Let me revive another point I’ve made before at this blog about online education of any kind, including blended learning and “flipped classrooms”. This thought may be a bit less comforting to folks at the University of Virginia, though it is of no comfort whatsoever to the members of Virginia’s Board of Visitors.
One of the red herrings in the debate about any form of instructional technology, online instruction, machine learning or distance education, whether it’s as modest as the use of PowerPoint or as dramatic as MOOCs, is that they intrinsically and inevitably lower the quality of instruction in comparison to face-to-face teaching and assessment.
I’m not the first nor will I be the last to observe that much of what is seen as negative or lower-quality about instructional technology and automation in higher education is simply building upon very long-term changes in teaching and assessment that predate digitization and the Internet. Marc Bousquet put it beautifully in the Chronicle of Higher Education recently>: “Machines can reproduce human essay-grading so well because human essay-grading practices are already mechanical”. Large-scale testing of all kinds has for three decades been increasingly required by state law and institutional buyers to force graders to follow algorithmic constraints in how they mark writing and other responses, for the sake of consistency.
That’s only one example. One thing that very well-designed MOOCs may accomplish is to demonstrate that there is not that much difference between a lecture-based course with 800 students in it in which the only face-to-face contact that students have is with teaching assistants of highly variable quality and a MOOC. In some contexts and subjects, the MOOC might well be superior: an educational institution can work very hard to perfect the content presentation in a MOOC, make it richly multimedia and engaging, whereas a university can only be somewhat assured of the quality of all the lectures in all the courses, particularly if the MOOC-makers spent as much on assessment as a university might on hiring teaching assistants.
I’ve argued with Margaret Soltan about this a number of times, but I think there is only a slight distinction between a bad PowerPoint presentation and a bad lecture, that to see the technology as responsible for bad pedagogy is to mistake a symptom for a cause. As a graduate student, I had to work with a professor who gave lectures verbatim that he wrote ten years previously, with almost no feeling of a live or interactive performance. We could have played the tapes of the lectures (which he had in fact made) with a picture of him on screen with almost no real difference. That’s before PowerPoint or the Internet, at the dawn of computers.
Instruction at large universities has in many cases been heading steadily in this direction for decades: large classes, remote lecturers, sage-on-the-stage pedagogies. If MOOCs and other instructional technologies step into that trend, they are at their worst doing little more than continuing it. At their best, in the case of sensitive or interesting versions of blended learning and flipped classrooms, they may well be actively reversing it.
What a MOOC might do in some cases is clarify for students (and their families) that they have been paying higher and higher prices for a product whose quality has been dropping in inverse proportion as faculties have been adjunctified, classrooms overstuffed, instruction commodified, and so on. This doesn’t mean that there isn’t education out there that’s worth the price, but it might clarify that that education is a handmade, artisanal product that can’t be scaled up for all or most of the students seeking an undergraduate degree. MOOCs might pose a valuable challenge that makes institutions that charge foie gras prices prove that they’re not just serving McNuggets.
For an institution like the University of Virginia, what that means is that you really need someone more like President Sullivan, who can figure out how to sharpen the sense of what a liberal arts education is and why it matters, to demonstrate the special value of a handcrafted education while working to make it financially viable. You don’t need strategic dynamists are just dreaming up new ways to brand the McNuggets that they’ve already decided have to be served. But if you push back as an artisan, you have to to figure out how to continue to make artisanal products in a mass-production world, which is no easy challenge.