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The MOOCs and the A’s, B’s and C’s of education.

In 2012MOOCs promised, in a roundabout way, to change the way education delivered. In mythical MOOCland, education would no longer be tied to place or constrained by numbers. It didn’t quite work out that way, but like any trip to a far off land, the MOOC experience teaches us some  ‘home truths’ about education. The educational system isn’t really about delivering educational excellence and a lot of the time, it isn’t even about delivering education. Rather, the education system is actually focused on delivering adequate outcomes and protecting social cohesion.The theory of MOOCs was that putting a recording of a lecturer up on the Internet, the masses were finally going to be educated. Distance, class and money would no longer be a barrier to participating in education.

Unsurprisingly, this unreasonable expectation didn’t work out. A large proportion, maybe 70 percent of signer-uppers don’t show up. Only 10 percent actually complete the course.

Now, the first thing I would say is that the naysayers are overly critical. Even if only a tiny proportion of students actually complete these courses, the sheer number of people (thousands, or even tens of thousands) embarking on MOOCs means that they still deliver a very significant amount of learning, and at a very low marginal cost. This is not as big a success as originally hyped, but it is still an immense success. Opening learning, delivered for free to ordinary people really does work. People engage with it and learn from it.

Well, 10 percent of the people anyway. It is probably fair to say, that these successful MOOCers are the best people, the smartest, the hardest working. Teaching them fits in well with what is called ‘the pursuit of excellence’. These courses succeed in sorting the wheat from the chaff, to bring forward the people who are really interested, motivated and capable. The pursuit of excellence is supposed to be one of the objectives of education, especially places like Harvard, which is one of the big movers in this space (and hats off to them for being a front-runner).

But really, the pursuit of academic excellence is one of the cliches of the educational system which you read about again. (In Ireland, just to take a quick sample, TCD history department does it. as does the School of Computer Science. Towards the other end of the spectrum, IT Blanchardstown has excellence as a value. That famous centre of research and post-leaving cert education (community college), the Monaghan Institute, promises academic excellence as just the starting point.

So what’s the problem? Well, the objective of education isn’t necessarily the pursuit of academic excellence. Talking about excellence is a good way to justify the costs and sell the benefits of education to public administrators. everyone likes to be associated with excellence. But higher education isn’t about the pursuit of excellence any more than any other industry. Education is mostly the pursuit of trying to bring a lot of people of average level along and making sure that the weakest people don’t fall too far behind within the context of a budget that is smaller than you would like. This is a more humble, but extremely honourable function to play in our society. It is the function that makes education such an important engine for human progress.

It also turns out that this is the difficult part of education and the part which MOOCs unsurprisingly don’t do very well at. I should say that I have some family background in the broader area. My mum spent 30 years at the cutting edge of remedial education, working with children with learning problems in some of Dublin’s most deprived areas. The most important lesson I learned from her about it was that education is really about dealing with the reality of the educational triage. In any classroom or indeed in any human grouping there will always be three groups, the strongest (call them the ‘A’s) the weakest (the ‘C’s) and the average kids (the ‘B’s). Now, this is a statistical fact, not an empirical observation and it applies to any grouping, no matter how dull, or how brainy.

Typically, the B’s are the biggest group. Despite this, the teacher typically spends most time dealing with the C’s because the most important thing is that they don’t fall too far behind the rest of the group. If they do, the whole cohesion of the classroom will collapse. The A’s will probably find their own way in any case.

Even an actual centre of academic excellence like Harvard has to deal with C students, and that institution has a focused remedial effort to deal with it, or at least aspects of it. It’s called ‘The Writing Centre‘. By having this centre, Harvard is dealing with the reality that learning, and in particular self-expression is hard and a lot of people need help, even people with the sort of background and scores that got them to leafy Cambridge in the first place. This is an example of the sort of support that isn’t really available, either formally or informally on MOOCs

So it’s pretty obvious what MOOCs have done. They’ve facilitated the A’s, but haven’t done much for the C students, or even for the B students. The key to ‘solving’ the MOOC problem is to figure out how to use MOOCs to provide the help and motivation to the weaker or even the average student.

So what could be done? Well, one thing is to provide a more ‘interactive’ learning experience. To learn math, for example, there has to be a better way than looking at lectures, through actually puzzling out problems with appropriate, automated support and help. Frequent questionnaires can help keep learning ‘active’ and can provide a measurement of both engagement and understanding for the course organizers.

The key, though is to keep the ‘mass’ in MOOC. It has to be able to scale. If it can’t, it isn’t much more than distance learning or learning by correspondence. This won’t suit all academic work, but it can be a good way to learn the basis, freeing up teaching resources for more advanced topics. So far so good.

But there is still a problem.

Education is not just funded to turn out students with mediocre but useful abilities. It is provided because it is a system of social control. As a society, we fund education in large part because it provides a safe place for the 17-23 year old children of the middle classes, who are too smart and mature to keep in school, but not near wise enough to be allowed into the mainstream of the sophisticated modern workplace. That is why we as a society put up with academics, their odd work habits, their odd work outputs, their constant demands for more money and their occasionally odd behaviour. We do it because they in turn are expected to put up with our kids’ cantankerous behaviour and secretly, we are grateful to them for willingly fulfilling this function.

This social role (call it ‘personal and social development’ or ‘social containment and engineering’ depending on your worldview) is the one which MOOCs as we know them will never be able to fulfil to any great degree. That is why we will probably still need physical colleges and universities, and the educators who inhabit them for some time to come.

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