Guest blogger: MOOCs, mom and me

Irene Ogrizek,  Dawson College, Montreal

Irene Ogrizek,
Dawson College, Montreal

Irene Ogrizek teaches English literature at Dawson College in Montreal, Quebec, and has developed online testing in platforms such as WebCT and Moodle. Furthermore, she frequently writes about education and digital technology on her own blog. In this commentary on the developments around MOOCs, she shares a rather personal story that offers some critical remarks on the current MOOC trends and concerns related to potential future impacts. 

Lately, I’ve been writing about MOOCs from a critical perspective, and that perspective has evolved from knowledge I’ve gained in both my private and professional lives. As one of my department’s fast adopters, I’m not opposed to using the internet as a teaching tool. However, it’s precisely my experience with online education that has me worried about the rhetoric I’m hearing from MOOC enthusiasts.

To manage cravings, recovering alcoholics are often told to “play the tape to the end.” It’s an exhortation to consider the entire experience, consequences included, of starting at one drink and ending at twenty. That’s good advice for those of us who aren’t addicted too: when possible, thinking a process through to its natural outcome is useful. MOOC enthusiasts, I suspect, are not playing the tape to the end, creating a worrisome disconnect between shortfalls in a student’s education and in the cost this can have for the rest of us.

In 2008, I had the edifying experience of helping my mother survive a stroke. In the same week, she had her non-paralysed leg amputated. She went from being an active 77 year-old—who swam at the YMCA six days a week—to a person with only one functioning arm. I teach English literature and knew very little about healthcare. She lived far away and since I was her primary caregiver, I wanted to bring her closer. However, there were long waits for nursing homes in my province, and so in the interim, she moved in with me. For 20 months, I climbed a steep curve, learning to nurse a very sick and disabled person.

While caring for my mother, my local authority sent respite caregivers to my home. On one occasion, I walked through my front door and glimpsed my mother in her wheelchair. She was facing the television and had been seated incorrectly. She moved almost imperceptively and as I turned away, she started sliding down. I ran, dropped to my knees and caught her just in time. Had I not done so, it’s likely her hips would have hit the floor and the back of her head would have hit metal foot-rests on her chair. These were potential impacts that, owing to her paralysis, she would have been unable to prevent. Her caregiver, a young woman of about 25, was behind her on the couch, calmly unaware. She sat facing the back of my mother’s chair, in a position that obscured her view.

Of the many caregivers we had, this one belonged to a small and troubling subset. I didn’t know these workers well enough to judge their inadequacies, which is how incidents like this happened. However, I did know that having them in my home was stressful and provided little respite. This particular caregiver’s response was to become angry with me, perhaps for noticing her inattentiveness, and so I asked our social worker not to send her again. She turned up a few days later.

My day job, by comparison, is a relatively safe one. If a student graduates without fully grasping the tenets of postmodernism, no one’s going to get hurt. However, as I listen to various pundits announcing the end of classroom education and asserting that computer-based learning is superior, I wonder how insulated they are against the vagaries of an unevenly educated work force. I wonder how they would cope if, like my mother, they had hit-and-miss help and didn’t have a daughter there to catch them.

A friend of mine teaches at an adult education center. It specializes in vocational skills, teaching adults how to become caregivers. By her own admission, many of her students are there by default and are unsuited for the job; however, like many of us, she is pressured to pass all of them and feels conflicted about diluting course content to make that happen.

She’s not alone. The pressure to pass is exacerbated by the fact that all teachers form one third of a triad that sees them outnumbered by students who often complain when they fail, and by administrators who are under pressure to keep graduate numbers up. That students may be leaving with barely-met competencies is mostly irrelevant because the appearance of success – for the student and the institution — is what counts. This is pressure most of us have felt in our workplaces; it’s pressure my mother would have experienced in a very painful way at home.

Online testing, which I’ve spent years perfecting for grammar lessons, and which is central to MOOCs, has its limitations. With some competencies, it can be like testing a student’s knowledge of physics by evaluating how well he throws a baseball. And I agree with critics who say it will diminish the curriculums leading to it. If Humanities teachers are forced to use multiple choice exams, for example, the fullness of the arguments they teach will be lost. If this reduction is added to the ongoing erosion of professors’ and teachers’ capacities generally, the effect is compounded. Computer-gradable assignments may be economical, but they are bad news for students who are fascinated by detail and who like to see themselves as individuals. They are even worse for people like my mother: those among us who are infirm and vulnerable and stand to be harmed the most by incompetent graduates.

So it’s probably because of its limitations that MOOC enthusiasts are using the language of the hard sell.

Don Tapscott of the University of Toronto tells us:

…the presidents of Harvard, Stanford and MIT all readily acknowledged that the experiments in new models of online learning will soon radically disrupt higher learning. One expert…predicted there may only be 10 universities that survive this transition.

Daphne Koller of Stanford tells us:

…it’s also about people. Whether it’s Akash, who comes from a small town in India and would never have access in this case to a Stanford-quality course and would never be able to afford it. Or Jenny, who is a single mother of two and wants to hone her skills so she can go back and complete her master’s degree. Or Ryan, who can’t go to school, because his immune deficient daughter can’t be risked [sic]to have germs come into the house.

And Team Edx team reassures us:

‘Here’s a machine [essay] grader that can grade just as perceptively as you, but by the way, even though it can replace your labor, it’s not going to take your job.’

So MOOC supporters are using fear and guilt and expendability to sell us on their product. It’s no wonder Diane Ravitch, Research Professor of Education at New York University, frequently references attacks on educators and asserts that “phony solutions” now being put forward by people like Gates won’t improve education at all. Ravitch is referring to the public school system in the U.S., but her words are valid for all of us.

Playing the tape to the end also means heeding history. That happens when we acknowledge that predictions regarding the demise of the classroom are nothing new. They accompanied the advent of mail delivery, the invention of the phonograph, radio, film and television too. Come to think of it, that sounds like a great topic for a non-MOOC course: the History of Education 101.