MOOCs and Maximin

hook_menu() by nyuhuhuu on Flickr.

hook_menu() by nyuhuhuu on Flickr.

Quick reaction post. If you’re a gamer friend, sorry, this isn’t the “Mooks and Minmaxing” post you’re looking for.

Over on FaceSpace, John Protevi linked to this critique of Thomas Friedman’s breathless support for MOOCs (massively online open courses).

Its main point (TL;DR) is that, in the name of “democratizing” education, the MOOC era is ushering in a new and even-harsher oligarchy on the side of the professorate. This should be totally unsurprising to anyone who’s, like, heard of Marx – MOOCs make education more capital-intensive, which tends to concentrate power more.

All of this is, I think, quite a valid concern. But it struck me that the article buried a perhaps even more important point.

Friedman did mention the online revolution’s potential disadvantages—“Yes,” he conceded, “only a small percentage complete all the work, and even they still tend to be from the middle and upper classes of their societies.”

I don’t think we should move off this point too quickly. I’ll admit to being very torn on the issue of MOOCs. On the one hand, I share many worries about their implementation, but on the other, I am attracted to their potential.

But this strikes me as a phenomenally important issue. Many professors make much of the fact that watching some lectures and taking online quizzes doesn’t replicate the atmosphere of intellectual vibrancy that a well-run face-to-face discussion can provide.  But I think that’s in many ways the pinnacle of the classroom experience, and one that the best of us (me not among them) can only reach inconsistently. It’s a sort of maximax ideal in itself.

A lot of what a human teacher can do is help with the problem that is briefly acknowledged both by Friedman and by the critique: she can help students who struggle with the material find a path to mastery. Poorer Egyptian students who drop out of MOOCs are likely not doing so because they are not as smart as their wealthier colleagues – but they are probably disproportionately burdened with inadequate preparation, busier and more exhausting lives, etc.

Helping weaker students is hard, frustrating, unsexy work that is often not even that highly esteemed by professors – it is very easy for us to look at students who aren’t “getting it” and make snarky jokes about them to our colleagues, and then focus on the keeners. I’m at least as guilty of this as anyone else.

And structurally, many of our schools aren’t set up this way. I have several friends and colleagues who teach at less prestigious schools and do the backbreaking labor of trying their best to help their students succeed. And they are often not honored for it – no one gets famous in Philosophy academe for being the best teacher at Anne Arundel Community College (intentionally not a place where I personally know someone teaching), and your teaching load is likely to interfere with publishing. Without breaking confidentiality or airing dirty laundry, I think I can safely say that whether my state school has a special responsibility to accept weaker students and try to help them succeed is a perennial discussion we have on the admissions committee, on which there has never been consensus.

So my worry is this: very many of us, especially the elites in the profession, are already often helping the powerful rather than the weak, already reinforcing social hierarchy. If we are not practically committed to not just teaching models, but career models (what I do in my classroom is less important than who can sit in it, in many ways) that help those with less social power, we maybe shouldn’t be surprised if we’re cast aside when a more efficient way to reinforce elite advantages comes along.