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F is for Failure; Or, Don’t Invest Your Pension in MOOCs Yet

July 21, 2013, 11:39 am

600px-Semaphore_Foxtrot.svgWill Oremus reports at Slate that San Jose State University is suspending its online classes after over half the students in them failed their final exams. Sebastian Thrun, the founder of San Jose’s provider, Udacity, explained to the Associated Press “that the failure rates in the five classes ranged from 56 to 76 percent. Nor was the course material exactly rocket science—the five classes were in elementary statistics, college algebra, entry-level math, introduction to programming, and introduction to psychology.”

I’m really glad they weren’t teaching rocket science, because clearly the people who put the courses together weren’t rocket scientists either. As usual, of course, “completion” is the victory being snatched out of the jaws of MOOC defeat. We also can’t forget that time-honored explanation:  it might be the students’ fault that they failed in such massive numbers.

Thrun did note that 83 percent of students had completed the classes, a far higher rate than is typical for the free, open courses that have come to be known as MOOCs. Why so many failed is not fully clear, though the AP cites “officials” saying that a lot of the students who signed up had little college experience or were working full-time while taking the classes.

On the bright side, Thrun said Udacity had gained some valuable data from the experience. “We are experimenting and learning,” he said. “That to me is a positive.”

My question is: what was the bright side for the students who paid for the courses and then failed them? We know they didn’t get their time back, but how about their money? Now we not only have K-12 students being used as unpaid research subjects mobilized for the benefit of for-profit testing companies, we have extended that system to college learning as well.

Those of you who always blame the student for his own failures should probably skip to the next blog on your list (one response on Facebook has been for faculty to vent about their own students’ lack of college preparation and commitment and/or how sick they are of students saying they have no time for college because they are working. Way to buff the profession’s image, guys!) For most of us a very high failure rate suggests that something is wrong with the course, the pedagogy, or both.  Seventy-six percent failures in some courses from people who actually did the work?

Mary, please.

I am not against online learning, and I am persuaded that under the right conditions it can be effective. It is, however, becoming ever clearer that corporate methods for extracting profit from education are exploitative and ineffective for students.  I don’t think any of these providers are honest about the down side of not having a real, live teacher — not to mention the absence of classmates who might help you learn.

Furthermore, what course open to thousands of random people could really teach all of them well? Part of what actual schools (where students are taught in non-profit numbers) can provide is some sense of what might be expected from a course. At my last job, it was reasonable to expect that students would devote themselves full-time to school, and when they didn’t that was a choice. At my first job, and my present job, it is reasonable to assume that students are pressured by work and family. That means, depending on which group I am teaching, I assemble different courses, different ways of using class time and pacing the semester, different ways of paying attention to my students, and different ways of choosing course materials. One is not easier than the other; they are different. Increasingly, I teach students differently within the same class.

MOOCs are like the honey badger: by their very nature they slow down, swerve or stop for no one. They don’t give a $hit. As Oremus asks, “ The question is, what university will be eager to offer up its students as the next lab rats in what amounts to a massive pedagogical R&D program by for-profit Silicon Valley startups?” The answer is: the University of California and the State University of New York decided this spring to incorporate MOOCs to give them the option to hire fewer faculty relieve overcrowding in required courses.

And that big sucking sound you hear? It’s the taxpayer money flowing out of public institutions and into the multi-billion dollar coffers of big, private universities that are looking more and more like for-profits every day.

Could we have some oversight please? It seems to me that if this is all one, grand fun experiment, it should not be paid for by students, nor should they be rolled into a big educational experiment without understanding that no one knows how it will turn out. A faculty member has to bust her chops to get an oral history project through an institutional research board in order to write a book that she will make no money from; but an Internet startup has carte blanche to experiment on students without even a check off box that notifies the student that the course itself is untried, untested and unsupervised?

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