Monday, July 23, 2012

Coursera, or Teacher Learn Thyself

As a proponent of free, open resources, and someone who hubristically believes they know a bit about online education (most likely a false belief, but we all need our illusions), I thought it might be good to jump into the world of MOOCs - Massive Open Online Courses. This week, my education began.

MOOCs are a rapidly growing area of education that has the potential to be incredibly destabilizing, at least to the current higher education model as it exists today. edX, MITx, Udacity, and now Coursera are some of the organizations, or entities, pursuing this model. At some point in the recent to mid past, I had put myself on a mailing list for Coursera, but as I hazily recall, at the time I looked at Coursera, the courses on offer were STEM focused, and thus not something I'd attempt to touch other than at gunpoint. Did I want to study computer science? No, not really. What about artificial intelligence? Possibly. It's something I am interested in, and if presented through a humanities framework, probably a something I might try. But since the course seemed to involve math higher than basic addition and subtraction, I took a pass. None of the initial courses offered by Coursera interested me, but the initiative still seemed a neat idea that I should keep an eye on.

Well the initiative turned out to appeal to a broad swath of people from around the world. Since launching, 1.5 million+ students have signed up for courses. The artificial intelligence course I took a pass on ended up having 50,000+ students enrolled. Only a small fraction of those students ended up passing the course, but then that's a good thing. Of the 46,500+ students who did not make the cut, they all learned, for free, a lesson that every debt burdened higher-ed dropout wishes they had learned - that not everybody grows up to be an astronaut (tip o' the hat to E.L. Kersten).

Which brings me to the key thing that motivated this post. Now, I love university, and the university life. I didn't do the standard four year run, due to finances, ending up finishing my B.A. over a more sedate seven year stretch, and I am currently in the fifth year of an MFA, just starting my thesis in poetry. (I know... I know... but still I like it). Yet university is a massively expensive proposition for the average person, and the ROI for almost any degree is nearly negligible at the outset. At best, getting a Bachelors, or a Masters is akin to investing in a 30 year bond. It'll pay out eventually, but you have to wait a while.

For a guy like me, who likes reading, likes writing, like wrestling with esoterica that has nothing whatsoever to do with the world of work, money, or practical and applicable skills, university is great. That's my thing, you know. I like it. I'm good at it. I can't rebuild an engine, and can barely change the oil on my car, but analyze a text? I've got six shooters in both holsters, my friend.

But then, isn't that kind of useless, in a practical sense? The humanities don't add value to the world in the physical sense. They don't build houses, or design telecommunications arrays. But isn't the point of existence in this modern age that we don't have to live as our hunter-gatherer forbears did - with each and every day focused only on practical tasks necessary for survival? Music, art, novels, and movies are all completely unnecessary for survival, completely impractical, yet they are what make the day to day of life worthwhile for so many. They are, in a word, fun.

This is the reason I signed up for these Coursera courses. I like the humanities. I like musicology. Paying thousands of dollars for these courses would be a reckless indulgence for my family, financially, and would offer no benefit to us monetarily. I may have been imprudently indulgent in pursuing a B.A. in Creative Writing, and now an M.F.A. in Creative Writing, instead of trying for an MBA or JD, but I can defend my choice of degree in that I will end up with a graduate degree, period. The credential will be something I can leverage for my family's benefit. In my line of work, regardless of experience or intelligence, the difference between a Master and Bachelors translates into a whole swathe of better job opportunities, and extra income. That I am studying something I enjoy, and am good at, is a bonus. But if not for the fact that I can use my degree for a practical purpose, and have the ability to complete it, pursuing it would have been purest folly.

I keep reading articles about millions of students in the US and Canada who enter into university, only to drop out with a mountain of debt, and these stories always upset me. I really hate the precedence of the academic credential in the modern world, because the end result is a highly destructive and self-defeating educational paradigm. Students go to high school to prepare for university, and anything less is frowned upon. Based just on the dropout rates for high school and university, there are a heck of a lot of people not cut out for higher education. Yet so many feel pressured to give it a go, and universities capitalize on this.

Anybody who has ever sat in a massive lecture hall in a first year introductory course has taken part in a scam. Where I did my B.A., at York University in Toronto, I had to take two "Foundations" courses. These were 9 credit courses (With 30 credits being a full load) where a single professor would lecture to over 500 students, while TAs (always grad students being paid a pittance) would lead smaller groups in seminars. Since I was going to school in Canada, the tuition was not outrageous. Maybe $200 and change per credit. Still, that amounted to $1800 per student, for a total of nearly $1,000,000 for the course. In the US, where the per credit course is that much higher... you can do the math.

So what's wrong with this? Well these courses are often used to separate the serious students from those who should not be at university. They are marketed relentlessly, and are usually forced upon students as a requirement, with the result being that a sizable portion of the students who paid for these classes deciding to eventually drop out. It makes sense for the university in that these courses are money-makers, and often go a long way to supporting the budgets of entire departments, yet for all those students who end up walking away with nothing but debt, the experience was anything but beneficial.

Some students will have dropped out due to financial constraints, but with the readily available, and seemingly free-flowing credit laying around for students who simply want to give university a go, it is probably more likely that those who dropped out did so because the learned that university level education was not right for them. The level of reading, the writing requirements, whatever it may be, these students ended up learning, to their detriment, that they made a HUGE mistake.

And this is where something like Coursera is a godsend. Imagine if, in the final year of high school, students were required to take a Coursera style university course. Not for marks, but just as a participation requirement, just to determine wether university education was right for them. The first, and immediate effect, I believe, would be a massive reduction in the number of students giving college a go. These students would see university level education for what it is, not good or bad, but difficult and not for everyone, and might perhaps then be open to alternatives, to trade schools, vocational programs, or entry-level positions with on-the-job learning.

This is how something like Coursera could be destabilizing for the current higher education paradigm. It pulls the curtain back on the wizard, dispelling the marketing slogans, and enticing offers. It allows those who love to learn in a community of learners to do so. For those who are not quite prepared for the university level, it offers a risk-free opportunity to experience higher-education.

Over the summer, I will be doing two courses through Coursera - a course in World Music offered by The University of Pennsylvania, and a course about Science Fiction offered by the University of Michigan. I'll post my thoughts about it from time to time, how the course operates, and perhaps posting some of my assignments and the associated lectures or texts (where copyright allows).

It should be fun!

No comments:

Post a Comment