Dumbed-down math and other per­ils of on­line col­lege class

The Pak Banker - - OPINION - Norman Mat­loff

FOR the first time, state leg­is­la­tors in the U.S. may re­quire their pub­lic univer­si­ties to grant stu­dents credit for on­line cour­ses given by out­side providers. A bill in­tro­duced in the Cal­i­for­nia Se­nate would ex­tend this con­ces­sion only when a re­quired class is full and not of­fered on­line at the col­lege. The leg­is­la­tion, which is ex­pected to be adopted in some form, has been hailed na­tion­ally as a leap for mas­sive open on­line cour­ses -- MOOCs, for short.

Ad­vo­cates pitch MOOCs as classes for the masses, en­abling a res­i­dent of, say, the Gobi Desert to study nu­clear physics. Those who op­pose the spread of such an ide­al­is­tic move­ment are dis­missed as Lud­dites who wish to re­strict higher ed­u­ca­tion to a priv­i­leged few. But if al­tru­ism is the driver, why were two ma­jor pur­vey­ors of MOOCs, Cours­era Inc. and Udac­ity Inc., es­tab­lished as for-profit com­pa­nies? (A third new ven­ture, edX, is a not-for-profit con­sor­tium.)

One can't blame pub­lic of­fi­cials for look­ing for cheaper modes of in­struc­tion. The ven­tures can also gen­er­ate rev­enue for col­leges that mar­ket their con­tent to the on­line ven­dors.

But the U.S. univer­sity sys­tem is a na­tional crown jewel, one of few re­main­ing ad­van­tages we have over our eco­nomic com­peti­tors. We should care­fully con­sider the qual­ity of the MOOCs be­fore evis­cer­at­ing this sec­tor for some short-sighted gain. Rather than giv­ing more young Amer­i­cans a quicker path to a col­lege de­gree, we might end up dumbing down the value of that piece of pa­per.

Even a cur­sory look at typ­i­cal Web-based cour­ses shows them to be just that -- cur­sory. They tend to teach mere out­lines of the sub­ject, lack­ing the thought-pro­vok­ing na­ture of a cur­ricu­lum de­liv­ered in per­son. In ex­ams, MOOCs of­ten re­place prob­ing es­says or math­e­mat­i­cal anal­y­sis with sim­ple, mul­ti­ple­choice ques­tions.

In fair­ness, the MOOC com­pa­nies of­fer a num­ber of in­ter­est­ing spe­cialty cour­ses, valu­able for non­stu­dents wish­ing to ac­quire an over­view of the sub­ject mat­ter. Yet cau­tion is re­quired as MOOC lead­ers seek full univer­sity credit for many of their cour­ses. Con­sider the Univer­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia cal­cu­lus course of­fered through Cours­era, one of the first MOOCs ap­proved for col­lege credit by the Amer­i­can Coun­cil on Ed­u­ca­tion. The ma­te­rial is at­trac­tively pre­sented, but there is only a to­tal of 15 hours of lec­ture for the en­tire course -- com­pared with about 45 hours for the reg­u­lar Penn cal­cu­lus course. Are the MOOC ad­vo­cates really claim­ing the same qual­ity is achieved? And though the home­work prob­lems are good, there are far fewer of them than in a tra­di­tional class.

Also dis­turb­ing are the grade dis­tri­bu­tions in the Penn MOOC cal­cu­lus ex­ams: In­stead of the usual bell-shaped curve, the grades are skewed far to the right, with the most com­mon scores be­ing per­fect or al­most so. Although Cours­era might in­ter­pret this as val­i­dat­ing the ef­fec­tive­ness of the MOOC ap­proach, the more likely ex­pla­na­tion is that it re­flects the lighter de­mands placed on the stu­dents.

Some pro­po­nents of on­line in­struc­tion have claimed that it could act as a lev­eler for the poor, whose high schools have few or no Ad­vanced Place­ment cour­ses. This may ease lib­eral guilt, but it's a cruel hoax. Lack­ing the aca­demic street smarts of the more priv­i­leged stu­dents, dis­ad­van­taged young peo­ple need the face-to-face ed­u­ca­tional ex­pe­ri­ence even more. For this pop­u­la­tion, the chances of pass­ing the Ad­vanced Place­ment cal­cu­lus exam based on a MOOC are prob­a­bly very slim.

If on­line in­ter­ac­tion is as good as claimed, why are chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cers of MOOC com­pa­nies go­ing on road­shows to sell their prod­ucts? In­ter­ac­tive we­bi­nars should suf­fice, shouldn't they? The road­shows, I was told by an en­thu­si­as­tic col­league, pro­vide the MOOC CEOs with "real in­ter­ac­tion with the fac­ulty." So pro­fes­sors need "real in­ter­ac­tion" with MOOC ex­ec­u­tives but not with MOOC stu­dents? Yes, plac­ing in­struc­tional ma­te­rial on­line should be en­cour­aged. All of my class ma­te­ri­als -- home­work, ex­ams and full open-source text­books - - are avail­able on the Web. And I am not de­fend­ing the age-old sys­tem of pro­fes­sors writ­ing on the black­board while stu­dents du­ti­fully take notes, which is cer­tainly not my ap­proach. But I teach in per­son, not im­per­son­ally to thou­sands of un­seen, un­known peo­ple around the globe. An old Woody Allen joke sums it up: "I took a course in speed read­ing, and I fin­ished 'War and Peace' in 20 min­utes. It in­volves Rus­sia."

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