric unity may be a fact or not. The Iliad may have been written by one man. It may have been written by a hundred men. But let us remember that there was more unity in those times in a hundred men than there is unity now in one man. Then a city was like one man. Now one man is like a city in civil war.

I do adore Chesterton’s gift for madness that feigns common sense, protesting madness. (I got the essay from an anthology – a nice one – titled In Defense of Sanity. Highly recommended, on Kindle or dead trees.) Discuss!

Probably this could have been two posts.

{ 118 comments }

1

Ben Alpers 01.07.13 at 4:24 pm

Nearly a century ago, in his lecture on “Wissenschaft als Beruf” (“Science as a Vocation”) (.pdf of an English translation here), Max Weber spoke of the uneasy linkage of scholarship and teaching in the academic profession..and the difficulties that might cause in a system (such as Germany’s in the early 20C) in which a huge emphasis is placed on enrollments:

Every young man who feels called to scholarship has to realize clearly that the task before him has a double aspect. He must qualify not only as a scholar but also as a teacher. And the two do not at all coincide. One can be a preeminent scholar and at the same time an abominably poor teacher. . .
Now, matters are such that German universities, especially the small universities, are engaged in a most ridiculous competition for enrollments. . . . The interest in fees–and one should openly admit it–is affected by appointments in the neighboring fields that ‘draw crowds.’ And quite apart from this, the number of students enrolled is a test of qualification, which may be grasped in terms of numbers, whereas the qualification for scholarship is imponderable and, precisely with audacious innovators, often debatable–that is only natural. Almost everybody thus is affected by the suggestion of the immeasurable blessing and value of large enrollments. . . .
It is a fact that whether or not the students flock to a teacher is determined in large measure, larger than one would believe possible, by purely external things: temperament and even the inflection of his voice. After rather extensive experience and sober reflection, I have a deep distrust of courses that draw crowds, however unavoidable they may be. Democracy should be used only where it is in place. Scientific training, as we are held to practice it in accordance with the tradition of German universities, is the affair of an intellectual aristocracy, and we should not hide this from ourselves. To be sure, it is true that to present scientific problems in such a manner that an untutored but receptive mind can understand them and–what for us is alone decisive–can come to think about them independently is perhaps the most difficult pedagogical task of all. But whether this task is or is not realized is not decided by enrollment figures. And–to return to our theme–this very art is a personal gift and by no means coincides with the scientific qualifications of the scholar.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Of course the real question is how one resolves this odd relationship between teaching and the scholarship…between the needs of students, the needs of the university, and the needs of scholars. MOOCs may very well shake this relationship up. But I suspect how it ends up getting (re)resolved will have more to do with a political struggle within our educational institutions than with the logic of MOOCs themselves.

2

Ben Alpers 01.07.13 at 4:25 pm

Oops! Tag fail!

That last double-indented section was supposed to be un-blockquoted, not re-blockquoted.

3

Aaron Bady 01.07.13 at 4:27 pm

4

Aaron Bady 01.07.13 at 4:29 pm

Speaking of html fails, there should be a “not” in my four word link-comment which is awaiting moderation. Sigh.

5

Cranky Observer 01.07.13 at 4:34 pm

Same fundamental question the proponents of MOOCs don’t want to touch: do parents in the 1% send their children to Harvard, Columbia, & Stanford, or set them up in the basement with a big monitor and headphones? Why?

Because applications and competitiveness at the top 25 physical campus universities are going up, not down…

6

bjk 01.07.13 at 4:35 pm

We’ve been waiting for this revolution since 1958, if not earlier . . .

http://www.paleofuture.com/blog/tag/education

via foureyedgremlin.blogspot.com

7

Cranky Observer 01.07.13 at 4:51 pm

bjk,
Don’t forget PLATO (the University of Illinois version that is).

8

Chris Bertram 01.07.13 at 4:56 pm

This piece is an interesting response to Shirky’s Guardian piece. He may have responded of course, but since his blog is down I can’t check.

http://themagnetisalwayson.com/moocs-as-capital-biased-technological-change/

9

Josh G. 01.07.13 at 5:16 pm

Nothing substantive will change until middle-class employers start taking “alternative” credentials as seriously as degrees from traditional universities.

10

Hidari 01.07.13 at 5:26 pm

Is it just me who thinks the presuppositions underlying MOOCS are insane? To begin with, take the comparison wıth music. Itunes etc. are to music what MOOCS are to educatıon. But the comparison doesnt hold . Music is an end ın ıtself. You want a tune… you buy ıt. It is so to speak a self-standing product.

Educatıon is not like this. Why do people want a University education? Purely and simply to get a job. Now dont get me wrong. If you enjoy your course and your lecturers are great…fantastic! But thats not why people do it. Why do people go to Harvard and Yale? Because the lecturers and facilities are great? I am sure they are. But that’s not why people go. They go to get a highly paıd job at the end of it. How will MOOCS deal with this situation? When will an employer prioritise the job application of someone who did a MOOC over someone from Princeton? Never is when.

There ıs another purpose for education of course…. to make money for the people who own the Unıversities. And in this too MOOCS have been a complete disaster, as the NYT article makes clear.

So what if people want education for free? You think there are no self-help books? Has no one ever tried to teach themselves French?

What one can predict with deterministic accuracy is that like all new technologies the internet etc will be used as an excuse for a de facto cut in academic’s wages (by “encouraging” them to do more work for no more money) and a further attack on the much hated (by management) tenure system which encourages freedom of thought and the ability to speak out without fear of being fired.

CF also this; http://www.insidehighered.com/views/2012/12/06/essay-critiques-ideas-clay-shirky-and-others-advocating-higher-ed-disruption

11

geo 01.07.13 at 6:00 pm

Isn’t Clay Shirky the person who reported that people are no longer reading Tolstoy and then shrugged, “Whatever”? Should someone who can discuss the obsolescence of Tolstoy unhysterically really have any standing in a discussion of education or culture?

12

Hidari 01.07.13 at 6:26 pm

Geo

what he said was actually worse than that. What he said was:

“No one reads War and Peace. It’s too long, and not so interesting.

This observation is no less sacrilegious for being true. The reading public has increasingly decided that Tolstoy‘s sacred work isn’t actually worth the time it takes to read it.”

http://www.britannica.com/blogs/2008/07/why-abundance-is-good-a-reply-to-nick-carr/

One might add that Shirky’s comment is no less sacrilegious for being blatantly false.

13

Substance McGravitas 01.07.13 at 6:58 pm

14

William Timberman 01.07.13 at 7:09 pm

Please God, let there continue to be people who find War and Peace neither too long nor uninteresting. This is not a plea for keeping everything everywhere current for everyone. We may not have the Temple of Jupiter Capitolinus any longer, but we do have the Pantheon. Maybe that’s enough, given what else we have to keep track of. Still, there has to be some minimum of recovery in every generation if we want to retain some sense of what we are, and how we came to be this way. (I didn’t go to college to get a good job, and perhaps predictably, I didn’t get one. I have no regrets, but neither do I feel any need to turn my own pathway through the maze into a categorial imperative.)

15

prasad 01.07.13 at 7:13 pm

“Music is an end ın ıtself. You want a tune… you buy ıt. It is so to speak a self-standing product. Educatıon is not like this. “

“Should someone who can discuss the obsolescence of Tolstoy unhysterically really have any standing in a discussion of education or culture?”

I should have thought one should be able to discuss pretty much any issue this side of genocide “unhysterically.” Be that as it may, I can grok being so fond of literature as to be unable to discuss declining Tolstoy sales soberly. I can also grok seeing education as having *only* instrumental value. But I’m having a hard time understanding a mindset that can endorse both sentiments over the course of an hour. Me, I’ve finished five Coursera courses (as in I even did problem sets and such) over the past few months, basically for satisfaction of acquiring new college-level material in a setting that allows for *much* more learning than Teaching Company lectures or checking out a library book.

” When will an employer prioritise the job application of someone who did a MOOC over someone from Princeton? Never is when.”

a) There are colleges less elite than Princeton, odd as it seems :)
b) Even Princeton CS grads might find it valuable to learn machine learning from the likes of Geoffrey Hinton, Daphne Koller, Sebastian Thrun and Andrew Ng.
c) They’re combining their courses with ETS style testing and credentialing. This could be big for people switching fields later in their careers, or become the poor-man’s executive/extension degree. Or help people in less prestigious colleges who’re trying to boost resume value. Hell, if external testing happens, and given the the ridiculous grade inflation at top colleges, (Princeton’s trying a very modest 35% A plan and to hear students talk they’re being screwed over because they deserve As as a matter of course) I can envision top students at 11-20 ranked colleges seeking an edge by putting these additional scores on job/grad school applications…

16

Substance McGravitas 01.07.13 at 7:25 pm

What hasn’t come up much in this discussion as far as I have seen, is what the consequences of the whole world learning AI from Sebastian Thrun would be for the faculty currently teaching AI courses who happen not to be Sebastian Thrun.

More than that, is Sebastian Thrun the guy? We’ve ended up with one search engine, more or less, will we end up with one MOOC? And will they like freshwater or saltwater economics? Shirky’s article talks about a criticism of a course and the responsiveness to change he sees in Udacity vs. anecdata, but who will have the chops to criticize the One Academy when everyone is its graduate?

17

christian_h 01.07.13 at 7:28 pm

I’m with Hidari, but would add something else: the whole idea – already present in the “credit hour system” we have long practiced – that an education (as opposed to a degree, to which all that Hidari says applies) can be had one course at a time the same way music can be enjoyed one song at a time seems utterly absurd to me. Really – Calculus 1 this year, then maybe American History 101 next Winter break and Calculus 2 two years later…. this won’t work. There may be a few people out there – mostly those who already have received a lot of formal education I’d bet – who can learn in this fashion, but I’d guess not that many.

18

Hidari 01.07.13 at 7:32 pm

Just to be clear I did not at any point say or imply that education has only instrumental value. Indeed I pointed out that people learn things for the pure love of learning all the time. And I have paid for nightclasses in various subjects and enjoyed it a great deal.

But that is very different than the investment one makes (financially and emotionally) in a 4 year college course. And I was also explicit that of course one hopes (prays) that the course will be interesting, that one will learn, that one will meet sympatico people etc. Of course one hopes that.

But that is not the primary reason for doing a University course, nowadays.

19

prasad 01.07.13 at 7:48 pm

Still, people who’re deeply attached to their Tolstoy should at the very least be celebrating MOOCs for making learning for the love of it rather more available to people no longer in a university setting. I speak as someone still doing pure science, but at a research lab and not in a university. Just that difference is enough to drastically reduce the scope for goal-free learning outside of your area of research. If they do nothing else, MOOCs make it possible for you to spend as much of your free time being a part-time student as you want. I sense an awful lot of churlish defensiveness about them here, and from people who’re a pretty academic bunch. I just don’t get it.

