UV Letters

Oct 11, 2012 BACK

Synchronicity

UV Letter - Volume II, #21

“This is the single biggest change in education since the printing press.”
- Anant Agarwal, MIT Professor of Electrical Engineering and
Computer Science and President of edX

“In a MOOC, no one can hear you scream.”
- Ann Kirschner, University Dean of CUNY’s Macaulay Honors College

After a year’s excitement over the transformative potential of massive open online courses (MOOCs), it shouldn’t be surprising that critics are emerging. Academics are enrolling in MOOCs and writing about their experiences: some positive, but mostly negative.

Many of these MOOC criticisms have a proud lineage within the academy: appraisals of online learning over the past decade. Dean Kirschner enrolled in the Penn/Coursera MOOC “Health Policy and the Affordable Care Act” and found the overall experience intriguing and rewarding. Nonetheless “too many postings were at the dismal level of most anonymous Internet comments: nasty, brutish, and long”; “The reliance on old-fashioned threaded message groups made it impossible to distinguish online jerks from potential geniuses”; “There was no way to build a discussion, no equivalent to the hush that comes over the classroom when the smart kid raises his or her hand.”

Jonathan Marks, Associate Professor of Politics at Ursinus College, enrolled in the same MOOC and agreed with Kirschner: “The discussion forums [were]… nothing like a class discussion. Being in a discussion forum was like visiting a loud, very crowded public place, in which you could pick up snippets of conversation… a tough place to get your bearings.”

But MOOCs have enabled critics to add a new dimension to their skepticism. Marks found the lack of faculty guidance disturbing:

Good lecturers do more than transmit information. An adept teacher can try to read the expressions on the faces of her students, and invite a student to share his thoughts or objections when he seems to have something on his mind. An adept lecturer can allow her students to test her, test them in turn, and convey the sense that they are engaged in a high-stakes enterprise together… The message on guidance about substantive health policy questions was clear: you people are on your own. Guide yourselves.

Kirschner agreed. “A course is not a book but a journey, led by an expert.” And this element was only present in the MOOC “in a pretty crude form.” So did Harvard School of Public Health Professor Marcello Pagano, whose HarvardX/edX MOOC “Health in Numbers: Quantitative Methods in Clinical & Public Health Research” starts next week and who was quoted in the Harvard Crimson as saying: “Surely you’ve heard a song by your favorite artist, and you’ve felt, ‘Oh, she’s talking to me,’ and that hits you right in your heart—that’s what we have to do… I’m not Adele, but....We’re really guiding the students to do their own work, to help with their own teaching.”

According to Marks, today’s MOOCs do a good job of serving those who require self-improvement rather than self-formation i.e., “those who already possess the judgment, independence, and discipline to teach themselves well.”

Surely it won’t be long before some enterprising professor of literature adds to the emerging body of MOOC scholarship with a paper on the trope of the absent professor.

***

Another important critique of MOOCs is not new to online learning, but has been made visible as a result of the reach and scale of the new form. It was visible at the “massive open cookout” organized by Coursera in the Bay Area last summer and attended by 650 students. Udacity ran a global meetup day with Sebastian Thrun and meetings reportedly occurred in 400 cities around the world. One student who attended the Coursera BBQ was quoted in the Chronicle saying: “All of the sudden I’m meeting people that I’ve never met, and we’re talking about the class together, which was motivating me to keep up with the class.” Not only is the professor absent in MOOCs, other students are as well.

In his book Religion for Atheists and corresponding TED talk, Atheism 2.0, philosopher Alain de Botton argues that religion is too good to be left solely to religious people. de Botton equates religion to education. Religions call us children and sermons are just like lectures, only better as they not only impart information, they provide guidance on how we should live. He goes on to make this claim for religion:

Religions arrange time. All major religions give us calendars – a way of making sure of across the year you will bump into certain very important ideas. In the Catholic calendar, at the end of March, you will think about St. Jerome and his qualities of humility and goodness and his generosity to the poor. You won’t do that by accident. You will do that because you are guided to do that. In the secular world, we think if an idea is important, I’ll just bump into it. Nonsense says the religious world view. We need calendars. We need to structure time. We need to synchronize encounters.

The same can be said for traditional higher education. A university calendar synchronizes encounters with concepts and other learners around events like opening of the dorms, registration for classes, midterm exams, group projects, guest lectures, homecoming, study groups, final exams and commencement. Many of our most memorable educational experiences are from synchronized encounters. One that comes to mind for me was a failure to complete any of the reading for a course on Islam prior to the midterm. So I stayed up with a roommate in an all-night study session, aided by what I thought was a cup of coffee, but which (unbeknownst to this non-coffee drinker) turned out to be a full mug of espresso. The entire next day, including at the midterm, I received my own gastroenterological Sharia law punishment. I remember it all with great clarity: subject matter, intense pain, and my roommate’s amusement.

Online education will never allow us to hang out with Coursera’s founders while chowing burgers by the Bay. But the tools exist today for online education to effectively address all of these criticisms.

***

We know you, they know me
Extrasensory
Synchronicity
A star fall, a phone call
It joins all
Synchronicity

- Sting, Synchronicity

Comparing the MOOC experience with that provided by 2Tor through its partnerships with USC, UNC and Georgetown demonstrates that these problems are solvable. 2Tor is best known for its use of synchronous communication between faculty and students in weekly synchronous classrooms (where every participant in the discussion is visible on the screen), and amongst students in breakout sessions, interactive whiteboarding for group projects, and so on.

The integration of synchronous learning into online education not only has the potential to address concerns about discussion forums “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” and lack of faculty guidance, but also the crucial issue of synchronized encounters. No institution – not even the 2Tor partners – is yet taking advantage of synchronous communication technology to establish online course calendars that engender the synchronized encounters that are so important in higher education. But someday soon an institution will try this and demonstrate that the medium has the potential to establish learning communities that are equally effective as their onground counterparts.

Defenders of current online learning practices will say that synchronous learning sacrifices convenience and cost (because of the inherent reduction in scale). We think that technology will solve these issues as well. In the meantime, with a view to making faculty and students present, not absent, MOOCs would go a long way to countering critics if they were willing to trade a mite of massiveness for a smidgen of synchronicity.

The transformative moment in higher education will come when the effect of the online learning experience is not Adele singing at you, but rather your roommate laughing at you. That’s where true learning occurs.

University Ventures (UV) is the premier investment firm focused exclusively on the global higher education sector. UV pursues a differentiated strategy of ‘innovation from within’. By partnering with top-tier universities and colleges, and then strategically directing private capital to develop programs of exceptional quality that address major economic and social needs, UV expects to set new standards for student outcomes and advance the development of the next generation of colleges and universities on a global scale.

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