Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Tabarrok on MOOC: Interesting but....

Over at Marginal Revolution, Alex Tabarrok has an extremely interesting post comparing education and music performance.  At its core is an analogy: the student’s experience of learning is like the listener’s experience of hearing music.  Best of all possible worlds is having direct, personal exposure to the best: being in the best classroom with the best professor or in the club or concert hall with the best musicians.  But recorded music has become the vast majority of all music because live music by great performers is too expensive to provide more than the occasional listening experience for most people.  Moreover, the flexibility and repeatability of recordings gives the listener many more choices in when, where and how to listen.  No reasonable person would want to ban or even discourage recorded music.  So why not embrace digital dissemination of education?

Again, this is a great post and an aid to thinking clearly.  My concern is that the analogy is wrong, however.  Educating students is not like entertaining or inspiring a musical audience; it is like educating musicians.  Education is about creating something—an ability to accomplish certain feats of understanding, technique and problem-solving.  This is also true about educating musicians in particular.  Could music instruction be carried out separate from direct contact with music teachers?  For centuries it has, in part.  That’s what all the books of etudes were about.  (I learned a lot about music and the piano from working through the first half or so of Bartok’s Mikrocosmos.)  But only in part.

What this tells me is that there is a big future for online education.  I think the methods are still rather primitive, in fact, and its value will become clearer when people learn how to employ the technology more creatively—and as the technology itself advances.  But to learn is to create something, and there is no reason to believe just yet that this process can be entirely solitary, separated from the give and take between teacher and student or student and peers.  Digitize this and we can revisit this question.


Anonymous said...

"Recording also let musicians truly hear and thus compare, contrast and improve. Most teachers will also benefit from hearing and seeing themselves teach. With recording, teaching will become more like writing and less like improv. How many people write perfect first drafts? Good writing is editing, editing, editing. Live teaching suffers from too much improv and not enough editing. Sometimes I improv in class–also called winging it–but like most people I am usually better when I am better prepared. (Tyler, in contrast, is the Charlie Parker of live teaching.)"

There is an assumption about both live teaching and online teaching. Both can suffer from improv, both can benefit from editing. For instance, teachers can film themselves in class, receive feedback from colleagues who sit in on their courses, etc. In short, the ability to edit is not confined to the online courses.

Moreover, there is another key form of feedback that is lacking with MOOCs--student feedback. Profs can gauge whether they need augment or change their lesson plan, and if so what needs to be changed, based upon their interactions with students during a course.

This is sort of arguing for a 'one size fits all' lesson plan where if you edit and rehearse enough, your lesson will be great. Well, that ignores the variables known as student, a variable fairly well hidden for teachers of online courses. Yes, there is some feedback from students with MOOCS, but is it accurate or beneficial?

This brings up another issue with online courses. I am enrolled in a MOOC, and there are over 40,000 students enrolled. How well received is student feedback, and can the professor truly put to good use that feedback? First, there is the size of the course--does AT really believe that there is a one size fits 40,000 teaching plan out there?

Second, assume that just a quarter of students are providing feedback that is representative of the entire course. That's 10,000 emails/correspondance the professor has read and digest. How long does it take for that process to play out?

Anonymous said...

"My concern is that the analogy is wrong, however. Educating students is not like entertaining or inspiring a musical audience; it is like educating musicians."

Yes! Music appreciation is good. Especially is middle school (in terms of the analogy). But at the college level students have to be going to the woodshed (musical parlance for practicing).

Unknown said...

In some cases on-line education can include full feedback - video conferencing, group blogs, bulletin boards. But in these cases there is no savings in labor. It takes as much effort on the part of the teacher and student to interact as it does in person. The one advantage is that the interaction can be between people widely scattered. So you could offer an advanced music class to someone in a remote rural area with no qualified music teachers. Or people in varied remote rural areas, none of which have enough interested students to support an advanced music teacher could jointly take an on-line class from someone in, say Boston. But that solves an access problem. It does not solve the productivity problem. There is no labor saving. In fact dealing with technical issues plus normal teaching load may require more effort than in person teaching