20

bianca steele 01.07.13 at 7:48 pm

@18
I hate to be pedantic (don’t you find it rude when people insist on quibbling about definitions and logic and such in detail?), but the US meaning of “course,” I believe, differs from that in the UK. And I hope it won’t be considered too nationalistic to point out that Udacity and Coursera, being based in the US, are assuming the US definition of the word.

Also pedantic would be to point out that @17 seems to be calling for the elimination of the elective system.

21

Alex K. 01.07.13 at 8:18 pm

Sooner of later we will start hearing stories about some passionate teachers in Africa or in some Godforsaken village in Mongolia, who used MOOCs to get some of their students jobs at Google or Microsoft.

By the time we will stop hearing those stories not because they will not exist, but because they will become too common; by that time the disruption will be visible to the naked eye.

Those skeptical of the disruptive possibilities of MOOCs seem to be most familiar with first world conditions, where students are bathed in educational resources but can’t get their shit together to use them.

But there is a whole other world out there, a world with ambitious and capable people for whom miserable educational standards and inferior access to educational resources are the most important bottlenecks. For the people belonging to that world, MOOC skepticism is just another thing to file under “stupid things some first world people like to say.”

22

mpowell 01.07.13 at 8:34 pm

First, the idea that MOOCs won’t replace the top 25 physical universities, or whatever, is totally irrelevant to the idea that MOOCs will be transformative. Second, Alex K @21 makes a good point, though it may not be quite as simple as he makes it sound.

23

AcademicLurker 01.07.13 at 8:49 pm

The claim people are disputing is not “MOOCS will turn out to be useful for some people”, it’s the “MOOCS will revolutionize everything the university as we know it is totally over HUZZA!!!!!!!!” nonsense that’s been making the rounds.

24

Hidari 01.07.13 at 9:03 pm

@23 “MOOCS will turn out to be useful for some people”.

They have certainly been useful for Clay Shirky.

25

SusanC 01.07.13 at 9:03 pm

The analogy with printed books vs illuminated manuscripts (which has been made before in respect of stuff delivered over the Internet) comes to mind. We could say that printed books created a new market, where their obvious inferiority to hand-painted manuscripts didn’t matter very much.

There might be a whole new market for individual courses with no credential at the end, as long as they are much, much cheaper than traditional degrees. To some extent, there is already a market for a la carte courses with no degree at the end: see what a typical university offers during the summer vacation through the deparment of extra-mural studies (or whatever it’s called). Arts and music tend to do well here.

26

Tim Worstall 01.07.13 at 9:08 pm

The most important word is “credentialing”.

If those who currently issue credentials manage to keep control of the issuing of those credentials that the wider society thinks matters then MOOCs won’t have much effect.

If they don’t then they will.

Or to put it in terms that Adam Smith didn’t actually use. How successful are you academic types going to be at protecting your guild?

27

christian_h 01.07.13 at 9:11 pm

Bianca (20.), of course the electives system as it is currently should be abolished. It is adapted to one goal and one goal only: testing that students are prepared to work hard for no reason. I can understand employers love that, but why should we? Of course I think that students should ideally learn in a self-guided fashion with appropriate advice – which means in an ideal world they should be able to choose what they want to learn, when, in what order. But in practice this is not what our current system accomplishes, at all. In practice, what happens is that students take maybe half their classes (in the major) in a perfectly non-elective fashion, and then add some random lower division stuff that happens to fit into their schedule, happens to be still open for enrolment, and happens to please whichever undergrad advisor they are talking to (I can’t tell you how many students I have had in class “because they still needed a math class” or “because they needed to fill out two credit hours” etc. pp.). This has nothing to do with freedom to educate oneself, and everything with the fake freedom provided by 95 kinds of shampoo.

As for prasad, what AcademicLurker said. I think MOOCS can be perfect for self-motivated adult learning and continuing education – but they are hardly revolutionary in this respect. To add, I never get all these forms of techno-utopianism. does any of this (blogs, MOOCS, whatever) really change relationships of production, as opposed to merely lowering the price of labour? I don’t see it.

28

Substance McGravitas 01.07.13 at 9:25 pm

I think MOOCS can be perfect for self-motivated adult learning and continuing education – but they are hardly revolutionary in this respect.

What’s revolutionary is how they appear to an administrator who wants to save pennies. They look more like classes than a shelf of texts in a library.

29

ponce 01.07.13 at 9:43 pm

@27

“As for prasad, what AcademicLurker said. I think MOOCS can be perfect for self-motivated adult learning and continuing education “

But the kids will still need to go to a physical school to get the binge drinking and the date rapes.

30

William Timberman 01.07.13 at 10:18 pm

Tim Worstall @ 26

If the current system of credentialing in all cases did what it was supposed to do, applying it outside the confines of traditional universities probably needn’t raise any eyebrows. I wonder, though…. Does anybody pro or con really believe that we’re going to get anything like that once the current system loses its supposed integrity? I think we’re far more likely to see a situation in which Newt Gingrich can credibly claim to be just as good a historian as Eric Hobsbawm, or Glenn Beck can style himself Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

31

bianca steele 01.07.13 at 10:31 pm

I can understand employers love that, but why should we?

I agree that there are lots of different goals any one person might pursue, but “people I don’t care about and who don’t care about me think that’s important, so I want people to do the opposite,” isn’t much of an argument.

I don’t know what you teach, and don’t know many people who took math courses as an elective. Your argument as stated at first applies against students taking a course in history, literature, philosophy, sociology, or psychology who haven’t already decided that they’ll major in those subjects. It applies to core curricula that seem too “choiceful” or too random and unspecialized (and AFAICT all of them are vulnerable to criticism in these terms). It suggests that students should pursue a single course of study to the exclusion of everything else, and at the same time that education shouldn’t be “vocational,” and that doesn’t make sense.

If I’ve misunderstood you I hope you’ll clarify, as I don’t have the personal experience that would have told me what the system mostly accomplishes in practice. If you’re in a math department, though, then you’re probably not arguing that, say, we should have specialists in knowing history or reading novels or watching movies or going to art museums, and that trying to know them directly is like having too many choices of shampoo.

32

Metatone 01.07.13 at 10:42 pm

I’m unsure if the proposed Google/Microsoft employees from Mongolia will actually surface in any meaningful numbers. There are always “Ramanujans” out there, so I’m sure examples will surface over time. But all of the things that Silicon Valley types take for granted – cheap web hosting, shell servers, etc. Those things that make it cheap to be an AI hobby programmer, I’m not sure they are so accessible to the kind of MOOC student mooted.

33

Matt 01.07.13 at 11:35 pm

I’m unsure if the proposed Google/Microsoft employees from Mongolia will actually surface in any meaningful numbers. There are always “Ramanujans” out there, so I’m sure examples will surface over time. But all of the things that Silicon Valley types take for granted – cheap web hosting, shell servers, etc. Those things that make it cheap to be an AI hobby programmer, I’m not sure they are so accessible to the kind of MOOC student mooted.

But if you have a computer and internet connection to do the MOOC, you also have a computer and internet connection to build things and show them on the web. A low-traffic web site needs lesser hardware resources than an interactive computer that can show video lectures — it can in fact run simultaneously on the same machine — and the software is all free.

Same fundamental question the proponents of MOOCs don’t want to touch: do parents in the 1% send their children to Harvard, Columbia, & Stanford, or set them up in the basement with a big monitor and headphones? Why?

Children of the 1% could afford to visit the Galapagos Islands and observe in person instead of just reading about Charles Darwin and other scientists’ observations there. That doesn’t mean that a median income family is making the wrong choice by providing their children with books instead of exotic travel. Saying “I travelled to the Galapagos this summer” is a better social credential, but the child who spent the summer reading could tell you just as much about the science and history of the islands.

34

Andrae 01.07.13 at 11:44 pm

@21

I would go further and suggest that most of the criticisms of MOOCs I read are simultaneously US and 1% oriented. If you are living in a non-US first-world country, you are unlikely to have access to some of the courses available as a matter of course through iTunesU or coursera. Already some smaller Australian universities will credit coursera courses as prior-learning toward a 4-year undergraduate degree.

Hidari, of course (absent revolution) there will always be a market for institutions for the 1% and .1% to enculturate their children, and provide status markers for their class. No doubt these institutions will continue to offer free or discounted access to those talented enough that they contribute to this process. To suggest this is the sole purpose of higher education is to discount 99% of the population that will never have access to elite institutions—for them, the knowledge is at least as important as the credential. It is outside the elite institutions that MOOCs will have their initial, and greatest impact.

35

Keir 01.08.13 at 12:21 am

This is Clay before-napster-nobody-ever-sold-singles Shirky, right? Why do we bother listening to people who don’t have basic knowledge of the industries they are analogising?

36

Doug K 01.08.13 at 12:21 am

“But all of the things that Silicon Valley types take for granted – cheap web hosting, shell servers, etc. Those things that make it cheap to be an AI hobby programmer, I’m not sure they are so accessible to the kind of MOOC student mooted.”

I took a MOOC course on software engineering. All the required infrastructure was made available via Amazon EC2, Github, etcetera, so given a PC and web access, the rest was wholly accessible.

Software is an area where the MOOCs can be disruptive – credentialing does not matter so much when the candidates can be evaluated by FizzBuzz.
See:
http://www.codinghorror.com/blog/2007/02/why-cant-programmers-program.html

Example story:
http://www.reddit.com/r/webdev/comments/11pbj1/dude_you_guys_i_apparently_nailed_my_very_first/

37

giotto 01.08.13 at 12:47 am

Has someone somewhere addressed what the growth of MOOCs and perhaps ultimately their prevailing over the current model of higher education, might mean for the production of knowledge?? Analogies to iTunes aside, if we imagine there being, say, only one person in MOOCWorld teaching popular courses on ancient Rome, this person being (for the sake of argument) an excellent and charismatic speaker but a mediocre scholar, what might this portend for the development of new or even revolutionary ideas regarding ancient Roman society? Will our Prof. MOOC be expected to carry out research? If not, who, if anyone will do so? If he does play the research and publish game, will there be scholars somewhere to disagree with Prof. MOOC’s conclusions? Or does he reign unchallenged?? I assume he would not have graduate students, so are we looking at most of the disciplines drying up? What do we do with the really bright students who want to be challenged to think in new ways about, say, sexuality in ancient Rome, but who won’t get any of that from a Prof. MOOC whose class caters to students who just want a great men and/or great battles view of the world??

And on a related note perhaps, though MOOCWorld seems an efficient way to distribute facts, how might it teach the analytical and writing skills that we claim we are teaching and that at least some employers claim to be seeking?

