Do I Have an Opinion on Education at Large and on MOOCs in Particular?

Something education-related seems to have hit the blogosphere – many blogs I follow cover online-courses, teaching and education yesterday.

My feelings are mixed.

Important note: Though this was intended as a balanced review. But it ended up as one of my usual posts attributed to this genre I have no name for. I could invalidate most of my own arguments – however, I don’t want this post to become even lengthier.

I am a dinosaur. I finished my MSc in physics at a time when the concept  of a bachelor’s degree was unheard of in my country. I admit that I did not get even over the fact that reasonable technical degree programs have been cut into 3+2 years to comply with the so-called Bologna process.

I should have an opinion on education.

I have given lectures, labs and problem solving courses at the university in a former life – mainly on superconductivity and laser physics. I have designed vocational trainings for aspiring IT engineers as well as train-the-experts no-nonsense hardcore workshops on Public Key Infrastructure.

Most recently I had given an academic lecture on PKI for five years – including an “asynchronous online learning part”, and currently I am also a part-time student again myself in a (down-to-earth) renewable energies program.

In my online course – which was not massive – I have handed out virtual machine computer puzzles to students and required them to solve those within several months – supported by scheduled online discussions. Every year people badly need the looming deadline to get working two weeks before due date.

Corporate professionals who are students at the same time demand rules and deadlines to be imposed on them – in the same way as it happens in The Corporate Borg Sphere. I can relate – too much. As usual, I am also part of the target audience of this post.

Unless non-interactive lectures are MOOCs my own MOOC student experience is limited to a programming course – company internal, but rather massive though – I took before MOOC was an acronym. So I am not qualified to write this post; I just cannot resist.

Ironically the field of expertise I had been most “renowned” so far was one I had zero formal education in. I learned from the IT hacker community to judge people only on skills they demonstrate right in front of me. Hackers detest bragging with degrees or  – worse – certificates issued by market leading technology providers, based on multiple choice tests. One of the main decoders of Stuxnet, the worm that aimed at damaging the nuclear facilities in Iran, is a psychologist by education.

I dare say that real hackers are 100% self-educated – no matter if they put some formal education on top of that later. The latter is a hidden mega-trend in my opinion: More often than not I saw experienced professionals going for a degree – in a program they knew more about than the teachers – just because they wanted that piece of paper giving proof of what they already knew.

I see strange contradicting trends in education and I don’t think that Massive Open Online Courses are a disruptive new way of education per se.

They are a symptom of changes in educational systems or society at large – of which I am not sure if I like them all.

As I said I am still baffled by the Bologna standardization process and associated splitting up of study programs. It is like neat little boxes that can be attached to each other in a compatible way – called “modularization”.
The upside: Cross-country recognition has been facilitated finally and you are more flexible to craft your own degree program.
The downside(s): The bar has been lowered in order to provide more cross-discipline / cross-programme permeability. The latter is a noble goal of course, in order to solve the complicated interdisciplinary blah blah issues that an interconnected global blah blah society faces.

I have the perfect backup material for all readers who prefer to hear opinionated rants rather by somebody with substantial experience in education – unfortunately it is in German. Austrian philosophy professor Konrad Paul Liessmann has written a book called Theorie der Unbildung – Irrtümer der Wissensgesellschaft which roughly translates to Theory of Non-Education – Misapprehensions of the Knowledge Society. Actually Unbildung is illiterateness, but it is meant in a sarcastic sense – so I believe non-education is a better term.

Liessmann calls it a polemic himself. He rants in a most entertaining way – appealing to anybody who appreciates Dilbert cartoon humor – on:

  • Sociology dropouts turned management consultants who give seasoned university professors patronizing advice on didactic concepts.
  • Management consulting mantras flooding academia, backed by their infamous management and controlling software and the involved gamification … sorry… enforcement of metrics, benchmarks and other silly rules.
  • The mantra of playful learning based on interactive media. Unfortunately you won’t be able to get rid of the need of the efforts of thinking hard. I am at a loss for translating his brilliant and subtle sarcasm in the way he oppose the naive mantra of anything being fun and play opposed to plain hard work.
  • Standardized, quality controlled exams that fosters Teach to the Test mentality. In my most recent encounters as a student and a teacher I have been stunned by new levels of optimization of the credentials collecting process – illustrated by collective group work on the pre-defined catalogue of potential examination questions, or asking The Most Important Question in the first lecture which is How many XY do I need to submit (present, solve…) in order to [paraphrasing] barely scrape by with PASSED [/paraphrasing].

