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Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Princeton Professor teaches Coursera course; you must be kidding me!


I don’t recall ever agreeing with anything Thomas Friedman has ever written in the New York Times, but this Sunday’s article was especially ridiculous.

He was again extolling the glories of the coming education revolution led by MOOCs.

This is part of what he wrote:

“Mitch Duneier, a Princeton sociology professor, wrote: “A few months ago,  40,000 students from 113 countries arrived here via the Internet to take a free course in introductory sociology. ... My opening discussion of C. Wright Mills’s classic 1959 book, ‘The Sociological Imagination,’ was a close reading of the text, in which I reviewed a key chapter line by line. I asked students to follow along in their own copies, as I do in the lecture hall. When I give this lecture on the Princeton campus, I usually receive a few penetrating questions. In this case, however, within a few hours of posting the online version, the course forums came alive with hundreds of comments and questions. Several days later there were thousands. ... Within three weeks I had received more feedback on my sociological ideas than I had in a career of teaching, which significantly influenced each of my subsequent lectures and seminars.””
Friedman mentions this because he thinks it is a wonderful thing, I suppose. Let’s consider what this professor actually said:
My opening discussion of C. Wright Mills’s classic 1959 book, ‘The Sociological Imagination,’ was a close reading of the text, in which I reviewed a key chapter line by line.
Well, isn’t that just education at its finest? Princeton should be proud. Not only are they still lecturing, a relic of the Middle Ages when students didn’t have books and monks read them to them, but the professor is reading it line by line. The analysis of a text is a scholarly activity done by intellectuals, and when done with students, it is part of an effort to create more intellectuals. Does Professor think that the world needs 40,000 more sociology intellectuals? When this stuff happens at Princeton, it is still isn’t really good educational practice, but Princeton does try to produce intellectuals for the most part.

When done with 40,000 students from 113 countries, this is is simply fraud. There is no need for them to read a text in this way. Far from being a revolutionary new practice that will eliminate universities as Friedman says, this kind of activity is perpetuating the very thing that is wrong with universities --- their distance from the real world.

within a few hours of posting the online version, the course forums came alive with hundreds of comments and questions. Several days later there were thousands. ...

It is nice that there were thousands of comments. How many did you respond to Professor Duneier?

I assume the answer is “none.” As a professor, not responding to a student, is, in my mind, the worst thing one can do. Education is about the dialogue between professor and student. This is why classrooms, especially large classrooms, are a terrible idea. They limit discussion. When I taught at Yale and Northwestern I never assigned readings. just topics for discussion. And then we discussed. If you had 30 or 40 students you could get into some good arguments, especially if I had assigned a provocative question to think about. (“What does it mean to learn” was one I often used.)

Your job professor is not to notice how many nice discussions students have with each other. But it is his last line that got me:

Within three weeks I had received more feedback on my sociological ideas than I had in a career of teaching, which significantly influenced each of my subsequent lectures and seminars.

So, the Coursera experience was good for you eh? Nice to hear.

But the issue is that universities have always been good for the faculty. Places like Princeton are run by the faculty for the faculty. No one teaches much. No one cares about anything but PhD students and research.  Undergraduates sit in lecture halls in order to pass the time between football games and parties. No one cares because they all windup with impressive Princeton degrees.

Friedman is right that online will change universities, but not the kind of online that Coursera is providing.

Just yesterday, there were thousands of visits to a lecture of mine that is on line because it was assigned as part of a Coursera course. I find that very funny since my lecture was about why lectures don’t work (oh the irony!) and why learning requires doing and why universities should stop teaching scholarly subjects and start teaching students skills they can use in real life.
Yes change is coming. Too bad Mr Friedman doesn’t have clue why. Here it s. We can build mentored learn by doing courses online that challenge current teaching practice. They won’t be offered by Princeton because Princeton likes what it has now. But change is coming, just not the change Coursera or Friedman had in mind.



2 comments:

Ted Dintersmith said...

Great post. I am convinced that those writing about the revolutionary impact of offerings from companies like Coursera have never sampled any of the courses. I think the best you can say about many of the current generation of MOOC's is that they bring radical efficiencies to a totally failed model. There's a good reason the completion percentage is less than 10% -- it's because the lectures are boring, the assessment tests are pedestrian, and it's unlikely any persevering student will learn anything of consequence from the experience.

morganya said...

I'd have to go back and watch the actual class and look at the actual message boards to know for sure (did you look at either of these yourself? it's unclear), but it sounds like you blatantly and possibly willfully misinterpret what the professor means by "I reviewed a key chapter line by line." I've had classes like this, where "review" doesn't mean "read verbatim," it means "discuss the implications of" - it's a close reading as you would do to a poem in a poetry class.

Moreover, do you really expect the professor to respond to thousands of posts!? That is NOT one of the strengths - and, in fact, is one of the biggest weaknesses - of MOOCs. I would hope that the students were responding to one another and creating a good discussion that way, just as I hope the professor does engage with students who are enrolled in his face-to-face, presumably much smaller Princeton class.

I don't think MOOCs are particularly "revolutionary" - that claim has been levied against so many tech-centric education reforms in the past, most of which were a flash in the pan at best - but at least be fair in your critiques.