38

John Holbo 01.08.13 at 1:11 am

Good comments. Let me defend Shirky a bit further by saying that some of these arguments against him – not all, but some – seem to me pretty bad.

First, Cranky Observer: “do parents in the 1% send their children to Harvard, Columbia, & Stanford, or set them up in the basement with a big monitor and headphones?”

Most colleges/universities aren’t named Harvard, Columbia or Stanford. (For good measure, most numbers between 0 and 100 are not the number 1.) It may seem like noble idealism to say that the rest of the 5,000 colleges and universities in the US should aspire to the same high status. But it’s just the sort of confusion I mentioned in the post: confusing an image of the ideal college experience for a paradigm of what is and can be typical. Therefore Cranky has no argument against the proposition that what is needed, to serve more people better, is something that isn’t like Harvard in certain ways. (Of course, if everyone could go to Harvard, that would be great. No denying it.)

Next, the Tolstoy stuff. Look at it this way. Suppose I decided to one-up the Tolstoy defenders in the authenticity kabuki sweepstakes, like so. Bah! Only philistines want to see Tolstoy taught in university classrooms. Rows of bored freshmen drowsing through World Literature 101! Tolstoy didn’t write his books to be read that way! Tolstoy is there so that in a moment of private spiritual despair/ecstasy, when it seems to you your life …. you seek out, only to reject … Until finally you settle on …

And so forth. And I’d be right. That is a more ideal way of reading Tolstoy than drowsing your way through World Literature, only to sit up and think, ‘hey, this stuff is pretty good!’ (as may happen.) The argument for teaching Tolstoy, rather than just letting the stuff sit around, waiting for lightning to strike, is that college is a more regular, more efficient delivery system of this good stuff to more people. It’s a Tolstoy appreciation assembly line, even if it’s piecemeal assembly at it’s best – just 10 students, maybe, with their nice instructor, and trees and old buildings all around. But once you’ve admitted that the point of the university is efficient delivery of goods – ugly, unvarnished way to put it, I concede – you have no business fulminating against MOOCs on Tolstoy is awesome! grounds. Basically, you are committing the fallacy mentioned in the post: mixing up norms for what universities should be trying to do with pictures of the ideal (Tolstoy-appreciating) college experience with mistaken notions about what is, and can reasonably be expected to be, typical, going forward.

That said, there are some good arguments against Shirky. Read Aaron’s piece, also linked upthread.

http://www.insidehighered.com/views/2012/12/06/essay-critiques-ideas-clay-shirky-and-others-advocating-higher-ed-disruption

(He’s feeling pretty silly about leaving that ‘not’ out of his comment. He does NOT agree with Shirky. I should go in and correct that for him.)

Let me respond briefly to some debatable points he makes:

“But to imagine that Silicon Valley venture capitalists are the only people who see the potential of these technologies requires you to ignore the tremendous work that academics are currently doing to develop new ways of doing what they do. The most important predecessors to MOOCs, after all, were things like Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s OpenCourseWare, designed entirely in the spirit of openness and not in search of profit.”

This is true, but I think the inertial drag of institutional conservatism means that, in academia as in other areas, the revolutionary innovations are likely to come from outside. I don’t welcome this development, but I do concede the likelihood of it.

“The key difference between academics and venture capitalists, in fact, is not closed versus open but evidence versus speculation. The thing about academics is that they require evidence of success before declaring victory, while venture capitalists can afford to gamble on the odds.”

But in many ways this both is, and should be, wrong. The university should be the laboratory of speculative experimentation – and after the dust settles, the business world can adopt whatever works. The university is supposed to be a place both for evidence and for speculation.

39

uffy 01.08.13 at 2:01 am

So apparently the wages available in code-writing adjacent fields have no where to go but down.

It’s doubtful that these types of non-traditional educational services will have much impact outside of a few technical employment categories. That said, an arrangement could emerge where a non-negligible amount of parallel “online education” in addition to standard degrees becomes required/the norm in many professions. I guess.

40

geo 01.08.13 at 4:17 am

John @38: you have no business fulminating against MOOCs on Tolstoy is awesome! grounds

Didn’t mean to. I simply wanted to remind Shirky’s readers that he’d said, in a tone of obnoxious cool, something appallingly foolish — that War and Peace is “too long, and not so interesting” and that “the reading public has increasingly” — and rightly, he implies — “decided that Tolstoy‘s sacred work isn’t actually worth the time it takes to read it,” and further to suggest that this disqualifies him from being taken seriously as a cultural critic.

41

John Holbo 01.08.13 at 4:32 am

“this disqualifies him from being taken seriously as a cultural critic.

I don’t think it disqualifies you from being taken seriously that you have rather heretical notions. I think most cultural critics do, at least around the edges and often at the core. I think you are confusing the role of critic with something like curator of the canon. Lots of critics aren’t that, obviously, and more power to them.

42

Marc 01.08.13 at 4:39 am

You can learn a lot about science from watching a good TV series, or reading a good book. You can teach yourself some things by reading textbooks – or some people can. Online courses as adult enrichment have a logical place.

But real teaching involves the interaction of teachers with students. This isn’t mass produced – a terrific lecturer can deliver an effective talk to many, but they can’t personally work with large numbers of students. There are aspects of learning that simply don’t benefit from automation.

More to the point, the general education material that the MOOC format works for is a small portion of the courses that people take for a college degree. Upper division courses are taught in smaller interactive sessions, are much more topical, and wouldn’t gain from the same economies of scale. What about laboratories? Music and art? Essays and writing? Spoken language?

Would anyone seriously have argued, for example, that all university classes in a traditional setting had to be delivered as standard lectures in 200 person classes?

This isn’t being a Luddite – it’s a statement that learning involves personal interaction and that such learning simply won’t be effective on mass scales. Online classes have terrible reputations in the current environment for very good reasons, and not all are simply matters of not getting the formula right.

43

Freddie 01.08.13 at 5:24 am

What’s remarkable about Shirky, Holbo’s defense of him, and the MOOC movement writ large is what isn’t there: any notion whatsoever of whether this kind of education works. It appears to be completely irrelevant to Shirky (and Holbo) whether these courses, or an entire education comprised of them, can actually achieve the necessary educational effects. It’s not just that arguments for quality and effectiveness are unconvincing. It’s that there appears to be no interest in them as subjects at all. When Holbo scolds commenters by saying that this model will serve more people better, he’s not just begging the question. He’s doing so with a subject he hasn’t even bothered to consider.

This is perfectly in keeping with Shirky’s work, which is obsessed with digitally utopian narratives and well-worn techno boilerplate and short on content or falsifiable claims. Which is fine for him, because when you are a digital futurist, you can make claim after claim without anyone ever bothering to check up on your results, without being written out of the conversation.

By the way: it’s the students themselves who will reject the online college experience. They don’t work their asses of in high school, devote four years or more of their lives, and go into debt to sit in their basement in front of a monitor. (Can you imagine how bleak that future is, really?) They go in large part because they’ve been told by their culture that college is four of the most passionate, fun, and social years of their lives– and their culture did not lie to them. That’s why they’re willing to pay. They aren’t, in fact, little resource-allocating automatons, and they don’t want to live lives like that.

But whoops! There I go again, considering minor concerns like the students and their wishes. Sorry to get in the way of the Grand Digital Narrative.

44

Hidari 01.08.13 at 5:32 am

It is so significant that not one person has raised (directly) the questions; what about the academics who will teach (for a profit seeking company) on these MOOCS? What will they be paid? Will it be by the hour, the day, the year or what? Will they be paid to publish and seek research grants? What will the possibilities for promotion be? Will employment at a MOOC ımprove your chances of getting a real job at a real university? Will you be allowed or encouraged to join a trade union?

45

geo 01.08.13 at 5:52 am

John @41: Yes, it was a little high-handed of me to banish Shirky from the cultural conversation just because he said something that got my back up. Apologies, and welcome back, Clay.

On the other hand, what he said about War and Peace wasn’t “heretical” — that dignifies it a great deal too much. It wasn’t a position or argument or viewpoint, formulated with any care or effort. It was a brainless remark, tossed off with an air of bravado and a touch of smugness. Still, we’re all dumb or obnoxious on occasion. Excommunication withdrawn.

46

Hidari 01.08.13 at 6:16 am

“They don’t work their asses of in high school, devote four years or more of their lives, and go into debt to sit in their basement in front of a monitor. “

I hate to tell you but students already go into debt to sit in their basements in front of monitors. The do this for “dıstance courses” (usually a Masters but other courses are available) and they do it because they think this will increase their employment prospects.

47

John Holbo 01.08.13 at 6:48 am

“It appears to be completely irrelevant to Shirky (and Holbo) whether these courses, or an entire education comprised of them, can actually achieve the necessary educational effects.”

OK, I’ll bite. How could anyone think that education matters, but it doesn’t matter whether education educates? If Shirky and I really didn’t care about education, qua effect of education, we wouldn’t advocate anything as complicated as a MOOC, after all.

Also, for the record: I’m not advocating, just predicting what I think will come to pass. I am distinctly ambivalent about it, because it means things I love, and have long regarded as the norm, may erode or pass away. But maybe that’s either inevitable or, in the long run, even for the best.

More seriously: I suspect Freddie is so sure that education is important that he hasn’t paused to consider what education involves – perhaps regarding this as relatively self-evident (since that the value of education is high is fairly self-evident.) But it is not so, and Shirky is actually to be commended for his address of this point. He suggests a Latourish exercise: educators should think about what they do all day without using the verb ‘to educate’ (or, more simply, ‘to teach’.) This is, I agree, a good place to start.

geo: “It was a brainless remark, tossed off with an air of bravado and a touch of smugness. Still, we’re all dumb or obnoxious on occasion.”

Sometimes you are manning the walls. Sometimes you are the barbarian at the gates. I think it’s almost a guild requirement that you be apprenticed, for a time, in both jobs.

See Tolstoy’s crudely dismissive assault on Shakespeare. Very delicate subgenre of cultural criticism, the crudely dismissive assault. Needs handling with care. Not every idiot can be trusted to commit brain surgery with a hammer, after all.

It may be that I am biased because I am not a Tolstoy man myself. Dostoyevsky, if you please.

48

Jim 01.08.13 at 7:14 am

As a matter of background, I took both Thrun’s first AI class and the co-occuring class from Andrew Ng on Machine Learning when they were both with Stanford. I’ve been fascinated by this movement, and have dabbled in the offering of EdX, Coursera, and Audacity.

Further background: I hold a bachelor’s in area studies (Russia/Central Asia), but am a programmer with a systems administration background by profession. Yeah, the world is strange. I suppose that might explain being here. :) I put that out there because I think this is an important aspect of my experience. Read the description below thinking about a student who has learned how to learn.