This is my summary of the most conflicting trends I conclude from my anecdotal experiences:

1) Free information for a networked society:

Endless valuable information is available for eager learners – if you know how to google and how to tell pseudo-science and marketing from the real stuff: Scientific publications, lecture notes and text books. I am not sure if we need all that re-packaged and sold as “courses”.

An economist might reply: If there is a market(*) for that – why not? And don’t that material exist only because of the universities’ outreach progams – initiated by management consultants who were criticized by professors?

Do we need coaches who help us to navigate through the vast universe of knowledge? (Not a rhetorical question).

2) Gamification and edu-/info-tainment garnished with corporate-style deadlines for a society built on the mantra of the ever reducing attention span:
We as a learning society seem to need: infographics, videos, blended learning, Facebook-like discussion groups. As odd as it seems we – the free people of earth – rely on triggers, pop-up messages and arcane rules designed by others more than ever. And in contrast to cyberpunk stories – we are aware of it and we like. (“We” does not exclude “me”.)

I am intrigued by this ambiguity – as I feel free information on the net and corporate strangeness / gamification have common roots. These roots seem to be tied to technology.

Nicholas Carr who analyzed our relationship with reading in his book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains: We have gained the ability to skim, scroll and evaluate content fast, but we lose the ability to read linear, long-winded text. Research has shown that students allowed to click on videos and other material related to a specific article remembered less than students who had to focus on the text only.

As I said, I am subject to that as well. I have turned from a voraciously reading teenager – capable of immersing in long-winded wooden existential philosophical prose – to a constantly distracted channel hopper.

I have been conditioned by multi-tasking to the extreme, always in firefighting mode, with several pop-up windows of the corporate equivalent of social media fighting for a small time-slots of undivided attention. I have learned to learn on-the-fly and on-the-job for years until I decided I wanted to reconnect with the old silent learning experience.

Thus I started re-reading and re-learning physics nearly 10 years ago – for the pure enjoyment of escaping multi-tasking hell. It was fun but it was hard at the same time. It took me to overcome an activation barrier to get “into” the linear, gradual absorption of knowledge again.

I am a strong advocate of learning alone – the very old-school concept of the problem-solving strategy attributed to Richard Feynman (by Murray Gell-Mann): Write down the problem – think hard – write down the solution. I would like to add: Bang your lonely head against the wall in despair until your brain grows some new synaptic connections. I could never get the concept of “learning in a group”. Probably I have now finally revealed that I am a sociophobe introvert, but anyway: This should make me a MOOC advocate, shouldn’t it?

I have watched a lot of physics lectures online, I enjoyed in particular David Tong’s QFT lectures – awesome blackboard & chalk style, no Powerpoint. But I enjoyed it because there were lecture notes as well. After watching some videos I started reading the notes in advance. I had always felt the most awesome physics video lectures were those that gave me a fresh perspective on something I had learned the old school way before – by solving lots of mind-numbing problems.

If this (non-interactive) lecture counts as a MOOC – I am a big fan. However, I am a dinosaur travelled to the future – I am not the one to judge on how well a MOOC-only learning environment would act on a digital native’s brain.

On writing this post I was struggling with my desire to let all those weird thoughts running wild – associations between cyber economy and cyber learning. I failed to establish any balanced angle.

In summary I feel uncomfortable about turning the process of learning into something that is built on instant gratification, game-style motivation resembling the tools we are tortured with the corporate world, social-media-style interactions, packaging and standardization of microscopic units of knowledge, and gradually replacing linear text by visual aids.

