Why MOOCs won’t work: point 666

You like this MOOC?!

You like this MOOC?!

Once upon a time I was a teaching-award-winning professor at Vanderbilt University. I won a student-selected teaching award from the graduating class of 1994—in my first four years of teaching at Vanderbilt the students selected me as one of the top 10 all-time professors. My teaching evaluations were always at least a half a point above the department mean for courses at that level (except for those two courses in demography, which were only average), and my grade point averages were always more than half a point below the departmental average. None of my colleagues wanted to teach introduction to sociology, particularly not pre-tenure, because the students were vicious in their evaluations. I taught packed courses of around 60 students in my “core” courses on intro and American Social Movements. In my last section of intro, I had 60 students and received a perfect 5.0 score in my teaching evaluations. The last lecture ended on the same sentence I ended the first lecture in the class (when all of the students were thinking “who is this idiot and why doesn’t he dress nicer?”). “Well, as far as I can tell. I don’t know. I’m not sure what sociology is, anyway.” The class applauded. Students were crying. Granted, they knew it was my last lecture at Vanderbilt, but it was intro, it’s not like these were my grad students or something. I could have been a MOOCER!!!!!!

Yeah, right. Let’s get this shit straight. The whole MOOC bullshit is predicated on the idea that the “great lecturers” at top universities are somehow more able to teach to the masses, and will democratize knowledge by providing the same education for people at Southeast Missouri State that is available at Harvard, MIT, and the like. Bullshit. Like any crap ass MOOC, my own MOOC–based on the most popular and highly evaluated social science course at a top university with considerable teaching focus—would be an absolute disaster. “Wow, who is that crazy guy on the computer, and why is he using such big words?” “Who is this Marx guy, and why did he want to fuck Feuerbach? Is that an analogy? What’s an analogy.” The bottom line is my courses worked because the students were required to read primary texts from Marx, Weber, Durkheim, Blau, Emerson, and Marcuse (that was just exam 1….out of four). They were expected to read these works in advance of my lecture, and they had the capacity to do so—even if many of them often did not. I never had a textbook at Vanderbilt, and the substantive sections of my introductory course were purely based on my lecture notes on topics like “family” “criminology” “race and ethnicity” “gender” and the like. In the substantive sections, students were required to read articles from recent top-tier journals—generally American Sociological Review and Social Forces (AJS charged extra for “courspacks” after the Kinko’s decision, so I didn’t use things from AJS after 1993 or so). There were no multiple guess exams, only short and long-answer essays. I graded all of the exams myself for most of the course I taught, and in 10 years there were only three graduate students I trusted to evaluate my students: Mary Karpos, Chris Mowery, and Candi Batton.

So, how many students at your average Cal State at Bumbfuck, CUNY in the hood, Southwesteasternnorthern Texas State, or Southern Illinois are actually able to prepare  for understanding a lecture on Marx or Weber or Durkheim delivered by an eloquent lecturer who is shooting above the bow? How many can read current articles from top sociological journals, or pay attention and take notes on additional lecture material not covered in those articles?  Let me give you a straight answer, about 2%. While virtually 100% of Vanderbilt students were in a position to learn from what I did, only about 2% of SIU students would be able to excel at that level of pedagogy, and maybe another 10% would be able to merely survive with a C or a D. My Intro class at Vanderbilt would be a 400-level course here, and I’d have to adjust the curve.  And, I was actually in the classroom at Vanderbilt. A real, live human being who expected them to show up for my lectures and exams. If we MOOC it, then the small fraction of students who might have a legitimate shot of passing my course would be further disadvantaged by only basically watching the lectures on glorified television. Telecourses, we used to call them back in the Junior College Days. They were a miserable failure.

I can’t think of a worse idea than to make glorified internet telecourses from the courses taught by top teachers at elite universities. These are of no value to the students, and simply will do what all research shows that they are doing—causing most students to fail, underachieve, and lose interest in education.


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