That’s important I think, and a distinction missing from most discussions on this subject. I do not need the same handholding as that of most college freshmen, and unfortunately sophomores, and sometimes juniors and seniors. Oh, and business majors. All of them, and any age (j/k). These classes, as a result, are at the perfect level for me. They’re frequently applied and low level enough that you don’t need the direct guidance of a feedback loop with an expert who can help as your brain wraps itself around new and incredibly complex ideas. On the other side they’re complicated enough that your average college freshman might not have the background or the tools to conquer it.

Now to my experience. I’ll say that I found Thrun’s teaching style to be poor, I actually stopped taking his AI class before completion (I should say that while I’m not a fan of his teaching style, I have the utmost respect for what he has done in general with the concept, and also that it could just be a incompatibility with my desired learning style, your mileage may vary). In contrast, Andrew Ng is now ranked as one of my favorite instructors of all time, despite having never spoken to the man. He was incredibly engaging, I found his explanations to be just the right amount of thorough. The class wasn’t perfect, it was a first iteration in a new medium after all, but it hooked me. I’ve since taken Natural Language Processing and dabbled in a few other things.

To that, some of the beauty of this is you can try a class out with zero pressure. Don’t like it? Who cares. Aren’t sure if you have the time? Big deal. It’s incredibly liberating. You can pursue academic interests without pressure.

To its utility, I’ll say that it has been sort of shocking. With cheap cloud instances giving a programmer near limitless scalability that can in theory grow with revenue demand (and revenue), these classes providing us with what is reasonably close to cutting edge knowledge, and open source tools and code providing a framework on which to quickly build on, it’s perhaps incredibly startling to realize just how incredibly low the barrier to entry is for nearly anyone in the world to create the next tech giant.

That’s of course oversimplifying things on two levels. I’ll start on the level of implementation, obviously cultural and language issues prevent this utopia from being trivially realizable. But it’s already visible just how tuned in hungry entrepreneurs from, for example, India are to this movement. I’d be shocked if their affinity for English and tech doesn’t lead to them yielding one of the century’s tech superstars.

The other level of simplification is that this sudden equality in the tools and education required to build the next big thing only highlights the lack of equality in access to fundamental education. I was lucky, my parents bought me a Tandy 1000HX as a kid, and I was hooked early. Certainly kids have access to tech these days, but perhaps not with the sort of emphasis on geekery which was inevitable when having so much exposure to tech back then.

Anyway, my apologies for rambling, this ia subject area I’m excited about. I’ll end by saying for my own personal growth, this has led me to several interesting projects using what I’ve learned, and it appears (we’ll find out in the next few months I suppose) a potential increase in my earnings as well. So the difference, at least in my case, can be concerete (which leads into whether accreditation matters, but I’ve rambled enough).

49

John Holbo 01.08.13 at 7:39 am

Hi Jim, I talked about this in one of my earlier posts. The already needing to have learned how to learn part. That’s a big issue, and it’s hard to imagine a mooc for teaching that. Thinking about it that way induces double-vision re: traditional college. On the one hand, it’s remedial. Teaching you what you would need to get something out of a mooc. On the other hand, it is clearly better than any mooc.

50

Jim 01.08.13 at 7:52 am

I guess that sort of is my point, we shouldn’t think of them as necessarily in competition with each other. They can be complementary. Now, I think it goes without saying that it implies that current universities will, as a result, look completely different in the future. I don’t think that’s a bad thing though. I’m one of the very few, I think, who truly appreciated the liberal arts format.

I still recall an argument in an advisory panel to the dean of the college of arts and humanities where I went to school. Everyone aside from myself was advocating for reduced core requirements from humanities students to take classes in the sciences. I seemed to be the only one who not only found value in it, but relished the opportunity (granted this was a state school, not Harvard, but perhaps that’s more relevant. I don’t think anyone expects Harvard to have to change as much as your average state school). And honestly I think without buy in the value is mostly lost on these students. They take the easiest class they can find, cram, and forget it.

I guess that’s just meant to be illustrative that things are fairly broken as is in higher education, and MOOCs carving out a niche of that, and perhaps allowing them to refocus on learning as it were (both at the fundamental level and the level of more advanced concepts) is a good thing. Allow the MOOCs to fill that middle role, where they work best.

51

The Lorax 01.08.13 at 7:52 am

If your class can properly be replaced by a MOOC, you’re doing it wrong. Seriously. You need to rethink the way you teach and the value you are to your students.

52

John Holbo 01.08.13 at 8:10 am

“If your class can properly be replaced by a MOOC, you’re doing it wrong.”

That sounds to me like you are saying: if your apple can properly be replaced by an orange, you are running your apple orchard wrong. That is to say, the claim is so unclear that I think probably you need to think a bit harder about what you are trying to say, Lorax.

53

Hidari 01.08.13 at 8:48 am

“I took a MOOC course on software engineering. All the required infrastructure was made available via Amazon EC2, Github, etcetera, so given a PC and web access, the rest was wholly accessible.”

And did it result in you getting a job at the end of it? (genuine question).

54

Phil 01.08.13 at 9:12 am

That Inside Higher Ed piece is superb. (JH @ 38 – I think you overlooked a bit in the comment you were responding to, viz. “The thing about academics is that they require evidence of success before declaring victory“, emph. added.)

Key quotes:

While Shirky can see the future revolutionizing in front of us, he is thinking like a venture capitalist when he does, betting on optimism because he can afford to lose. He doesn’t know that he’s right; he just knows that he might not be wrong. And so, like all such educational futurologists, Shirky’s case for MOOCs is all essentially defensive: he argues against the arguments against MOOCs, taking shelter in the possibility of what isn’t, yet, but which may someday be.

And, more (most) importantly:

While state after state is defunding its public colleges and universities (and so tuition is rising while quality is declining), the vast majority of American college students are still educated in public colleges and universities, institutions that have traditionally provided very high-quality mass higher education, and which did it nearly for free barely a generation ago.

“Access” wouldn’t even be a problem if we didn’t expect mass higher education to still be available: Americans only have the kind of reverence for education that we have because the 20th century made it possible for the rising middle class to have what had previously been a mark of elite status, a college education. But the result of letting these public institutions rot on the vine is that a host of essentially parasitic institutions — like Udacity — are sprouting like mushrooms on the desire for education that was created by the existence of the world’s biggest and best public mass higher education system.

55

prasad 01.08.13 at 9:18 am

The naysayers here come in two varieties: half the comments are from people saying this is nothing new, that distance education has been ubiquitous for decades. It has changed nothing much so far, and won’t in the future either. That’s because it’s a very impoverished model, and such a weak substitute for the real thing, that the very idea of it revolutionizing higher education is silly. The rest instead provide dystopian narratives where college administrators lay off faculty and further weaken unions, Gingrich and Glenn Beck replace the next Hobsbawn, research is threatened with the severing of the teaching/research link, and there’s one perspective on Roman History to rule them all, since only one Teacher is needed per subject.

For some reason, these camps don’t find much to disagree about among themselves, even though these positions are closer to being opposites than complements. I guess the important thing is to forthrightly reject the region of parameter space where this technology is both powerful and good. Because, you know, Utopianism and Whig History. I feel like I’m reading some sort of Bizarro National Review.

56

Hidari 01.08.13 at 9:32 am

“. I guess the important thing is to forthrightly reject the region of parameter space where this technology is both powerful and good. “

NO. This has nothing to do with the technology. ALL the technology is already available and if you do a distance Masters you will use all the technology used in a MOOC: Shirky tries to imply that this debate has to do with technology because then he can imply that his opponents are Luddites.

The issue with MOOCS is not the technology it is with their socio-economic form; specifically:

Who pays whom for what? And at the end of the day…

Cui bono?

As the article linked to above points out MOOCS do not meet a genuinely new need but one that has been artificially created; it was only with the demise of 1st class free education to all that venture capitalists could come along and claim that they had a “solution” to this “problem” that would by an amazing coincidence also make them a lot of money (they hope).

57

Walt 01.08.13 at 9:52 am

prasad, those positions are completely compatible. We’re going to move to an inferior form of education — as the years of experience with distance learning have proven — and as a consequence we as a society are going to lose the ability to distinguish genuine scholars from charlatans.

The effect on scholarship, though, is nothing like what the effect on the economy will be. If states seriously decide to kill their universities and community colleges, in the long run that’s going to shave several percent off of US GDP. This isn’t lowering the quality of something as a consumer good — like replacing illuminated manuscripts with printed ones — but lowering the quality of the capital stock of the US. At this point in the US’s economic development the most important form of capital stock is human capital, and we’re going to damage that in a short-sighted attempt to save money.

58

prasad 01.08.13 at 11:35 am

Right, so:
- Sitting in on in-person lectures by college professors = good. Listening on a computer to lectures by college professors = IQs going down the toilet and Glenn Beck taking over the world.
- In a world with tax-funded college education there’s no need for a MOOC. Continuing or part time education, or learning after college for the sake of learning – these are “artificial” needs.
- The technology is old hat, that it’s always been exactly this easy for Stanford professors to reach (and grade) a hundred thousand people with the same lecture material they use in their classes, that distance education has always come with easily searchable discussion fora and real-time feedback. In related news, Facebook is the same as those photo books schools and colleges used to give out, and Google a library catalog on index cards. Fine, have it your way. I still don’t see why there’s such a strong status quo bias on this one, one that ignores all potential upsides, and poses frankly bizarre objections like the new world allowing for only one scholar (and view) on Roman history.

Back once more to that claim, I thought everyone here was agreed at least that Harvard wasn’t going out of business given its credentialing and signaling power. Neither is Dartmouth or UMich or Brandeis. Wonderful as community colleges or adjunct professors are, they’ve never been a substantial aspect of knowledge *production.* And I call BS on the alleged commitment to teaching among elite scholars – faculty at research universities basically treat students and teaching as nuisances they must suffer through in between doing real work. Indeed, I’m sort of wondering why the possibility of reducing their integrated number of teaching man-hours is something they should be fearful of. (This one thing is actually something that I expect won’t happen – those wicked administrators won’t be happy with the brand dilution of making students in a 400 person lecture too obviously get the same thing as one in a 40000 person lecture. What might happen instead is that many of these places will roll out gimmicks like recording lectures and making all teaching about discussion/problem sessions etc to underline the academic value addition of real teaching. )

59

Slex 01.08.13 at 11:58 am

I like Coursera. First, it gives me the opportunity to fill in some gaps in my education or just to learn about areas outside my expertise. Second, it allows me to see how some of the allegedly top lecturers from top universities do the job that I do at a small university in Eastern Europe and to compare different teaching styles and approaches.

