Sunday, July 3, 2016

mourning the MOOC

Coursera: "Philosophy and the Sciences", The University of Edinburgh (no longer available)

I am recovering from a veritable MOOC addiction. It started a few months ago, when for some reasons I kept finding myself wide awake at 3am. Ordinarily, I would pick a book and read it, but that means turning on the light and concentrating and relinquishing every hope of getting back to sleep, so I tried a different strategy and I began my binge adventure in MOOC entertainment. Coursera is one of the main platforms offering MOOC classes and over the span of a few months I went through over thirty of them. I can certainly say that it was good entertainment for sleepless nights: I would spend a couple of hours listening to various classes (most of them are subdivided into small units of some fifteen to twenty minutes, so it is easy to keep hopping) and then even have time to fall asleep again and make it look like a normal night when I woke up again later in the morning. As a form of intelligent entertainment, I certainly think it should be widely adopted and encouraged, but how about all the those other bold claims that were repeated ad nauseam in the recent past, according to which the new MOOC fad was the death knell of university education and at the same time the trumpet announcing a triumphal new era? I call bullshit on that all.

Coursera: "Automata", Stanford University (no longer available)

When I first started browsing through the Coursera catalog some months back I thought, wow, this is great! I binged through a dozen classes immediately, and within a short time I realized what exactly had made it all sound so exciting. I noticed how, if someone had asked my six year old self how I would have wanted my university curriculum to be, I would have ended up with a list that resembled pretty much what I picked in the Coursera catalog: yes, I want to take a class on neuroscience, and one on robotics, and one on cosmology, and one on dinosaur paleontology. I also want a class on science fiction, and one on artificial intelligence, and one on astrobiology, and one on the philosophy of science. I want the history of astronautics, and a course on Chinese characters, and one on video games, and one on Buddhism, and one on jazz improvisation. For a few months I indulged my inner six year old self with each and every unfulfilled desire about what a university education would have been like if only she had had her way. It was fun. I think it was also therapeutically important to find ways to reconnect, as an adult, to one's inner child, to those early dreams and aspirations. So, besides the fun of it, there was also that, some kind of self help therapy by MOOC. That's all fine, and pleasant, and helpful. However, let's pause for a moment and reflect on why the typical university curriculum is not structured in the way a six year old would design it. There is absolutely nothing wrong with the curiosity of a six year old: it is wonderful and it is crucially important. However, unlike a more adult notion of learning, the child's tends to focus primarily on subjects of immediate reward. I like the dinosaurs and I want to learn about them. I am curious about Chinese ideograms. I am powerfully attracted to the vastness of the cosmos. Of course, this is all deep and important, but precisely for that reason, we (as adults) also know that cosmology is best tackled after and with the use of advanced mathematics, and paleontology with a serious background in geology and biology, and so on. We understand that some delay of gratification is necessary and important for the sake of gaining in depth of understanding. As an adult and a professional scientist, I can piggy back on a lot of background already built through my (traditional) university education, on a previous in depth (traditional) humanities education, and on the subsequent twenty years of professional experience, and pick and choose from the MOOC catalog to indulge my inner child, while playing the MOOC pretend game according to which these online classes would provide a replacement for actual university level classes. This is an obvious lie that many conveniently pretend to believe. It is a lie because the course content is obviously an enormously watered down version of what a typical university level class on the same subject would be like. It is intelligent entertainment, much better than watching TV, but it is certainly not a university education.

Coursera: "Spacebooks: an introduction to extraterrestrial literature", 
University of Zurich (no longer available)

This is by no means the most problematic aspect of the MOOC system. There is a much more sinister and troubling part of the picture. The available platforms that support the current MOOC system, like Coursera, are commercial platforms aimed at making a profit. A way in which they expect to obtain a monetary gain is through the selling of some certificates that state the student's achievement based on some online multiple choice tests associated to the class, and on some assignments that are peer reviewed by other students in the same class. As a university professor myself, I find a lot that can be criticized about how these assignments are constructed and handled, but this is not specifically what I want to discuss. I want to take a step back and look more closely at the underlying assumption. The motor of learning is curiosity. It must be driven by curiosity otherwise it simply does not work, and the satisfaction of that curiosity is the reward in itself, the quenching of that thirst for acquiring new knowledge. The fact that someone is trying to attache a certificate and some silly multiple choice tests to it is only a nuisance, not an incentive. If you are watching the lectures of one of these online MOOC classes because you are interested in learning something, I bet you would be much more likely to use them the way I did, namely watch all the lectures for your curiosity and entertainment, then get a good book on the subject and read it for some more serious learning. Screw the tests and the certificate, who bloody cares! Yes, that is indeed the way it goes, because that is the natural way in which it should go, and that is why trying to mix education and profit is an extremely bad idea. It turns out that the Coursera platform and whoever is running it have very quickly become aware of this themselves, and realized that, precisely for the reason just described, all the course content they were offering that had some interesting intellectual content was not making a profit, while what was bringing them buyers was the content-free business mumbo jumbo, the quackery they list under "self-improvement" and such things, that are entirely disjoint from intellectual curiosity and that people buy, in the form of statements and certificate, to show some fluff to their jughead corporate employers. 

Coursera: "Sleep: Neurobiology, Medicine and Society", 
University of Michigan (no longer available)

So comes July 1, 2016, nearly all of the courses that had at least that quality of intelligent entertainment and could help fulfilling some intellectual curiosity suddenly disappear from the Coursera catalog. Even the ones that still show in my feed now link to a somber "ooops... HTTP 404... looks like you found a page that does not exist...": all of them removed from the Coursera catalog and from the Coursera site altogether, while a veritable avalanche of business-bullshit and quacky-self-improvements is flooding the site. This finally takes us to the most profoundly troubling aspect of these experiments in online education. Over the course of decades of my own personal intellectual education, which did not stop when I got my PhD but continues every single day of my life, in the face of any stupid collection of grades and certificates, I have been going back, over and over again, to the material I learned over the years. I kept all the books I read on all the subjects I have been learning. They grew over the years to a sizable collection and a private library of several thousand volumes. Barring major natural catastrophes, nobody is going to come all of a sudden and erase my access to all that without warning. I have books that are over half a century old and that will continue to serve their purpose as repositories of learning and references ready to be looked up at a moment notice for many more decades to come. I am greatly in favor of disseminating knowledge through the internet and digital media: I am in favor of online lectures, and of digitalizing and distributing academic journals and books of all kind. However, what I think is an enormously serious danger is the terrible impermanence of online repositories of knowledge, the fact that they are controlled by entities whose motives are driven by profit and not by the quest for knowledge. The enormous vulnerability of this model of digital access to knowledge and learning is evident in the ongoing sinister transmogrification of the Coursera site. What remains of the more than thirty courses I have taken on that platform over the span of the past few months is an impression, a memory of the lectures I watched, some of them very interesting, which will no longer be accessible, and thankfully those physical books that I bought and read as a consequence of the interest sparked by those online classes. Beware of relinquishing the caring and transmission of knowledge to entities with their own incompatible agenda. If the MOOC signifies anything about the future of university education, it is only a vision of its worst nightmares: the watering down of content, the rapid elimination of all intellectually viable subjects and their replacement of dubious objects more suitable for the purposes of buying and selling, for the logic of profits. Greater availability of online classes is great and should be pursued, but definitely not through these channels. 

Coursera: "Graphene and 2-dimensional materials", 
University of Manchester (no longer available)