There’s no question that the internet is a boon to learning. It’s a rare day when I do not pop open a browser and look up information that helps me solve a problem or move a project along. Compared with life before so much knowledge was available there’s also no question about which reality I prefer, even allowing for the inevitable costs and tech headaches that accompany such momentous change.
Given that others seem to share that preference it’s not surprising that there are widespread efforts underway to turn the internet toward education in a more directed fashion. From online courses that can be taken for continuing-education credit to the explosion of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC’s) and even the appearance of online-only ‘universities’ offering full degrees, there seems to be a genuine hunger for virtual academics, and why wouldn’t there be? Instead of having to alter or uproot your life to go where the knowledge is you can now simply log on and learn.
It’s probably also not surprising that some of the jazziest online schools and programs are for-profit. While making an honest living is a laudable goal in life, some of these for-profit online schools — like their for-profit brick-and-mortarboard kin — are nothing more than a skimming operation aimed at federal student-loan dollars. Couple premeditated leeching with administrative efforts to heap for-profit debt onto students at abusive interest rates and the worst of these schools are little more than a gussied-up Craigslist scam looking for student suckers.
Standing in opposition to the for-profit paradigm are fully accredited non-profit and governmental schools offering free MOOC’s. While academically laudable, it’s also true that some of these staid institutions are getting into MOOC’s for branding and marketing reasons, some are using MOOC’s to up-sell students on fee-based courses, and a few are acting as incubators in order to spin off for-profit start-ups that will eventually help enrich already bulging endowment coffers. Still, cynicism aside, a free course is a free course, and if a MOOC gives far-flung students a chance to learn at a distance I think that’s a good thing.
Unfortunately, even if we narrow our attention to free MOOC’s and impute only golden motives to institutions hosting them, there’s a problem with this most benevolent form of online education. And as a recent New Yorker article points out, it’s a big problem:
An average of only four per cent of registered users finished their MOOCs in a recent University of Pennsylvania study, and half of those enrolled did not view even a single lecture. EdX, a MOOC collaboration between Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has shown results that are a little more encouraging, but not much. And a celebrated partnership between San Jose State and Udacity, the company co-founded by Sebastian Thrun, a Stanford professor turned MOOC magnate, also failed, when students in the online pilot courses consistently fared worse than their counterparts in the equivalent courses on campus.
Online Education and The Commitment Problem
I don’t know about you, but I honestly wasn’t surprised by those results. The ready availability of knowledge on the internet has been a boon, but it has also turned information into a trivial commodity. The same thing happened decades ago with movies and television when VHS tapes (and later DVD’s) arrived: availability went through the roof while valuations plummeted in both economic and cultural terms.
Something else happened during the VHS/DVD revolution, however, and that’s that entertainment became an on-demand aspect of life. Where previously you had to be in front of your TV at the right time to see programs you enjoyed, or wait months or years for a favorite movie to be re-released or broadcast, suddenly you could watch what you wanted when you wanted. Today you can stream or time-shift almost anything in accordance with your schedule — a fact that is slowly crushing the life out of broadcast television. Add in smartphone technology and even basic human interaction is now on-demand. You can make outgoing calls on the spur of every moment, you can send other people’s annoying incoming spur-of-the-moment calls right to voice mail, and you can take endless on-demand hits of internet distraction all from the same device, which also loves you.
In short, in the information age, surrounded by an endless sea of information, what we have personally and culturally concluded is that we don’t want to wait, we don’t want to plan ahead and we won’t tolerate being bored for even a second. So what does a free, educational MOOC have to offer in that context? At first blush it might seem a great deal, but on deeper inspection there’s nothing to distinguish a MOOC from almost anything else a person might be casually interested in. In fact, compared with surfing the net or watching random videos even the most easily accessible MOOC is a straightjacket. If genuine interest drives participation then the obligation to pay attention is probably not a disincentive, but if you’re a typical information-age consumer what you’re looking for are better bite-sized distractions, not an obligation to participate or be prepared. In that context, signing up for a MOOC is awesome — as is telling all your friends you did so — while following through has all the appeal of the business end of that adorable puppy you swore you’d care for and couldn’t live without.
While all of this should rightly give educators pause, at many educational institutions I think there’s a tendency to believe that the products they have to offer — a world-renowned professor, a leading disciplinary focus, a tightly-knit academic community — are more valuable than they are. We all think our used car is worth more than book value, and we’re almost always wrong. Having acknowledged experts on staff is a good thing, but in the information age it’s hardly a draw in itself. Every channel, every video, every tweet seems to spring from celebrity of some sort, and from time to time there’s talent attached as well. In such a marketplace the standing of an educator could conceivably drive registrations to the moon but would probably still have little or no effect on follow-through, and thus also potential monetization.
Which brings us back to the same obvious point. If a registrant has no preexisting interest in a given subject, then a MOOC is, at best, a faddish event competing with many more-easily-digestible faddish offerings. Even if all that’s required is downloading and viewing lectures and reading a few texts, does that sound like something a lot of people are going to follow through on?
While there’s inherently little or no difference between the education one gets in a classroom and what can be accomplished in a virtual setting, the level of commitment that students make couldn’t be greater. An online course requires you to change almost nothing: you get up, you wander around in your underwear, you fire up your computer. In contrast, attending on-site classes usually demands that you put on clothes before moving your physical self to wherever the classroom is. If it’s across the country students also have to move a bunch of their belongings, change their address and update countless documents, and perhaps even deal with emotional upheaval. Even attending a free, on-site lecture across town probably requires a level of commitment that flies in the face of what many people are willing to commit to these days.