Thus said, I don’t think that MOOCS will be a game changer. From what I know, Coursera in its current state is something of a beta. It is run with profit in mind and at one point or another, they will have to start charging for something – either content or certification. However, I don’t think that it will ever grow beyond education for the sake of education – something like the Khan Academy. The problem with massive online courses, which is there also for traditional online courses and distance learning but to a much smaller extent, is that it is easy to game the system.

Once the certificates offered start to mean something, there will be incentives to offer services of obtaining them the easy way. The very thing that provides MOOCS with economies of scale to make them potentially profitable allows the economies of scale to make services of gaming the system profitable, too. How long do you think it will take before an entrepreneural nerd in India or Ukraine starts to offer for-pay-assistance during the final exams?

Of course, this can happen in distance learning courses as they are, but given the small number of people enrolled, it is way more costly to find someone to ace the exam for you, given that every course has its peculiarities, and that timings can vary. And of course, you have to not only find someone who is willing to offer the service, but you should also cover his reservation price entirely on your own.

Once you have standardized courses offered to thousands of people, you no longer have to pay, say $300 to someone to help you during the exam – you can do it for $15, because the Indian or Ukranian nerd can schedule a group chat for 20 other people who are sitting for the exam at the very same time, who, just like you, have transferred $15 in advance through PayPal to be invited to the chat.

I don’t see why any employer would take the credentials from Coursera seriously and prefer them to traditional degrees.

Another reason why it won’t be a game changer has already been mentioned. Higher education is as much a consumer good, as an investment good – at least for the majority of students. Young people go to universities for the fun of it, not only for the study and the future job opportunities it would give them. If anything, MOOCS would compete with distance learning courses of other universities, but IMO these are usually taken by people who have long since left high school, and have familiy and a job and can’t afford to be present physically and attend a full-time program.

60

engels 01.08.13 at 12:09 pm

No-one reads War and Peace. It’s too long and not so interesting

Totally fucking Mexico! Thinking is rubbish and rubbish isn’t cool!

61

Neville Morley 01.08.13 at 12:12 pm

Agreed that, as Aaron Bady notes, teaching isn’t really analogous to music, but I still wonder if we could play with the analogy a bit more, rather than focusing solely on the implications for the institutions involved (as both Shirky and his critics seem to do). Napster and the crisis of the record companies hasn’t brought an end to the production and consumption of all music, but it has certainly changed them in all sorts of ways.

As the stepfather of one of them, I’m inclined to look at the changing life of the professional or semi-professional musician, and wonder about possible comparisons with what academic life may be like in future. At one end, you’ve got the established stars churning through their old hits, using records mainly as publicity for more lucrative (because not easily replicated) concert appearances (and I seem to recall someone suggesting that e.g. Niall Ferguson’s books are now more like means of winning lecture bookings), plus a constant stream of new but mostly ephemeral stars being created by the media and then dropped again (countless academic examples).

At the other end, you’ve got people building DIY careers, buying services like distribution from record companies rather than handing over everything to them, ferreting out opportunities for getting rewarded for their music, building communities of fans over the internet as well as through gigs – and this has actually worked to the benefit of some traditionally marginalised genres like prog, though the work involved in putting together enough opportunities to make any sort of living is enormous and sometimes prohibitive. A new paradigm for academics – or is this basically just a description of the contemporary blogging academic, desperately hoping to make enough of a splash to get signed up by the industry?

62

Hidari 01.08.13 at 12:50 pm

“Napster and the crisis of the record companies hasn’t brought an end to the production and consumption of all music, but it has certainly changed them in all sorts of ways.”

Indeed it has. Insofar as we are consumers it has unquestionably made things better. But insofar as people are producers the situation is far more ambiguous. YouTube (which like almost all purely web based companies has never made a profit and, it seems, never will) has made life great for consumers and of course the people who set it up are rolling in cash.

The people who have been hammered are the producers of the content. A very VERY few people have gone onto being well paid stars through YouTube. But this tale is more typical.

“”YouTube absolutely eclipses Spotify when it comes to the amount of music streamed. But YouTube’s payouts on those streams appear to be substantially worse, with similar problems in transparency.
We’ve seen some really sad numbers for YouTube superstars like Susan Boyle and even Rebecca Black. But when it comes to depressingly-low YouTube royalties, Dead Kennedys may take the cake. According to stats just shared by the group, YouTube paid just ‘a few hundred dollars’ (fn1) on an aggregate of 14 million streams. And, the band has no idea how they arrived at that number.”

http://www.digitalmusicnews.com/permalink/2012/120930deadkennedys

(fn1: That is divided by 4, remember).

63

Chris Bertram 01.08.13 at 1:34 pm

FWIW, Shirky’s actual point re War and Peace was that the reading of literary fiction has been in decline since the advent of television. I recently read Diana Athill making the same point, so it isn’t one restricted to technophiliacs or literarophobes. Though I still usually prefer real, paper, books, I confess that my attempts to get through the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation were in part, defeated, by the sheer weight and unmanageability of the hardback, which I wasn’t going to take on a train and was not even comfortable to read in bed. I discovered last week that the Kindle version is on sale for £1.59, so reading Tolstoy may be one area that technology improves considerably.

64

Hidari 01.08.13 at 1:36 pm

“Shirky’s actual point re War and Peace was that the reading of literary fiction has been in decline since the advent of television. I recently read Diana Athill making the same point, so it isn’t one restricted to technophiliacs or literarophobes”.

Does he actually have any objective evidence for this?

65

Chris Bertram 01.08.13 at 1:59 pm

I don’t know that he does. Athill’s evidence came from trying to run a literary publishing firm through the 60s and 70s (see her STET). It sounded plausible when I read her.

66

Main Street Muse 01.08.13 at 2:27 pm

We saw with UVA that this issue of online/digital ed is not going to go away, and in fact it is a huge disrupter. But that said, virtually all industries have been upended by the Internet; it is no surprise that higher ed, which is dealing with critical issues of cost v. value in this era of debt-driven tuition payment, is impacted by this.

Let’s note that Harvard and MIT are not allowing their MOOC offerings to go toward a Harvard or MIT degree. These are courses open to the masses, and the masses will not be getting that Ivied credential via a MOOC – no way will they dilute their own educational offerings with this. They understand the value of the Ivy-league network (the non-digital one); and it will not be open to the throngs of those eager to learn via MOOCs.

I think about the friendships and relationships I made in college and in graduate school that influenced my career. Removing personal contact from higher ed – funneling all information through a digital network – is a radical transformation of not just education, but of careers.

Another sector to consider, rather than music, would be journalism, which has been completely shattered by the web. The New Orleans Picayune made big news when it announced it would produce print papers just three times a week. Journalism itself seems like a career that is not sustainable at this point. Are MOOCs the Huff-Po of higher ed, aggregating content for consumers to wade through at their peril? And as someone noted above, who pays for the teacher? Or are we moving toward an America where only the 1% gets paid any more?

ToPhil @54 – thanks for the link to and quotes from the Inside Higher Ed piece.

67

AcademicLurker 01.08.13 at 3:00 pm

54 gets it right. The notable thing about MOOC boosters is that so far they’ve done nothing but declare victory, while relieving themselves of any burden to provide evidence for their claims.

All of the MOOC success stories I’ve heard so far fall under the general heading of “continuing professional education” and everyone I’ve heard the stories from have been working adults who already have college degrees. I think that’s a great niche for online education and I haven’t really seen anyone arguing against it. The jump from that to teaching World Literature 101 to 18 year olds however…

Here’s a question for John and Prasad (and anyone else who cares to answer): so far even MOOC advocates admit that the completion:enrollment ratio for MOOCs is infinitesimal. These completion rates would never be considered acceptable in other contexts.

Question 1: why doesn’t this count as evidence that MOOCs might not be well suited to replace classroom education?

Question 2: what would constitute evidence against the ability of MOOCs to replace classroom education?

From the way discussions have gone here and elsewhere I get the strong impression that MOOC advocates don’t allow that such evidence can exist, even in principle, and that MOOCs are yet another entry on the list of ideas that can never fail but can only be failed.

68

John Holbo 01.08.13 at 3:41 pm

“I get the strong impression that MOOC advocates don’t allow that such evidence can exist, even in principle, and that MOOCs are yet another entry on the list of ideas that can never fail but can only be failed.”

It seems a big stretch from someone expressing the opinion that x will probably a big impact to the conclusion that they must, insanely, not being willing to believe it is logically possible that x could fail. So you’ll forgive me if I’m a bit skeptical of your inferences concerning my beliefs. (I would like to see some better evidence that I believe these insane things before I am willing to believe that I believe them.)

“Question 2: what would constitute evidence against the ability of MOOCs to replace classroom education?”

All the obvious stuff, obviously.

My view – I feel rather queasy about the whole thing, so it’s rather amusing to be accused of technopreneurial zeal-by-proxy – is that 1) the current higher education model in the US is showing severe strains and 2) something is probably going to give resulting in 3) a major shift in the institutional structures of higher education that 4) will probably resemble the shifts we’ve seen elsewhere, e.g. journalism. Ergo, 5) MOOC’s seem to me like a true harbinger of things to come.

Obviously I could be wrong. Listen to the podcast and pick away at what Shirky has to say, if you like. But don’t pretend he’s raving in some ‘the revolution can’t fail’ way. That’s just silly.

69

geo 01.08.13 at 3:49 pm

John @47: See Tolstoy’s crudely dismissive assault on Shakespeare

It was anything but crudely dismissive. It was prefaced by a lengthy admission of decades-long self-doubt and uncertainty, and it consisted of a careful, detailed, sometimes eccentric but often ingenious examination and criticism of Shakespeare’s major works. It is not the same species as Shirky’s sideswipe.

Chris @63: Shirky’s actual point re War and Peace was that the reading of literary fiction has been in decline since the advent of television

Not as I read him. Everyone — above all the people Shirky dismisses as ignorant Luddites — knows that the reading of literary fiction has been in decline. That’s the universally accepted premise of the argument. Shirky’s point is that this isn’t such a bad thing, since much of what passed for devotion to literary fiction was mere cultural snobbery. He has a point about the snobbery, but then goes on to say that furthermore it’s no great loss because you know what? Literary fiction (eg Tolstoy) isn’t all that great anyway. Too long and not interesting enough. This is what I found unforgiveable. Though kudos to him for saying out what lots of other people probably believe but are too cowed by the cultural snobs to say.

70

AcademicLurker 01.08.13 at 3:55 pm

John,

Apologies if it sounded like I was accusing you specifically. My last paragraph was aimed more at the general run of MOOC boosterism that’s been floating around recently.