But there is more substantial criticism I can also relate with:

The market might be dysfunctional. For well-paid professionals the pay for teaching courses in a moonlighting fashion payment does not matter – you would do it for free because pay is low anyway compared to your usual rates (I speak from experience, and this holds for online and traditional courses). So you might lose money already by having to postpone more lucrative assignments because of teaching –  you do it due to idealism and/or ego.

Quote from this post: In other words, while a few already well-paid superprofessors get their egos stroked conducting experiments that are doomed to fail, “second- and third-tier universities and colleges, and community colleges” risk closing because Coursera and its ilk have sent higher education price expectations through the floor and systematically devalued everybody else’s work.

25 Comments Add yours

    1. elkement says:

      Thanks for the pingback – I highly recommend this post by Dan Mullin!

  1. Elke,

    It sounds like one of the things that irks you about EdTech (which collectively comprises MOOCS, gamification, etc.) is that it’s a phenomenon affecting not just education, and not just society at large, but the average person’s ability to be a person. Bildung, development, is tricky because on the one hand, it’s partly about socialization, but on the other, real maturity is about cultivating solitude–and it is solitude that is in such trouble these days. Cf. William Deresiewicz’s “End of Solitude” and “Solitude and Leadership”, Sherry Turkle’s “Alone, Together” and–I think you’ll especially did this one: Susan Cain’s “Quiet: The Power of Introverts.”

    But this is not just a EuroHumanist endeavor–as some of these authors, as well as Daniel Pink, point out, these are USEFUL traits–traits that will arguably become more desirable BECAUSE of the increasing power of tech in the workplace and society at large, not despite it.

    1. elkement says:

      Thanks, David. Very well said – I have read Quiet and I really enjoyed it.
      So probably I should tag myself an introvert (who has always been good at playing the extrovert as per feedback of others) instead of a Euro-Humanist.
      Maybe the impact (I tend to say: toxicity) of those very invasive social systems should be judged on their desire to absorb you 24/7 without leaving room for solitude. Over at Dan’s blog I said the gamification in academia and the corporate world is similar, because you are scored on first author papers or on billable hours – but it is more than just hard work. The gamification comes into play literally when living-room-style offices should motivate employees to see their work environment as their extended playground. To me for example, those semi-private half-mandatory socializing events were much more stressful than plain hard work – Susan Cain does an excellent job in explaining this … using examples I am familiar with (including the cheery motivation guru thing… sort of….)
      What I need to ponder about still is the emergence of these absorbing systems from a bunch of individuals who seem to have surrendered to a mysterious force nobody is in charge of. My knowledge is largely anecdotal but I dare say it is common that hundreds of people complain about a kafkaesque regime – despite any of them is contributing to this system’s survival.

  2. Peter Mander says:

    Hej Elke, fascinating post. Agree with you that the skimming, scrolling, multi-tasking webworld has a künstliche feeling to it somewhere. To me, a book, a quiet face and an absorbed mind always present a more genuine and profound image. Ourit Ben-Haim’s photos (Underground New York Public Library website) are about as good a gallery of this as you could wish for.

    1. elkement says:

      Thanks, Peter! The website is awesome, thanks! What an idea to dedicate a website to!
      I have denied Facebook and Twitter for quite a long time – for exactly that reason… avoiding to become a bot-like creator and consumer of short, not very creative messages. Last year I really wanted to test it and after some months of heavy usage my feelings are mixed still. Currently – still in the same mood that triggered this post – I tend to say I will reduce consumption / usage of these social networks. I have found that is the “network” that suits me best as I want to engage in thoughtful conversations.
      From a very pragmatic perspective it is simply a matter of available time – I want to read real books and read and write lengthy articles, so I need to cut the distractions with the other stuff.

