Will we or won’t we become MOOC’d?

I just finished reading Raising the Floor by former SEIU leader Andy Stern, where he presents a future where automation will eliminate most of the modern-day labor economy. For anyone who is a truck driver, machinist, or even a personal care attendant, the book should be required reading, if only to prepare for a future in which we’re more expendable.

The book presents convincing evidence that machines will inevitably take over most tasks not involving creativity or social skills. Even those skills can presumably be mimicked by robots someday, just as the Japanese are developing robots that can take care of patients and speak soothing words to create more human-like interactions.

But one brief mention in Raising the Floor had me skeptical. Stern mentions how colleges, as a cost-cutting measure, will end up hiring the best professors in the country to present online lectures. The online university will replace our brick and mortar schools as we all plug in for our education.

One way which this educational revolution is happening is through Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), which have been around for a decade or so. MOOCs are offered through many prestigious universities through organizations like Udacity, Coursera, EDx, and many others. They enable a user to take a course of their choosing, learn at their own pace at the comfort of their own home.

While I don’t dispute the value of online education, I have some doubts whether it will catch on enough to produce significant disruption in the education economy.

Most of this doubt comes from my experience with online education.

Failing with digital grace

Sebastian Thrun of Udacity- Wikimedia Commons

My first online enrollment was on the Udacity platform, soon after I found out about the existence of MOOCs. I thought it was a great idea; learn for free at your own pace, no dealing with administration. It sounded perfect.

I enrolled in a 101 level computer science course, taught by Sebastian Thrun, one of the founders of Google’s self-driving car (speaking of machines taking over).

For the first few weeks, I loved it. I had a lot of down-time at work late at night due to working in a residential setting, so I usually took the classes then. I was passing all the quizzes, understanding the concepts. I was already having dreams of developing an app that would do something that I would figure out later. I was learning to code, dammit!

Then week 3 came and I came upon a lesson that might has well have been delivered in Thrun’s native German. I didn’t understand a thing. I went back, thinking that I may have missed a week of lessons. Nope. This was the right lesson. I watched it multiple times, pausing frequently, to no avail.

Despite the roadblock, I moved forward, thinking maybe that I would connect a future lesson to the material I wasn’t getting. Nope again. The information now seemed another subject, as if it transitioned into an advanced course on AI robotics. I gave it another week, then gave up.

Attempt 2

After the Udacity debacle, I took a few courses on Code Academy. This time, I made it all the way through a simple HTML course. Yet when it was over, I didn’t see how I could apply what I learned. I didn’t really want to make a website, as I’ve never needed anything more advanced than Wordpress.

I shrugged my shoulders and went on with my life.

Lessons learned from MOOCs (that have nothing to do with the course material)

Blasting through two MOOCs with nothing really to gain, I realized why these methods of learning aren’t quite there yet. If MOOCs can address the following issues, than they may finally achieve some sort of leverage in the education world.

  1. The shame factor

I always knew that if I didn’t complete or failed a MOOC course, nothing would happen. There were no stakes. I’m particularly receptive to human disappointment, having achieved it often. If I see that a professor is disappointed in me, than it affects me terribly. I can’t sleep, I have panic sweats. It sucks.

There’s no such shame element within MOOCs. Maybe if I got a message from the professor where he looked at me sternly, or shook his head, or simply told me that he was disappointed, than I’d feel a bit more motivated. Take that away and I’ll probably choose to watch Netflix instead of logging on.

A MOOC can give you a quality education if you’re a self-motivated person. I am not. The information isn’t any different whether in a building or online. Plus, the courses boast some enormous teaching talent and prestigious professors. But without this sense of professor pressure, I’m basically watching Youtube videos that I half understand.

Essentially, we pay for colleges to have someone to be mad at us if we don’t succeed. And that works, because humans are crazy.

2. The multiple choice trap

Due to time and people constraints, online education relies mainly on multiple choice tests to gauge progress. Essay prompts would be too time consuming for the professor to correct for the thousands of students who participate in MOOCs.

Multiple choice questions have become even more popular since the introduction Common Core to public education. It’s proven to be an efficient way to track student’s progress…at least for administrators.

But are multiple choice tests good for students? I would have to lean toward no.

I used to teach GED prep an adult education program. The GED is primarily a multiple choice test. While I did attempt to teach my students the material, most of my time was spent teaching them the “tricks” to cracking the test. For example, you can always eliminate one or two answers. And most of us are familiar with the old ABACABA technique, assuming that there won’t be more than three questions that have the same answer.

Multiple choice quizzes only seem to inhibit the ability to get around the material, rather than genuinely engage with the content. This is why someone can score high on a multiple choice exam and still not understand the foundations of what they’ve learned.

A few weeks into my MOOC class, I found myself figuring out the general mechanism of how the class presented the multiple choice questions (which are usually pretty easy). I began to skip the lectures that didn’t sound interesting, then take the quiz and still pass. Did I learn the material? Of course not. But at least I got a good grade.

To really provide ingrained learning among students, MOOCs should utilize the practice of journaling throughout lessons. The act of writing out what you learned is a great tool to retain information. It’s a form of mindfulness; you think about what you were thinking about, making the information more concrete.

How would these be graded? They don’t really need to be. If you’ve completed your journal, then you get full credit; easy as that. When we write with the intention of having someone (like a professor) read it, we tend to write what we think they want to hear. As a former teacher, I can say that it’s usually not what I want to hear. Teachers can usually see right through this, but the practice persists.

But with daily lesson journaling, we are writing only for ourselves and our understanding. Soon it becomes a habit once we see the positive effects.

I have a bad habit of reading books and forgetting what the book is about (sometimes even what book I read!). I started writing short posts on my Wordpress site about the book I just finished. If anything, I figured I can use these as my personal brain reference. It’s worked so well to help me remember not only if I liked or disliked a book, but what I liked about the book.

So I’m going to try again and register for a 3d printing course on Coursera. I’ll journal regularly with the intention of retaining the information, and maybe even teaching someone else a thing or two about 3d printing.

I urge you to do the same.