But I think what someone said up thread is basically correct: Shirky appears to argue primarily not by providing reasons and evidence that he’s right but by insisting that people place undue weight on the hypothetical possibility that he might not be wrong.

I hear the word “inevitable” being thrown around a lot in these discussions. When exactly did this new model become inevitable? What does being inevitable consist of, apart from people who stand to benefit from the new model declaring it to be inevitable over and over again?

It all sounds hauntingly familiar. I mean, get with it folks, a few years from now everyone will be buying their pet food online. The disruptive technology makes it inevitable. Invest now before you get left out!

If we’re going to consider the future of MOOCs in light of the internet revolution more generally, we should consider all of the lessons the recent past has to offer.

71

engels 01.08.13 at 4:09 pm

I thought Shirky’s general point was not that the reading of literary fiction is in decline (he says that has been happening for a while) but that respect for literary culture by people who are well-read in it themselves is in decline. But to me it does sound shallow and Andy-Warhol-if-not-Nathan-Barley-esque to write ‘No-one reads War and Peace. It’s too long and not so interesting,’ even though I assume this was intended to be provocative. (Haven’t read it myself but do hope to do so sooner rather than later.)

72

engels 01.08.13 at 4:09 pm

are not well-read in it themselves

73

John Holbo 01.08.13 at 4:10 pm

Re: Tolstoy. I guess ‘Hey, you know what, “War and Peace” is just too damn long – that’s the problem with it!’ strikes me not as offensive but mildly funny. I would be very surprised if Shirky were unaware of the funny side of saying something like that. But fair enough about how Tolstoy really did study Shakespeare. But he was still a monomaniac about the whole business – so narrow in sensibility. I guess that’s the worst you could accuse Shirky of: opinionated narrowness about the value of long Russian novels. Well, Tolstoy had opinionated narrowness, as a cultural critic. So goose/gander.

“Shirky appears to argue primarily not by providing reasons and evidence that he’s right but by insisting that people place undue weight on the hypothetical possibility that he might not be wrong.”

I think the problem here is with predictions and prophecies. Shirky can’t prove he’s a true prophet, and no one else can prove he’s a false prophet, so there tends – this is fair enough – to be a lot of arguing-by-imputing-obvious-insanity/ludditism. People who think what Shirky says sounds awful and nightmarish are probably worried that there is some danger of self-fulfilling prophecies hereabouts. It could go either way, but the more people like Shirky there are, the more things are likely to go the bad way. So there is a tendency to pounce on the speculative character of his arguments. Well, say what you feel you’ve got to say, to encourage the world to be a better (or less bad) place.

I’m so conflicted about whether the likely brave new world will be better or worse that I’m not much inclined to try to nudge the scales either way. I feel rather fatalistic about it all.

It’s true that a lot of internet euphoria has proven to be total nonsense. MOOC’s could be a fad. But I have a strong feeling that, if it’s not MOOC’s, it’s going to be something else – something rather like MOOC’s, that is going to transform the landscape of higher education. I am skeptical that things will go on as they have, without major, technologically-driven upheaval.

74

William Timberman 01.08.13 at 4:39 pm

prasad @ 55, 58

On the subject of professors Gingrich and Beck: To have doubts about Shirky’s image of the future (although not about his smarts) is not the same thing as trying to disparage the future, let alone prevent it. What I’m trying to do is to see as much of it as I can, and that by comparing it to what I know of the past. When I do, it leads me to a different set of aphorisms than those Shirky is offering.

So I ask myself things like what is YouTube? Is it a zoo? A jungle? A paradise of cultural democratization and empowerment? The opiate of the masses? A speculative money sink? Likewise with online universities. If we see them as dissolving the form, and releasing the content of that thing we currently call higher education, have we taken everything into account in calculating our balance sheet of cultural gains and losses?

And no, it won’t do, I think, to dismiss Shirky as one of those recurring hucksters of novelty for its own sake, or conversely, to dismiss folks like me as curmudgeons with our noses buried in irrelevant books by irrelevant Russians-of-the-past. We have to turn these new developments and the proffered evaluations of them around a little bit in our hands, sniff them, maybe take a bite from this or that part, before we accept them as inevitable, or wise. The fact that the future doesn’t care what we think is irrelevant, as the future is no more likely to care about what Shirky thinks than about what we think. In that sense, we’re all strangers in a strange land.

75

Doug K 01.08.13 at 4:53 pm

@53 “And did it result in you getting a job at the end of it?”
no, but then I wasn’t looking for a new job.. just to stay employed in my current one.
In any case I was one of the 90% who dropped out of the course, though if I’d been unemployed I would probably have completed it.

@59 “How long do you think it will take before an entrepreneurial nerd in India or Ukraine starts to offer for-pay-assistance during the final exams?”
In the course I took, most of the programming assignment questions were asked and answered on stackoverflow.com. Credentialing will certainly be tricky: but as noted, programmers can easily be sifted by interview coding tests. In the professions that have their own licensing and examinations of competence, the MOOC credentials may similarly be moot.

76

AcademicLurker 01.08.13 at 5:07 pm

That online communication and related technology will play an increasing role in higher education is not really in doubt. In addition to my usual teaching this year I’m helping put together a class that’s part of an online Masters degree program that’s aimed primarily at people in industry (continuing professional education, as I mentioned in 67), so it’s not like I’m reflexively anti-technology or against the idea of online courses for some purposes.

But this “It’s a MOOC revolution baby!” stuff just has a distinct ring of hucksterism to my ears. Maybe I’m too cynical. We’ll see.

77

Metatone 01.08.13 at 5:44 pm

FWIW, I do think MOOCs will upend a lot of things – and in the process probably create some dystopic problems for research in a lot of fields – as MOOCs will decouple research from teaching and there are plenty of fields where it will be hard to take up the slack from other sources. To me this also links to the Tom Slee discussion – when Coursera destroys the academy, how might we pay people to think? I think it’s an important question to answer.

However, back to my original comment, my point is, since I have relatives in India, continuing education students in the US or UK taking AI courses don’t understand how much infrastructure they have for themselves. Reliable internet and an up to date PC for one. And this is why I’m wary of the “MOOCs save the Third World” argument. While most 3rd World countries could use a more educated populace, there’s often a decent number of educated people already underemployed due to the structural problems of those countries. Not to mention the good engineering and science graduates working in call centres.

(Also, you could fill every post at Google, Amazon and Facebook from India and not even make a dent in that employment issue. It’s just not a high employment industry.)

Further of course, once you get away from Comp Sci, then infrastructure matters even more.

78

Hidari 01.08.13 at 5:45 pm

“What is YouTube? Is it a zoo? A jungle? A paradise of cultural democratization and empowerment? The opiate of the masses? A speculative money sink? “

The latter. The Golden Rule of Web only businesses is….generally speaking…..they don’t make money. You Tube has never made a cent. Facebook (probably) not a cent, although creative accounting and intensive tax dodging helps to obscure this. Twitter has never even pretended to make any money.

“Everyone” thinks that this problem can be solved eventually. “Everyone” is wrong. You cannot run an “employee heavy” business on the basis of advertising money alone. It just can’t be done. That’s not to say that some people haven’t made money from Web 2.0. They have. But they have invariably been the companies that sold commodities that you could touch in shops (either offline or online it makes no difference). Samsung, Nokia, Apple, Mıcrosoft…at the end of the day, even Microsoft, they sell products that real people pay for with money in shops. Google was the one exception and you will notice that even there as fast as they could they went back to the only way capitalists can really make profits long term…badly paid workers digging stuff out of the ground which is then put together by badly paid workers in factories to make commodities which are then sold in a shop for money (Nexus). Amazon the same (Kindle).

You cannot make profits on advertising alone because you don’t employ any staff because you can’t afford it so there aren’t enough consumers to pay for the advertising that would enable you to turn a profit. It’s as simple as that. Facebook has a billion slaves who work for free to produce its “product” and it still can’t turn a profit. It’s impossible. (Not even Spotify makes a profit and it charges…Spotify is just a record store in cyberspace so presumably eventually it WILL make very small profits but my point remains).

So there is constant and frantic cost cutting in all these businesses as they desperately try to square the circle and turn a profit. And who gets shafted? The producers. The journalists on the newspapers. The people who make the videos on YouTube. The writers of the books on Amazon. And the Academics who “teach” for MOOCS.(fn1) This circle cannot be squared. The result is ruthless and endless pressure on staff wages and working conditions.

Again “everyone” thinks there is a way out here. There isn’t. You can talk about “new paradigm” in journalism all you want for example but it’s much easier to think that apart from elite broadsheets, newspapers will simply cease to exist in about 30 years time and for the “masses” journalism will merge with and become a branch of advertising. Likewise with music and the arts; the only sections of the arts that show any life are those as far away from the web as possible, so to speak (live gigs, stand up comedy especıally ımprov) which are very difficult to do as web only type things. Other things are done but they don’t make money. Trying to make money as a producer from anything to do with the web ALONE is pointless and hopeless; cf the Tom Slee thread.

One last prediction; in ten years time assuming they last, it will be standard on job ads to see “no MOOC qualifications accepted”. And I know that because in my line of work it is already standard to see “no online qualifications accepted”. There are too many people chasing too few jobs and employers are looking for ways of stopping people from applying.

(fn1: The NYT article linked to is all about “there must be some way to monetise this and make a profit! ” There isn’t).

79

Brendan 01.08.13 at 6:03 pm

as noted, programmers can easily be sifted by interview coding tests.

Many programmers think that requiring demonstrations of trivial programming ability in an interview is insulting, and a sad reflection on the state of the industry.

80

prasad 01.08.13 at 6:31 pm

AcademicLurker – I’ll take your first question, since the view that MOOCs will kill classroom instruction dead isn’t mine to begin with, still less is it a dogma.

“Question 1: why doesn’t this [low completion ratio] count as evidence that MOOCs might not be well suited to replace classroom education?”

Here’s my anecdote – I completed (as in did assignments, took exams and such. Did every single required thing) five Coursera courses this fall. But I signed up over that period for more like twenty. The intent never was to finish every one obviously. MOOCs make the experience of course shopping really easy since there’s so much flexibility. So yes, I think that ratio is interesting, but it’s (imo) more a story about an artificially high denominator than one about lacking student commitment etc. This, in a growing industry, isn’t necessarily worrying.
Also, I have numbers for a biology course that I did finish – ~30k students signed up, 2k finished everything, midterm and final and weekly homework and all. Of those, 80% got a instructor signed certificate and 45% got a certificate with “distinction.” I’d like those who’re sure this stuff is small potatoes to remind us how many college professors routinely administer finals to 2000 students.

