The MOOC as a First Album

Thinking about MOOCs (which I am semi-infamously down on as a method for revolutionizing general education): 

For rock bands, it's pretty common for their very first album to be considered their best one. Why is that? Well, the first album is likely the product of possibly a decade of practicing, writing, performing bars and clubs, interacting with audiences, and generally fine-tuning and refining the set to make the most solid block of music the band can possibly produce. At the point when a band gets signed to a label (traditionally), the first album is basically this ultra-tight set, honed for maximum impact over possibly hundreds of public performances.

But thereafter, the band is no longer in the same "lean and hungry" mode that produced that first set of music. Likely they go on tour for a year to support the first album, then are put in a studio for a few weeks with the goal of writing and recording a second album, so that the sales/promotion/touring cycle can pick up where the last one left off. This isn't a situation the band's likely to have experienced before, they have weeks instead of years to create the body of music, and they don't have hundreds of club audiences to run it by as beta-testers. In fact, they probably won't ever again have the opportunity of years of dry runs going into  the manufacture a single album.

The same situation is likely to apply to MOOCs. A really good online class (and there are some) will be the product of a teacher who's taught the course live for a number of years (or decades), interacting with actual classrooms-full  of students, refining the presentation many times as they witness how the presentation is immediately received by the people in front of them. If this has been done, say, hundreds of times, then you have a pretty strong foundation to begin recording something that will be a powerful class experience.

But if someone tries to develop an online course from scratch, in a few weeks isolated in an office without any live interaction as a testbed -- exactly as the band studio album situation -- what you're going to get is weak sauce, possibly entirely usable crap. If the instructor has never taught such a class in the past, then the result is likely just "kabuki" as a teacher that I once live-observed confessed to me. This is regardless if a person can do the math themselves, that's just total BS as a starting point for teaching.

A properly prepared, developed, scaffolded, explained course has got hundreds of moving parts built into it, built into every individual exercise, that are totally invisible unless an instructor has actually confronted live students with the issues at hand and seen the amazing kaleidoscope of ways that students can make mistakes or become tripped up or confused. No amount of "big data" is going to solve this (even assuming the MOOCs are even trying to do that and claims of such are not just flat-out fraud), because the tricky spots are so surprising, you'll never think to create a metric to measure it unless you're looking right over a student's shoulder to watch them do their work.

Quick metric for a quality online course: Has the instructor taught it live for a decade or more? Probably good. Did the instructor make it up on the fly, or in a few weeks development cycle? Probably BS.


  1. This is a really good analogy, but I think even the best MOOCs are pretty weak sauce, and the reason is in the name: "massive." If you'll allow me, I'm gonna preach to the choir for a moment for the benefit of those reading your comments section. ;)

    Here's the thing - once you get past the hoopla and the propaganda and people being overly excited about new technology, telling us that MOOCs can get rid of regular classes is like telling us that books can get rid of regular classes. MOOCs and books both communicate information unidirectionally, so unless you think that media with moving pictures are just THAT MUCH MORE AMAZING AND MIRACULOUS than media without, the suggestion that MOOCs can replace regular classes is just as implausible as the idea that books can.

    Once we frame the issue that way, the absurdity of the argument becomes easy to see. Books can't replace regular classroom instruction because students have questions, students need more explanation of some material, students' understanding needs to be assessed and corrected, etc. In other words, books can't replace standard classroom instruction because all the really useful stuff involves interaction between teacher and student. And that's exactly what MOOCs cannot provide in any substantial fashion, by design, because they are - let us remember - "massive."

    The express purpose of a MOOC is to allow huge numbers of students to sign up for the class at once, a model that can only be realized by removing from the equation substantial interaction with the instructor. Sure, the best MOOCs try to build in as much interactivity as possible by attempting to anticipate problem areas and provide supplemental material for students who hit snags. But again, this is not dissimilar from just assembling a lot of material to work with - it does not evade the fundamental problem of unguided learning. The whole reason that traditional classroom education is generally superior to letting students learn on their own is, as stated, that the subject-matter expert can expand on material where needed, address confusions, assess progress, and so on. In other words, the whole advantage lay in the teacher's ability to provide individualized attention to students, which is why class sizes are such a concern for both teachers and students.

    Blind faith in MOOCs as a "game changer" is baffling to me. It's just more unidirectional media; maybe there's a little more interactivity built in, sure, but, bottom line, the whole difference between MOOCs and just having a textbook and its associated workbook is that one of them looks more modern and technologically sophisticated. People who think there's a significant difference are being seduced by the glitter of new tech.

    1. I totally agree, 100%, of course!

      This post myself was just trying to express a distinction that I observed between "at least minimally coherent" and "total burning garbage heap" presentations. The same as a textbook, say, written over a year or so vs. one written from scratch in 6 weeks (an offer which I actually received at one point, and in a fit of unusual wisdom, declined).