  3. After reading this I drew the conclusion that you were talking about how one goes about becoming educated, becoming smart … and living the life of the mind … living the life of an academic. And, you are correct that this can all be done alone, if you’re savy enough, and determined enough, and motivated enough, and have enough drive to seek the information you desire. Learning has very little to do with schooling. But what you have not mentioned is that at least in the scientific fields, one has to belong to a larger community to participate in that thing we call ‘science.’ Perhaps this isn’t the case for computer science but I believe it is certainly so in the biological sciences. No experiment is done in a (figurative) vacuum. Science requires that we interact with other members of the community … you know, peer review and all that. I agree with what you say. Learning is to some extent an innate, instinctive, behavior. We shouldn’t need classrooms and lecture halls. Highly motivated individuals should be able to become real thinkers on their own. But to participate as an academic, as an intellectual, I believe one has to give in to belonging to the larger community and participate … not as a loaner, but as a member of the learned group. Just my two cents. D

    1. elkement says:

      Thanks, Dave – of course you are right. I am guilty of having omitted all the balanced pro’s and con’s to let the Subversive Element run wild in this post ;-)
      I didn’t intend to question the way scientific is research is done in teams and co-operations. I don’t even question that class-rooms (containing more than one student) do make sense.
      Probably I shouldn’t have called it “learning in groups”, but “cramming for exams” in groups though this is also not yet exactly what I meant. What I feel – based on my own experience and the way learning environments have changed in the past 20 years is that the individual (“lonely”) learning process is more and more undervalued – as is the value of plain hard work. I object to turning anything into a “group project”, fluffy group presentations instead of exams, and put forth the mantra that learning has to be that infamous joyful, playful process all the time. I have read about all those incredible multi-media material and physics toys used in the class-room today and I still don’t buy into it. I don’t question the usefulness of that stuff but I believe it has not change the very nature of the learning process of an individual though.
      Kids are invited to attend lectures at “Kid’s university” in summer to be motivated to study science. I am baffled by the high percentage of young people who are inquiring (in physics discussion groups) about the options to become the next theoretical physics rock star – based on a distorted view of the reality of working in science. I bet it can be tracked back to too much edutainment material on black-holes, the expanding universe etc. – all in color and 3D… omitting the painstaking and boring work done on calculations.
      I agree to Maurice and down-to-earth approaches to learning – I really feel I am a dinosaur here. However, I don’t criticize the lack of social interaction (in online learning) in the first place, but what I call a gamification of learning – creating the illusion that learning needs to be fun all the time. And when learning becomes big business now – by selling MOOCs – I expect this to become worse as that “playful learning” needs to be sold to the masses consuming the massive courses. Currently MOOCs don’t allow you earn academic credits so there needs to be compelling sales arguments.

    2. No … I do not have another comment … but DID NOTICE that you changed your Avatar this morning. What’s up with that? [As the kids would say.] D

      1. elkement says:

        I am even considering to change the theme :-) but I guess I will only change colors and fonts. I made some other subtle changes already to the arrangement of the widgets. Sometimes I need to tweak the layout of this blog a bit :-) So if this may look more like a construction site at times – don’t panic :-)

  4. bert0001 says:

    The more I teach, the more practical I become. Here’s a problem, think about it. After 10 minutes of free thinking, here are roads to some possible solutions. Work 1 hour and see who needs help. Help everyone. Solve the problem finally in a very structured way in 5 minutes with a double explanation. Afternoon: see the theory behind this problem, cause they have eaten too much and are falling asleep.
    In our unemployment office, we have replaced real live teachers and classes by online virtual worlds. Mainly in programming courses. While before we had a dropout of 12%, No we have a dropout of 80%. (of course we have more inscriptions, but in the end less qualified people)

    1. elkement says:

      Very interesting… even a heretic as I would not have expected such dropout rates as you would imagine programming should be suited to online learning.
      I had given courses to unemployed job-seekers who should be re-trained as IT specialists about 15 years ago… Hard to tell now but in a sense I can imagine that online programming courses would not work well. I would say you need more / different (?) psychological skills compared to training employed specialists. Skills that are harder to “get across” in an online-only setup.

      1. bert0001 says:

        Online learning is devoid of daily peers. One does not belong. Group spirit is enormously important for the otherwise underachievers.

        Being tested on your own, on an island has no impact, when I redistribute the corrected tests, they talk to each other and feel the pain when they really did bad because of laziness.

        The coach keeps an eye on every aspect of the student that is slightly connected to learning and finding a job. There are monthly private conversations, but while you teach, you know what they are thinking and what they go through, and you can help them with their personal problems indirectly.
        A computer does not do these things.