81

prasad 01.08.13 at 6:42 pm

I also find myself bewildered at the notion that India and other third world nations lack the infrastructure needed to make online education work. Indian infrastructure generically sucks. But I thought even Thomas Friedman had learned the cell phone lesson by now – telecom is the easy kind of infrastructure. Not like good roads or clean water or 24/x7 power or a doctor in every village.

82

Jake 01.08.13 at 7:02 pm

You Tube has never made a cent.

So you say. Why should anyone believe you?

Your point about Android is similarly delusional – the usual claim against Google is that they are a one-trick pony that make substantially all of their money from selling ads and that their efforts to broaden the business have been horrible money pits, Microsoft makes more money from Android than Google does, etc.

83

Hidari 01.08.13 at 7:16 pm

“. Why should anyone believe you?”

Well to be fair to me YouTube has never claimed to make any money. I assume that if they did they would shout about it. Maybe I’m wrong but it’s a strange thing to hide under your hat.

Who, specifically, claims that the Play Store and the Nexus have been “horrible money pits”?

84

William Timberman 01.08.13 at 7:17 pm

Hidari @ 78

If what you say turns out to be true, and I’m often afraid it might be, it will severely test the knowledge-for-its-own-sake people like me, who see themselves forced to adopt the model of the waiter/actor wannabe when trying to make a living. (I remember once in my passionate twenties, attending a meeting of poets who were all excited about a local poetry in the schools program that promised to pay them for teaching poetry to middle-school kids. Me being me, I got my nose all out of joint and maintained that when it to came to supporting my poetry-writing habit, I’d rather wash dishes than baby-sit the idiot offspring of the bourgeoisie. If they think poetry is so great, I trumpeted, let them buy it outright.)

Oy! Not a flattering recollection, that. And yet, there’s this by John Emerson, which makes the case with considerably greater subtlety (thanks to Brad DeLong for the link), and might be taken as a sort of cold comfort for much-treasured writers like George Scialabba, Tom Slee, and Francis Spufford, whose plight is even now being discussed in the thread above this one.

85

Jake 01.08.13 at 7:58 pm

Who, specifically, claims that the Play Store and the Nexus have been “horrible money pits”?

http://lmgtfy.com/?q=google+android+losing+money. Looks like several business reporters and a federal judge.

I don’t know what rationale Google has for not breaking out YouTube’s financial results, but the movie and music industries have a long history of efforts to downplay profitability for well-known and easily understandable reasons.

86

Hidari 01.08.13 at 8:15 pm

Jake
that’s not what other people claim but if you are right then it just goes to show. double. how difficult it is to make any money off the web in any shape or form doesn’t it? And as people move from laptops and PCs to mobiles this tendency is going to get worse….and worse. (see link below).

But in any case it’s more or less irrelevant to my point which was about the way platforms treat information providers, although Google’s flagrant tax dodging and monopolistic tendencies are relevant here.

You Tube made a loss, incidentally, for every year for which data is available.

http://blogs.wsj.com/digits/2012/10/18/google-q3-2012-earnings/

87

Matt 01.08.13 at 8:57 pm

It’s been several years since data on YouTube’s profit/loss have been available. Ads that appear in the form of video or overlays on video have become very prominent — those weren’t there a few years ago. Google has perhaps the world’s lowest-cost infrastructure for large scale data processing and delivery. And the underlying hardware costs of processors, storage, switches, and routers continue to fall much faster than higher definition video boosts those costs. I wouldn’t be surprised if YouTube is already more profitable than Android, which despite including tangible devices is not a large revenue source for Google.

88

Corey Robin 01.08.13 at 9:56 pm

Is it too late in the game — not just on this thread but in the culture more generally — to ask: what’s a MOOC? All I can think of is that scene in “Mean Streets” where one of the characters says to DeNiro or one of those guys “I’m not paying because this guy’s a fucking mook.” I take it we’re talking about something else.

89

Walt 01.08.13 at 10:00 pm

No, that’s what we’re talking about.

90

straightwood 01.09.13 at 2:20 am

There is a pivotal moment in films depicting medieval sieges, when a battering ram crashes through the castle’s main gate. Shirky’s essay is the ram crashing the gates of complacent academia. None of his arguments are new. It is the rise of the MOOC ventures and the backing of high-status institutions that has shaken the conventional wisdom.

The unmentioned problem is what to do with the massive obsolescent investment in bricks and mortar campus facilities. Many of them should be adapted to serve their local communities, most of which are badly in need of attentive care by highly educated professionals. Repurposed campus facilities should serve local needs, while the best and brightest academics should serve a networked world.

91

derrida derider 01.09.13 at 2:51 am

” One can be a preeminent scholar and at the same time an abominably poor teacher.”
Notoriously so. Less notoriously the inverse is also true – the most inspiring, imaginative and effective teacher I ever had was not the sort who impresses tenure committees, let alone prize committees.

Based on my experience as a Coursera student I think there are still hard problems in the MOOC model that have to be fixed if it is ever to be more than a niche product. These may be fixed in future, or they may not be fixable – time, as they say, will tell.

The hardest problems are from the “Massive” part rather than the “Online” or “Open” parts. It’s the “Massive” bit that makes creating credible credentials for the course hard. And its the “Massive” bit that makes proper interaction with teachers hard, even online. True, online personal interactions can be a good substitute for offline ones but you can’t teach most things without some form of personal interaction, and personal interaction with highly trained and knowledgeable people is inherently expensive.

92

Substance McGravitas 01.09.13 at 2:54 am

The unmentioned problem is what to do with the massive obsolescent investment in bricks and mortar campus facilities. Many of them should be adapted to serve their local communities, most of which are badly in need of attentive care by highly educated professionals. Repurposed campus facilities should serve local needs, while the best and brightest academics should serve a networked world.

That’ll happen.

93

rmgosselin 01.09.13 at 2:59 am

Besides asking, “What is a MOOC,” we also need to ask, “What, exactly, is the ‘under-served’ population” that we keep hearing about? I have students–real ones, not from fictional, romanticized villages in Mongolia and Africa–who don’t have computers, much less the skills needed to thrive in a learning environment where success depends largely, if not exclusively, on digital literacy. With MOOCs and their smaller siblings crowding out face-to-face classes, what happens to these people?

I think Tom Slee said it best in his Whimsley post taking on AirBnB, “Peer-to-Peer Hucksterism: An Open Letter to Tim Wu”:

The Randian, simplistic free-market thoughtlessness behind the wave of “peer-to-peer” companies, and especially those who are trying to uproot regulations that protect consumers, is far from the wave of the future: it’s hucksterism masquerading as progress, hubris as vision, callous selfishness as community-mindedness, and it’s a disaster waiting to happen.

I’m all for people having access to education, but we can’t assume that these new channels of delivery are culturally and economically neutral, much less progressive.

94

Walt 01.09.13 at 3:35 am

There is also the critical moment right after the battering ram crashes through the main gate, and the attackers sack the castle, rape the women, and the set the whole thing on fire. If credulous state governments are persuaded by people like Shirkey, that’s the pivotal moment we’re facing.

95

nvalvo 01.09.13 at 4:54 am

I propose a new post/thread on the following topic: pedagogy aside, who does research in a post-MOOC world?

And, crucially, because research is a collaborative, collective endeavor, with a lot of workshopping chapters and chatting in the lab and sharing citations and reviewing book manuscripts, how many people will be able to do research in the same areas after we only need three people to teach Soviet History or Comparative Morphology?

Can we still have debate in a professoriate as small as that implies?

96

Keir 01.09.13 at 4:59 am

Again, guys, Clay Shirky thinks you couldn’t get just the three best tracks off Morrissette’s albums until Napster. Apparently it took the internet to convince the record industry that selling single songs might be a good scheme. Why on earth do we waste time talking about this guys’ ideas about technology’s effect on society, when he clearly knows very little about society?

PS. Jennie Lee is rolling in her grave.

97

X.Trapnel 01.09.13 at 5:08 am

The link Chris gave in 8 really is worth reading, if anyone hasn’t yet.

98

The Lorax 01.09.13 at 5:34 am

John Holbo:

Fair enough. My point was that if you’re standing at the front of a room talking, and that’s how you teach; well, then perhaps a MOOC could replace your class. But that’s only because you’re not doing a good job teaching. (Now, I realize some find themselves in departments where giant classes are the norm, and I realize that many of those do the best job they can under those circumstances. But that still doesn’t mean you’re doing a good job teaching.)

On the other hand, if you teach in a Socratic fashion, then a MOOC can’t properly replace your class.

That was what was behind my (terse) point.

99

Man Kay 01.09.13 at 7:09 am

Analogy time. In the best traditions of analogy, let’s start with a car analogy.

MOOCs are the electric cars of tertiary education. There’s a lot of discussion about them, and a few people with the resources to indulge their need for social signaling are buying one as the second or third vehicle. But a replacement for the first or only car? Not.

Back in the nineteenth century, factories were powered with stationary steam engines, one engine per factory. Power was delivered to the various machines in the factory by a complex and dangerous system of belts and drive shafts. Sixty years or so after the invention of the electric motor, electric motors started to replace steam engines in factories. Of course, they first replaced the steam engines one for one. Dismantle the steam engine, bolt down an electric motor in its place. It wasn’t until thirty years later that people figured out you could put an electric motor inside each of the machines, and lay out your factory according to a natural flow of the work through it, rather than according to the exigencies of power delivery.

MOOCs are 1880s belt-driven factories with electric motors. But there is one difference: the electric motors were better than the steam engines they replaced. In an 1880s factory the need was for torque and horsepower. In higher ed, the need is for bandwidth. Taking a university course and making a MOOC from it is replacing a 20 horsepower steam engine with a 1 horsepower electric motor. As Aaron said, better than nothing, if nothing is the alternative. But only just.

Enough analogies. Let’s turn to the impact of MOOCs on the citizens of the third world, and the vaunted “levelling of the playing field”.

[Long example deleted.]

Synopsis: MOOCs don’t fix broken political incentives; the elite’s determination to stay in power and continue extracting rents means that it will squash any threats, such as a MOOC-trained upstart entrepreneur. (See: Why Nations Fail.) MOOCs will do nothing for third-worlders.

In medium- and high-income countries, if MOOC vendors succeed in commodifying tertiary qualifications, they reduce the value of those qualifications in proportion. More importantly, though, they homogenize the labour market. Increased supply, lower wages, casualization, further transfer of risk from business owners to workers. To whom the benefit? Not to the attendees of the MOOCs.

The Gendler-Shirky podcast is more or less unlistenable–and not because of the bandwidth-deficient audio. Full of techblogger prayers, hymns, mantras and shibboleths, signifying nothing. Enough with the Israeli child-care centre example! There aren’t any others?

