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2013 July 30

What online education cannot teach

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 00:05
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In response to yesterday’s MOOC Roundup, one of my fellow faculty members sent me a pointer to an article by Jennifer M. Morton in The Chronicle of Higher Education that was just published today: Unequal Classrooms: What Online Education Cannot Teach.  I would have included the article in the roundup, if it had come out a little earlier.  Here is a paragraph from the middle of the article:

MOOCs would seem like a promising way to increase access to education for those who cannot afford the steep price of a liberal-arts education. And indeed, my students often end up sitting in crowded lecture halls being lectured at by a professor who doesn’t even know their names—as is the case for many students across the country. Many of my students also work, some full time, or have families of their own, and they struggle to fulfill the course requirements for graduation. However, the adoption of online education by large public universities threatens to harm the very students for whom a college education is an essential leg up into the middle class.

Prof. Morton makes a point that several other skeptics of MOOCs have made—that a big chunk of college is the interaction in the classroom (between students as well as between faculty and students), and that is mostly missing from MOOCs.  For students from poverty-stricken communities, college may be the only place to learn the “practical skills to navigate middle-class institutions”, and MOOCs deprive them of this learning.  The learning may not be an explicit part of the curriculum of the colleges, but it is implicit in the use of a college degree as a ticket into the middle class.

While I do not regard social mobility as a primary goal of college education, for many people that is the main justification for public universities.  It seems a bit unlikely that MOOC-based education will serve that purpose well, even if it manages to convey curricular content adequately (which has not yet been convincingly shown either).


  1. The other thing that I think about the “MOOCs are as good as 400-person lectures” argument is: is that all you get in college? I didn’t actually have any of those big intro courses in college, but my friends that did had maybe four or five of them over their first couple of years. I dunno, maybe more than that, but they’re pretty much done by the time that you get into your major work, right? _Those_ are the classes that MOOCs certainly can’t replicate. Also, replicating 400-person lectures is nothing to be proud of.

    Comment by jg — 2013 July 30 @ 09:00 | Reply

  2. Your link goes through a UC portal, which asks for ID. This link goes directly to the article:

    What does peer-to-peer interaction among MOOC students teach?

    Comment by Miguel F. Aznar — 2013 July 30 @ 09:04 | Reply

    • Oops. Link fixed. I had gone first without the UC library redirection, so I knew that it wasn’t behind a paywall, but I did the redirection to check the name angling for an email I was sending someone about the library bookmarklet, and forgot to undo it before posting.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2013 July 30 @ 09:36 | Reply

  3. “What does peer-to-peer interaction among MOOC students teach?”

    That’s an interesting question. I read one forum in a MOOC offered at U Toronto, Intro Psychology, on plagiarism. In that interaction, my take home was that the peer interaction was teaching diluted standards on plagiarism. Individual students in the forum had different standards (some based on different cultures), some of them non-standard for my knowledge of US education. Through the peer interaction (and with little involvement in that peer interaction by the faculty member, who did not participate in the peer forum, but made video lectures), I felt that equal attention was being paid to standard and non-standard views of what plagiarism is, and the severity of the offense. Some students asked for a standardized clarification, but weren’t given it in the forum, and I thought, the video lecture on the subject provided a conversational tone that could be misinterpreted by those who chose.

    So, in that forum, I felt the studies (I think they’ve been cited on this blog) showing that peer interaction could reduce learning (in a coding class) when peers were non-experts was being borne out.

    Do others have other examples from looking at the forums? I didn’t read all the forums in the psychology class, just the one on plagiarism.

    Comment by bj — 2013 July 30 @ 09:21 | Reply

  4. Based on your response (#3), would it be too great a claim that peer-to-peer interaction might just average varying levels of ignorance?

    Scientific American has an article on Arizona State U. replacing lectures with computer activities

    Individualized instruction or data-driven learning? Eva Baker of UCLA’s Center for the Study of Evaluation says that big data will be a big part of education because it is less expensive than professional development.

    Comment by Miguel F. Aznar — 2013 July 31 @ 16:03 | Reply

    • I’ve read a few of peer instruction papers (can’t remember which ones now), and the on-line forums do not come close to approximating what was done in those studies. The “peer instruction” approach is generally a 3-phase one: the instructor asks a question that students vote on, the students discuss their answers for 2–5 minutes (sometimes being forced into groups that had differing answers), the students vote again after discussion. It is important to pick questions that between 20% and 80% of the students get right—if fewer get it right, then they need more instruction before peer instruction is useful, and if more get it right then the peer instruction is just a waste of time. It is also common for the instructor to reinforce the right ideas after the students have discussed them and revoted, particularly if the post-discussion vote is less than 90% right.

      It is key here that the instructor monitor the voting and adjust their presentation in response to it. I’ve not seen a study that determines whether this is the crucial part of “peer instruction” or the student discussion is. It is often difficult to disentangle correlated practices.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2013 August 1 @ 09:49 | Reply

  5. […] Joe Redish in his blog  The Unabashed Academic had a MOOC-related post a year and half ago that I only just came across today: Lose the lecture.  The post basically makes the same point that I have made in posts like Teaching by hand and What online education cannot teach: […]

    Pingback by Lose the lecture | Gas station without pumps — 2013 August 4 @ 16:04 | Reply

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