        Interpretation and juxtaposing many solutions to the same problems is impossible when you are on your own.

        Learning how to interact on the workfloor is not learned in the online environment.

        One thing is different: the cost.
        A live course costs about 1000 euro per day. Often more. With 8 participants that means 125 euro per student per day. Many courses are running 80 working days – 20 weeks. That is an investment of 10000 euro per student by society. Of course within the next 6 months the money flows back, while the state doesn’t have to pay unemployment cheques anymore, and it can cash taxes at 45% of the salaries.

        In an online course, the cost is the development of the course material, divided by 1000 students … while there is one guy who solves online problems for all of them, but not necessarily with the skills of a teacher.

        1. elkement says:

          Thanks, Bert, for your insights! I can relate – this additional subtle hidden layer of conversation cannot be added to an online learning environment. I believe online courses work well for highly motivated individuals – however, if those are really extremely motivated they might not even need a “guided course” but just google for the material and start playing (with a programming environment for example).
          Yes – I fear that MOOCs have been created by people who are doing the math like this. Even if the courses are cheaper for the attendees the MOOC organizer could earn much more than with organizing class-room courses. I believe the conclusion drawn in the article I linked at the bottom is correct: MOOC organizers would profit while MOOC teachers would be paid peanuts – because many un- or underemployed graduates are available who are happy to work on something related to their expertise. I guess this would apply to non-technical courses in particular.
          It’s the same thing with many traditional courses today – in Austria there are institutions offering very cheap courses (any subject) to the general public. Trainers are paid about € 15 per hour in class. But sometimes they offer courses by first-class speakers – professors for examples. There are projects subsidized by the government such as “university goes public” – so somebody (the tax payer in the end) pays for the difference between those € 15 and reasonable rates – or the professors do it in their spare time because they can afford it. It is a weird market with strange distortions.
          In theory the good thing about MOOCs is that really poor people should be able to profit from an advanced education – but I still question why that would need more infrastructure and organization than affordable broadband internet access in the first place.

          1. bert0001 says:

            Poor people are not reached by this, because they lack the silence necessary in their unexisting office in the kitchen to concentrate on the subject.

            One could let students work by themselves for 3 days per week, and collaborate for 2 days a week in a classroom environment. Still this will cost roughly the same as doing all teaching in a classroom.

            If all students would be equiped with a wide-angle hi-res camera and a 30 bit internet connection, things could be organized a different way.

            I have outpriced myself in the market. while earning a whopping 75 per hour in the beginning of this millenium, I have gone down to 45. Without much work. Taking the inflation into the account I gain half per hour and have only half the days to teach.

            “So we all get poorer from the internet?”

            This is not true. There is a levelling going on, and it will probably take another century, but sooner or later world wide prices and salaries will be within par.

            1. bert0001 says:

              should have been megabit

            2. elkement says:

              I agree with your conclusion – the regulation of prices in a global environment is another form of gamification. Many large corporations started using global vendor management tools. IBM has announced in 2012 that they would turn most of their staff into freelancers and make them part of the “talent cloud”:
              Quote: ” “Personnel organized in a ‘cloud,’” the magazine quotes from the IBM document, “would receive international employment contracts, in order to circumvent restrictive regulations in their home country.” “

  5. danielmullin81 says:

    Reblogged this on The Unemployed Philosopher's Blog.

    1. elkement says:

      Ooops, what’s going on here? Dan, you are gamifying this discussing, I guess? ;-)
      Now we wait for the MOOC enthusiasts’ cyber force launching their counter-attack? But it’s just a game – we don’t need to worry…

      1. danielmullin81 says:

        One more random note on gamification: I’ve mentioned Nassim Nicholas Taleb before on my blog and he’s come up with the term ‘ludic fallacy’ (apparently from the Latin for ‘game’). The basic idea is that people are beguiled into thinking that probabilities in the real world function like they do in games, when in fact they do not. I’m not sure how this relates to ‘game theory’ but the thought occurs to me: perhaps the gamification of education and corporate culture is actually counterproductive because it teaches people that life is analogous to games in ways that in fact it’s not.