Shirky ought to be a physicist. He has the physicist’s arrogant habit of wandering out of his own field (media studies) into another, making a few naive and wrong comments, and retiring satisfied that he has educated the ignorant.

100

x.trapnel 01.09.13 at 7:38 am

After one year and $5 million spent in marketing, the University of California’s online initiative–paid, not free, but giving real UC credit–has attracted … one outside student.

The article’s worth reading, and it’s not encouraging. Direct and public pressure from the governor himself to do something, anything; a clear desire to cut labor but not capital or administrative costs; no real sense of where revenue is actually coming from, and certainly no sense that this is a public good–it’s a ugly confirmation of everything Bady said in the article linked at 3.

101

Nils Gilman 01.09.13 at 8:53 am

Information wants to be free, but credentialing wants to be expensive (since they are a signaling tools). The real impact of MOOCs will be
1) They will destroy the “bundled” value prop of the crappier universities (that is, most of them), which will mean far far fewer jobs for academics. This will in the longer term change the large research universities, who will need to produce far fewer PhDs.
2) They will turn star professors into free agents even more than they are.
3) They will produce a few new winners in the “online credentialing” game. This will not be a winner take all market.
4) Incumbent universities will be forced to offer much more “high touch” services in order to justify their price point
5) There will be much greater price competition among universities

Nils

102

Chris Williams 01.09.13 at 9:40 am

prasad wrote above: “I’d like those who’re sure this stuff is small potatoes to remind us how many college professors routinely administer finals to 2000 students.”

Me. I do, every so often when I’m on the module team for our first level courses. More than that in fact – 3 or 4 thousand some years. In person, this year, I’m only doing a couple of smaller level 3 courses which will have c. 700 students on them.

I work for the Open University – best university on the planet – and over the last 40 years we’ve learned quite a lot about distance education: the MOOCiverse seems strangely reluctant to acknowledge the unpleasant ones. Last time we talked about this here, I posted a longer related comment which summed up my position, which got lost at the bottom of the thread. Here’s the link: http://crookedtimber.org/2012/11/05/the-year-of-the-mooc/#comment-433258

103

Slex 01.09.13 at 2:53 pm

@ straightwood 01.09.13 at 2:20 am
“There is a pivotal moment in films depicting medieval sieges, when a battering ram crashes through the castle’s main gate. Shirky’s essay is the ram crashing the gates of complacent academia.”

No, that’s not it. The crash can’t come unless you are able to convince employers that there is substance to your certificates. And credentialing is diffucult when you give it out to thousands of people.

104

engels 01.09.13 at 10:46 pm

What about the bit when they decapitate the bodies of the enemy soldiers they killed and catapult them back over the castle walls? That’s the part I really want to see.

105

Zora 01.10.13 at 2:27 am

Re the argument that online credentials won’t mean anything because it’s so easy to cheat:

I got my A+ computer technician certificate by means of an exam administered online, in a facility that basically confined me to a room alone, with a locked-down computer, without books/papers/phone/other connectivity. It would have been difficult to cheat. Of course, there’s always the old bribe-the-proctor trick, but a determined credentialing agency could probably keep that to a minimum.

106

Slex 01.10.13 at 3:16 am

@ Zora

How are you going to do it with thousands of people from all over the world? IMO being a determined credentialing agency is not enough. What will be the mechanisms of control?

107

Substance McGravitas 01.10.13 at 3:35 am

These guys may have ideas:

http://www.detc.org/accred.html

108

Substance McGravitas 01.10.13 at 3:39 am

And that’s not to slight the OU contribution above…

109

JanieM 01.10.13 at 3:54 am

Then there’s this. In fact, that issue of Tech Review has a whole section on digital education. (I haven’t had time to follow this thread closely; maybe someone has already made that reference.)

110

Slex 01.10.13 at 12:27 pm

@ Substance McGravitas 01.10.13 at 3:35 am 107

They may have ideas, but I at least couldn’t understand what they are. They basically say that they are good at what they do, not how they do it. Which is not enough to conclude that they will handle MOOCs.

@ JanieM 01.10.13 at 3:54 am

The article offers two solutions. The first is the network of Pearson testing centers in more than 100 countries. As far as credibility goes, let’s assume it is credible enough. Whether it is achievable, at least at low cost, provided that MOOCs become really massive, is another question. Currently, Coursera are offering more than 200 courses. In the future there will be more, which most likely will mean that there will be enough workload and intensive testing to make these centers dedicates. Right now they rely on institutions and organizations which are involved in similar activities and have slack capacity to do the testing – universities and IT training centers. But if these courses really become massive, the slack capacity may not be enough in the case of the latter and in the case of the former they may reconsider their role given that they work for the competitors. Of course, Pearson can still do it, but they either will have to buy these off as full time subcontractors, or run these centers for themselves, which in both cases will need money. The costs will still be smaller than education at traditional universities, but it will be hihger than what MOOCs organizers have originally expected and not so much different from running traditional distance learning programs. And traditional distance learning programs have been here for decades without changing the game. But now we have Harvard and Stanford on it and they think their name will be enough to make a difference. Will that be enough, really? I don’t think so, but then we’ve seen in IT how Apple manage to package old stuff in new clothes and present it as something revolutionary and people fell for it (e.g. tablets).

The second solution is ProctorU who hire people (currently around 100) for slightly above minimum wage to watch over those being tested on the computer through a webcam and a desktop sharing program. There are at least several ways to circumvent it. The first and most obvious is that you can’t catch anyone who gets help with an audio device in this way. The second is that desktop sharing is a double edged sword. I can also share my desktop with a third party, ot the proctor. I don’t even have to do anything, but pretend that I am doing something, when instead someone else is solving the test for me. If you can control your desktop remotely from your android device, then someone else can do that, too. There are other ways, but I think it’s enough.

ProctorU claim that incident reports get filed for only seven out of every 1,000 exams, which doesn’t mean that’s just it – these are the ones that get reported. But I’ll take their word for it. The reason for this is not necessarily that they are so good, but that they are not under pressure from suppliers of cheating services due to the fragmented character of the courses over which they have watched so far. There is this fallacious thinking that what works small scale will work large scale – if you have a working charity kitchen for the homeless in your neighbourhood, you can feed all the homeless in the country this way. But things often don’t scale up. The reason why Windows is more afflicted with malware and other types of attacks relative to MacOS is not the result only of the inherent vulnerabilities of the system, but also because of its massive use. The same goes for MOOCs – ones you become the standard, there will be people to subvert it – as the mechanisms for control will no longer work efficiently. Current distance learning courses aren’t exposed to that extent not because of the technologies and procedures they employ, but because of the current systemic structure which make third-party services for cheaters less attractive, but as scale goes up, the trade-offs will move in their favour faster than technology will be able to catch up.

And how massive is massive enough to make MOOCs a game changer? There are more than 18 million students in USA, of which 7 million part time. I guess some of the part-timers will be lured by the MOOCs and a smaller number of the full-timers, too, but you really need to have millions of people to make it a game changer. Coursera boasts more than 2 million users now, but 1) from all over the world 2) courses are free 3) much fewer get certificates. Of course, it will grow in popularity and in user base, but I don’t think it will threaten full-time higher education. And as “Udacity and Coursera, hope to make money by connecting their best students with recruiters and employers”, it looks more like a grand scouting and recruiting scheme where winners take all (you can’t possibly accomodate with jobs hundreds of thousands of graduates and those who are out are, well, on their own). This scheme will be less penetrable by cheaters, actually, but on the other hand it won’t be really massive in its outcome – credentialling is meant to serve only a few.

And then we have this: “EdX, the digital education partnership between MIT and Harvard, thinks it can charge students $100 or so if they want to obtain an official completion certificate.” However you have universities in Europe who will charge you this much for the whole semester of a full-time study program.

111

Cranky Observer 01.10.13 at 12:51 pm

= = = No, that’s not it. The crash can’t come unless you are able to convince employers that there is substance to your certificates. And credentialing is diffucult when you give it out to thousands of people. = = =

The business information / information systems / IT world is now flooded with people who have certificates proclaiming that they are proficient in skill X but who are utterly incapable of doing any actual problem solving, designing work. If you give them a test of standard questions similar to the certificate exams they will pass with a score of 100%, but when you given them an real world assignment they don’t even know where to start.

Perusing some of the technical discussion message boards where these certificate babies are asking for help with their work assignments because they don’t understand fundamental programming and database concepts where the snippets of code they offer are clearly coming from medical applications is quite terrifying to me.

Cranky

112

straightwood 01.10.13 at 3:39 pm

Credentialing is not difficult if one is testing for objectively measurable knowledge and demonstrable skills. It shouldn’t take more than 100 progressively difficult questions to determine the level of subject mastery in most domains. Bad exams give bad results, but that does not discredit the concept of examinations. But if the claim is that elite universities supply a special elixir that transforms the recipient into an ubermensch, then no alternate credentialing process is relevant.

It seems that the higher ed status quo defenders want it both ways: they are running efficient trade schools that are all about jobs, jobs, jobs, but they are also providing an invaluable je ne sais quoi that is the product of irreproducible alchemy. One cannot engage in practical and magical thinking simultaneously.

113

Slex 01.10.13 at 4:05 pm

Credentialing is not difficult if one is testing for objectively measurable knowledge and demonstrable skills. It shouldn’t take more than 100 progressively difficult questions to determine the level of subject mastery in most domains.

Of course you could determine the level of subject mastery. The question is “Whose mastery?”. This makes credentialling difficult in MOOCs.

114

straightwood 01.10.13 at 4:33 pm

Whose mastery?

In the former Soviet Union private automobile ownership was discouraged by making the examination for a driver’s license quite challenging, including sections on automotive engine mechanics. Whose mastery, indeed?

115

Slex 01.10.13 at 5:18 pm

This relates to MOOCs credentialling in what way?

116

Substance McGravitas 01.10.13 at 5:43 pm

They may have ideas, but I at least couldn’t understand what they are. They basically say that they are good at what they do, not how they do it. Which is not enough to conclude that they will handle MOOCs.

I don’t conclude that they will handle them, and they say how they do it. The point is that there are respected organizations and accrediting bodies already dealing with these kinds of issues. That’s not an argument for or against MOOCs, just that whatever quality-control problems are out there may have existing solutions.

117

Walt 01.10.13 at 5:54 pm

A 100 progressively more-difficult questions is all it takes? Holy shit, straightwood, I hope you don’t actually work for a MOOC and that that is not their vision of our future, because if it is, we are fucked.

118

straightwood 01.11.13 at 2:58 pm

their vision of our future

And your vision of the future is, presumably, “same as it ever was?” – a future in which entire nations can be discarded because they lack adequate campus facilities and cannot pay competitive faculty salaries?

Comments on this entry are closed.