Writing and Online Education
As you’ve probably noticed, the information age has generated a renewed interest in writing. Part of this springs from the mechanism of interaction: where we all used to talk on the phone, burnishing our oratory, we now tend to communicate via a keyboard of some kind, albeit often in brief exchanges. Still, once you’re tapping keys it’s only a matter of time before something you write verges on a complete sentence, and from there it’s only a hop, skip and a jump to the hard stuff, like blog posts and e-books.
Having paid particularly close attention to the self-publishing explosion over the past few years I can speculate with some confidence that interest in writing may be at an all-time cultural high. Of valid concern is whether all the works being produced are worth reading, but for the purposes of this post we’ll ignore issues of merit and talent for the same reason the traditional publishing industry always has. (If you need better writing you can always hire it done.)
Personally, I love the fact that so many people are writing. Authoring any kind of written work is empowering on a personal level, and I’d much rather have an overabundance of material produced than a marketplace ruled by self-interested gatekeepers. Even if your intended audience is only a few friends or relatives, your personal passion for writing may be as high and your eventual satisfaction as great as any bestselling author.
What has surprised me about the writing boom, however — probably because I’m routinely naive — is that there seems to be shockingly little interest in the craft of writing, and I think that’s particularly true with regard to fiction. If you’re putting together family recipes or jotting down recollections of a life well-lived it’s understandable that you might go with whatever skills you have at the time. But if you’re aspiring to serial authorship in any sense, and particularly in a critical or commercial context, it stands to reason that you might want to expand your skills as a writer. But that just doesn’t seem to be a common concern.
Fortunately, I don’t think we can blame that problem on the information age. Looking back on my college days, which predate the advent of the internet, I’m not sure that commitment to learning the craft of writing was ever particularly high. Many of my fellow workshop students enjoyed the act of expression and wanted to write good stories, but they often made little effort to see storytelling as a craft or to accept responsibility for mastering that craft. The preferred assumptions, rather, were either that writers were born great — which fortuitously liberated writers from any obligation to shore up weaknesses, evaluate tendencies and learn what there was to learn — or that formulaic approaches would solve all problems. (I do believe great stylists are born, but being a great stylist often has nothing to do with being a good writer.)
Today, when I look at the Ditchwalk logs to see which posts are being read the most, the majority of people seem more interested in my Aeron chair ownership or whether it really is okay to use two spaces after a period (it is) than anything about how to write or tell stories. And of those people who are interested in craft issues, that interest usually coincides with academic calendars, suggesting that posts are being read more to satisfy requirements than advance individual skills.
Online Education versus Online Communities
What all of this says, collectively, about the viability of writing-oriented MOOC’s (and even online degrees) is that the number of people interested in learning writing as a discipline is and probably always will be very small. Fortunately, however, the practical mechanics of learning the craft of writing in an academic setting (virtual or otherwise) favor small groups.
Based on long experience, the proper size for a writing workshop is generally agreed to be about fifteen or sixteen people. There’s some leeway, obviously, and other variables can factor in, but for now we’ll just note that this flies in the face of the assumption that bigger is better when it comes to social networks or online communities, including ‘massive’ online courses. If what you want to do is teach aspiring writers how to write — as opposed to, say, sell registrant email addresses for a profit — the MOOC model may not simply be problematic, it may inherently lead to failure.
Given that writing workshops need to be small, however, and that craft-driven interest in writing is particularly narrow, the potential does seem to exist for intimate online academic programs in which writers connect and help each other develop. In the private sector such communities and collectives already exist, but there’s obviously a difference between the aims of those groups and the aims of an academic institution. (I had high hopes for Richard Nash’s Red Lemonade, which unfortunately never got out of beta and today seems to be disintegrating before my eyes. While the design and aims of the site might have contributed to that outcome, at root I think even a well-intentioned online community like Red Lemonade will inevitably suffer from the on-demand problem because the lack of a genuine commitment precludes sustainable success.)
If state-run or non-profit schools want to move online I think they should leave the IPO’s and community building to the start-up sharks. Instead, focus on the educational component and figure out how small, online-only classes can lead to, say, an MFA, just as they do on site. I don’t think there are technological impediments to such a goal, and I think the right school could easily create a distributed program that delivers the educational equivalent of what’s currently available on campuses across the country. The key is replacing today’s emphasis on technology with an old-school emphasis on commitment. If schools and students are not both wholly committed and each getting something in return (tuition and a degree, respectively), then I think any online program will eventually falter.
Again, as anyone knows who’s accepted a party invitation well in advance of the occasion, only to cancel on the day of the event, it’s painfully easy to sign up for something and much harder to follow through — even when the effort involved is trivial. Being a member of a writing workshop means accepting a lot of responsibility, all of it ultimately centered around building and maintaining trust. While there are certainly exceptions, trust and commitment do not seem to be mainstays of social networks. Add even the hint of a fee to most online communities and you run into the same subscription problem that has crippled or co-opted online sites from the dawn of the internet age. Pile on participation requirements and academic obligations and it’s clear that the number of people interested in such a program would be exceedingly small.
But that doesn’t mean the number would be zero. In fact, after the merely curious were disincentivized and the dilettantes were dissuaded you might end up with a truly committed group who were predisposed to make an online workshop work. Provided, of course, that they also got something tangible in return. Yes, the workshop experience would itself have value, but in academic circles there’s a longstanding tradition that tuition costs are compensated for over the long haul by a small glitzy piece of paper that has, preposterously, considerable value in the marketplace. That’s what students want, and that’s the role schools have traditionally played and been paid for.
— Mark Barrett
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