        1. elkement says:

          You have finally convinced me that I absolutely need to read The Black Swan. But first I need to finish the gamification thriller postmoderndonkey had recommended to me. You both should run amazon affiliate marketing campaigns!
          This idea of ludic fallacy is so intriguing… but what if life would still become game-like in the end – when finally the artificial mechanisms define everything? If you are hired or graded based on your Klout score ONLY – as silly as it is? Google for “Klout” and “grading”.. seriously disturbing stuff. I found comments like “Yes, it is a silly game and everybody knows it’s a silly game based on an obscure algorithm… but if somebody attaches a number to that it is given some weight nonetheless”

  6. M. Hatzel says:

    “Bildung” is a term I’ve encountered in literary theory, referring to a story about a learning journey, of a person (usually a boy) coming of age by going out in the world and gaining experience; I get a hint of the sarcastic implication of “unbildung” as a kind of non-process in education, of a not coming “home” or not coming into one’s own.

    I’ve also encountered the idea of ‘play’ in education as referring to the work children do to learn, to become an adult.
    At the university level, I encountered ‘play’ as a very hard thing to pull off. It requires taking the time to engage in learning from multiple perspectives, to be analytical, creative, etc., so the play becomes the very deep working of an idea from abstraction to practice and back again. It is the hardest work a student will do in becoming a master of his/her subject. (And it is from this understanding of it that I use the term as my blog name.)

    Very interesting. I have drafted a post, too, but I need to do some rewriting. Might take a bit of time to bring it under control.

    1. elkement says:

      Thanks, Michelle!
      Liessmann’s title was also an allusion to a rather famous article by Theodor Adorno – Theorie der Halbbildung (Half Knowledge … though this is rather Halbwissen). There is an English Wikipedia article on him – probably I should have added this, but I didn’t want to take the German references too far, and I once found Adorno’s article very hard too read – I would not be able to summarize it. … I don’t find his Theory of Half Knowledge – or whatever the “official” English translation is – now in this wall of text ;-)

      I am too much of a gamified scroller too read it in its entirety :-D

      As for ‘play’ – I believe it is quite important not to confuse it with ‘game’? I cannot help but cringe when I hear ‘game’ now – I will never buy books recommended by postmoderndonkey any more… I am scared to death!

  7. Hi Elke…WOW, this was worth waiting for, and I’m glad I didn’t have to wait for long. Unfortunately, though, it leaves me with little room to argue with you since I find your arguments to be well grounded in the facts that I see too. The one bottom-line that I think we are both seeing here this week is this:
    “We should never try to pretend that academic pursuits of any kind can be done without a significant investment of dedicated, prolonged work. In fact, it can get worse. If we do bring students through to certification without significant work then that will mean that we expect the rest of their lives to be equally carefree.”
    And that’s just plain foolishness. Dangerous foolishness.
    Today, while driving in from work I was listening to this:
    (look for the episode for 5/24/2013 if you get a generic page and the time you need to advance to is 1:14:30 exactly)
    On “Q” today Canadian Artist Robert Bateman wonders not what kind of world we are leaving for our children but, rather what kind of children we are leaving for our world. It stopped me dead. Fortunately I was in a moving vehicle else … those behind me would have run over me but that’s another story.
    This is what we are talking about. Gamification and impersonal education, silly reward systems and all of the other bullshit that has become so trendy has the potential for leaving our young people prepared for a silly imaginary world that simply dies not exist.
    Like the weak little gazelles unable to run very fast they will, no doubt, be devoured by the hungry lions that are.

    1. elkement says:

      Thanks, Maurice – it means a lot to me that an education expert replies in this way :-)
      I hesitated for hours now to click on Publish, and tweaked the post endlessly, because I thought this is too unwordly and too much influenced by reading dark cyberpunk novels on gamified future (“augmented reality”)

      I have just listened to your audio episode – I tend to agree though I might be called even more a dinosaur. I am sometimes torn between my own geeky hobbies which are not that down-to-earth as to serve as a blueprint for the generations to come and what I believe is common sense.

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