David Bromwich provides his views on the state of higher education in The Hi-Tech Mess of Higher Education. This article, ostensibly a review of Andrew Rossi’s movie, Ivory Tower, appeared in the New York Review of Books.
One of Bromwich’s topics is the rise of MOOCs (massive open online courses). The idea is to replace many independent, and presumably inferior, classes taught by teachers in physical classrooms, with one “excellent” course available via the internet. This course could be taken for credit by anyone willing to pay a fee, take tests, and perform whatever assignments might go with the lectures. This would, presumably, render a large number of professors unnecessary and save schools a lot of money.
“The MOOC movement is represented in Ivory Tower by the Silicon Valley outfit Udacity. ‘Does it really make sense,’ asks a Udacity adept, ‘to have five hundred professors in five hundred different universities each teach students in a similar way?’ What you really want, he thinks, is the academic equivalent of a ‘rock star’ to project knowledge onto the screens and into the brains of students without the impediment of fellow students or a teacher’s intrusive presence in the room. ‘Maybe,’ he adds, ‘that rock star could do a little bit better job’ than the nameless small-time academics whose fame and luster the video lecturer will rightly displace.”
Bromwich is doubtful.
“That the academic star will do a better job of teaching than the local pedagogue who exactly resembles 499 others of his kind—this, in itself, is an interesting assumption at Udacity and a revealing one. Why suppose that five hundred teachers of, say, the English novel from Defoe to Joyce will all tend to teach the materials in the same way, while the MOOC lecturer will stand out because he teaches the most advanced version of the same way? Here, as in other aspects of the movement, under all the talk of variety there lurks a passion for uniformity.”
And for what kind of educational topic is it appropriate that one individual’s view should be taken as gospel to be propagated, perhaps, throughout the entire nation?
Bromwich identifies Sebastian Thrun, CEO of Udacity, as one of the “rock stars.” Thrun is best known as an expert in robotics and artificial intelligence (AI), and was lead developer on Google’s driverless car project. Bromwich attributes an astonishing comment to Thrun:
“We take the focus away from the professor,” says Thrun, “and put the focus back on the student.”
To which Bromwich replies:
“Pause there for a moment. The AI innovator was asked to record his lectures because he is a star. At the same time, by rendering less glamorous types redundant in thousands of classrooms, Udacity says it will ‘put the focus back on the student.’ How does that work exactly? In what educational state of nature was the ‘focus’ on the student before the teacher came and took it away? And now that Udacity has put the focus back—as if the very presence of the teacher was an aberration which the MOOC format has corrected—will the company at last render even the star redundant?”
“Still, however fanciful the conceit may be, the MOOC movement has a clear economic motive. Many universities today want to cut back drastically on the payment of classroom teachers. It is important therefore to convince us that teachers have never been the focus of real learning.”
If outfits like Udacity are to replace traditional classroom teaching, they must provide means by which students can ask questions and share their thoughts. Traditionally this would be handled by direct teacher-student interaction or perhaps sessions run by a teaching assistant. To replace this function with an online system may prove difficult. An even more serious concern is that the average or sub-average student may have trouble dealing with such an online process. It is clear that the highly motivated and the highly competent will be able to function in this environment, but what about the student population as a whole?
As it happened, San Jose State University in California gave Udacity an opportunity to try out its system. Bromwich reports on the results.
“As things worked out in Silicon Valley, reality checked the dreams of Udacity. In 2013, the company was awarded a trial of its offerings in a contract with San Jose State University; and in July of that year, scores were posted for its spring term entry-level courses. The pass rate in elementary statistics was 50.5 percent; in college algebra, 25.4 percent; in entry-level math, 23.8 percent. Teachers have been fired en masse for results like these by administrators or politicians who would not sit for an explanation.”
A report by Carl Straumsheim provides more information on the San Jose experiment.
“San Jose State University has all but ended its experiment to offer low-cost, high-quality online education in partnership with the massive open online course provider Udacity after a year of disappointing results and growing dismay among faculty members.”
“The project, known as SJSU Plus, has been on “pause” since this summer after its three spring semester courses posted pass rates between 23.8 and 50.5 percent -- much lower than their on-campus equivalents. Although the rates rebounded over the summer, those sessions featured a vastly different student population, including some students with doctoral degrees. In comparison, the spring pilot included more at-risk students.”
State officials have soured on the project.
“At its launch in January, the project brought together Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, California Governor Jerry Brown and Timothy P. White, chancellor of the California State University System. Eleven months later, White has publicly alluded to the failure of the Udacity experiment, and Brown did not return a request for comment.”
And Mr. Thrun seems to have had a change of heart as well. Max Chafkin provides insight into the future of Udacity in Udacity's Sebastian Thrun, Godfather Of Free Online Education, Changes Course. It seems Thrun’s concerns extend beyond the San Jose data.
“As Thrun was being praised by [Tom] Friedman [New York Times], and pretty much everyone else, for having attracted a stunning number of students--1.6 million to date--he was obsessing over a data point that was rarely mentioned in the breathless accounts about the power of new forms of free online education: the shockingly low number of students who actually finish the classes, which is fewer than 10%. Not all of those people received a passing grade, either, meaning that for every 100 pupils who enrolled in a free course, something like five actually learned the topic. If this was an education revolution, it was a disturbingly uneven one.”
"’We were on the front pages of newspapers and magazines, and at the same time, I was realizing, we don't educate people as others wished, or as I wished. We have a lousy product,’ Thrun tells me. ‘It was a painful moment.’ Turns out he doesn't even like the term MOOC.”
Thrun appears to be changing his focus to specifically vocational topics, rather than trying to be applicable to general education as a whole.
“….a pivot that involves charging money for classes and abandoning academic disciplines in favor of more vocational-focused learning. In short, Thrun must prove that Udacity is something more than a good story.”
What is it about education that makes everyone think it is simple and easy to do it better?