MOOCS After Thune

.gif from Michael Branson Smith with full credits here.

The academic slices of the internet are abuzz with the retreat of Sebastian Thune, lord of the MOOCs. He thought tech could fix all our problems with higher education and blazed his way into San Jose State’s curriculum.

It turns out, as now has been widely reported, that the best teaching takes attentive, carefully-crafted, intentional curriculum design and implementation, taking into account the specific needs, skills, and interests of a given student body. Every professional teacher that I know already knows this, even if sometimes we don’t achieve at our highest levels every day, or even every course.

MOOCs, on the other hand, reify rote content-delivery. It didn’t work at San Jose State and Thrun has retreated from the audacious claims of Udacity. Tressie McMillan Cotton wrote a devastating response to Thrun’s retreat. It’s been widely shared, but the specifics of her response deserve as much airtime as they can get:

After low performance rates, low student satisfaction and faculty revolt, Thrun announced
this week that he has given up on MOOCs as a vision for higher
education disruption.    The “godfather of free online education” says
that the racially, economically diverse students at SJSU,“were students
from difficult neighborhoods, without good access to computers, and with
all kinds of challenges in their lives…[for them] this medium is not a
good fit.” It seems disruption is hard when poor people insist on
Thrun has the right to fail. That’s just business. But he
shouldn’t have the right to fail students like those at San Jose State
and the public universities that serve them for the sake of doing

Class, race (implicitly), access – these things doomed Thrun’s experiment. This is not surprising to any of us who work with non-elite students. Most of them can succeed in college, but it takes more than a system of remote content delivery.

But chortle not, o fellow academic, but instead look at Cotton’s second paragraph. Actual students, real people, people a lot like my students, were experimented on by Thrun, and they were failed.

Cotton compares Thrun’s process, wining and dining and TEDing (a new verb) elites in order to get access to SJSU’s students to her own process of experimenting with teaching.

Many faculty members questioned the morality of a publicly
funded college with a mission to serve diverse students should spend
tax-payer money and invest the hopes of students with fewer options than
those at the Stanfords of the world into being Thrun’s guinea pigs.
It is a fair question that in many ways the academic and
scientific communities have already answered with a resounding no. When I
want to interview students for a research project I have to present a
carefully, detailed plan to my University for approval. The plan is
vetted by an Institutional Review Board.

She then continues to talk about the dirty history of American science which tested all sorts of drugs, procedures, and techniques on humans without informed consent or appropriate risk assessment.

I’m actually in the midst of my first IRB-approved study. I’ve created a new version of “Western Civ,” the oldest chestnut in the history curriculum, as a first-semester Freshman course meant to build skills that they can carry across their college experience, while also doing the job of introducing them to historical content and historical thinking. Is it working? I think so, but I’m collecting data, and I had to go through an appropriate process to collect that data in order to make sure it was safe for the students. Even then, I gave them the option to opt-in or opt-out and I won’t know how many chose to opt-in until after grades are submitted. This is appropriate to my task at hand, even if it sometimes seems annoying (I’m not giving them drugs, just copying their papers and thinking hard about learning), and I was more than willing to do it.

Connor’s indictment of Thrun & Co’s disregard for the needs of the students is scathing. Emphases mine:

Udacity always knew that the non-completion rates were high
for its courses. They may not have known why, but that was a reason for
greater testing
, not a reason to roll-out the for-profit product for
University clients. With sanction from the California governor on down
the political line, Udacity  had to meet no ethical requirement to prove
that the risk of failure was worth the promise of rewards. And what was
promised? University partners could prove they were innovative,
forward-thinking, and cut expensive faculty out of the complex equation
of teaching students.
To prove that teachers don’t matter and Stanford knows best
what the world needs, a public university gave a for-profit company
unfettered authority to experiment on its students without informed
student consent or consideration of an ethical threshold
. We may need
more experimentation in higher education but it should be as explicit
and ethical as any other we conduct in the name of science and progress.
Thrun says it wasn’t a failure. It was a lesson. But for
the students who invested time and tuition in an experiment foisted on
them by the  of stewards
public highered trusts, failure is a lesson they didn’t need. Students
like those at SJSU tend to know quite a bit about failure —
institutional, social, and political
. They did not need to learn again
what Thrun, a smart guy from Stanford and Google, could have learned
from a book.

Again, a public university told a for-profit company to go ahead and experiment on students who most need our attention.

As an aside, and perhaps a plug, this is one of the reasons why I love teaching at Dominican University. We provide intense, relationship-centered, teaching to students that skew first-generation and increasingly Latino/a (some ESL, more bilingual, I think). Some of our students would thrive anywhere, but others need to match their own hard work and motivation with the highly specific efforts of Dominican’s faculty and staff. We try to create an environment designed to bring out their best qualities and reduce the power of the obstacles they carry with them. When we succeed, when I’ve seen it succeed, it’s breathtaking for everyone involved.

But we don’t have to bury MOOCs, even as hopefully we bid farewell to the likes of Thrun.Writing for Inside Higher Ed, Matt Reed also weighs in on the issue, beginning with a long discussion of Udacity’s failures. But he concludes on this note:

 The great danger at this point, now that the MOOC backlash is kicking
into gear, is missing the positive possibilities that MOOCs and other
innovations offer. I understand the impulse to wipe a collective brow
and sigh with relief — or, let’s face it, crack snarky jokes — at
Thrun’s discovery of what we on campuses have long known. But leaving it
at that would be a mistake. 

At their best, colleges are bundles of resources knit together by a
shared mission. MOOCs, OER, and other new technology offer new resources
to incorporate into the bundle.  As I argued in January, professors can
use MOOCs now much as they have used BOOKs over the years.  Like books,
MOOCs can perform some of the raw explication outside of class that
allows for higher-order discussion and application in class.  Instead of
replacing classes, they can make classes better.  That’s no small

So farewell, Sebastian Thrun. You overshot, and failed, but you left
behind a nifty resource that we can use in ways you never seriously

I don’t know that this is the “great” danger, as I suspect the great danger is the continued attempt to wedge corporate models and meaningless testing into higher ed, a process that already happened in secondary ed. But Reed is right that the lesson here is not to reject tech or new ways to deliver content.

It’s just that means of content-delivery can NEVER be the pedagogical innovation by themselves, but have to reflect deeper understanding of how learning happens. Means of content-delivery are just tools. We have lots of tools as teachers. What makes a great teacher is figuring out which tool to apply to the situation at hand, a dialectical process involving study, experimentation, and sometimes just asking the students.

Leave a Reply