The Press Reads: Teaching Machines

The following post about MOOCs is an excerpt of Teaching MachinesLearning from the Intersection of Education and Technology, by Bill Ferster

The allure of educational technology is easy to understand. In almost every other area of our modern world, machines have significantly contributed to modern life, but they are largely missing from our schools. A nineteenth-century visitor would feel quite at home in a modern classroom, even at our most elite institutions of higher learning. People have looked to machines to solve issues in most other endeavors in their lives, hoping to gain improved efficiency, cost, and time savings. So it is not surprising that technology has been employed for both noble (better learning outcomes) and less than noble reasons (teacher proofing).

At the college level, the pressures of skyrocketing costs and competition from e-learning have made online educational technology a source of much discussion. Teresa Sullivan, the president of the University of Virginia, was summarily fired in a coup d’etat in 2012 (and subsequently rehired because of protests from an outraged faculty and campus community) ostensibly because the university’s governing board of visitors perceived her not to be embracing online education rapidly enough.

New York University professor Clay Shirky makes a strong point that the college experience we fantasize for our children, where white-haired professors wearing leather-patched tweed jackets discuss literature in small seminars, is a reality only for a very small percentage of students at elite institutions. “The top 50 colleges on the U.S. News and World Report list (which includes most of the ones you’ve heard of) only educate something like 3 percent of the current student population.” The majority of students sit in impersonal classes with hundreds of other students to be lectured by instructors of varying competence, and they emerge from college with a degree plus often a crushing burden of debt. It is little wonder that the siren song of the new forms of technology-driven and potentially scalable forms of education such as e-learning is resonating with some higher education leaders.

If one is to believe the press, from obscure educational journals to the New York Times, the teaching machine for the start of the twenty-first century is the MOOC. Massive open online courses are the latest contender, where courses from commercial companies and prestigious universities such as Stanford, MIT, and Harvard are offered online to huge numbers of participants, often thousands at a time. There are those who view MOOCs as the savior to managing the ever-spiraling cost of higher education, and others who see them as sowing the seeds of the demise of the university as we know it. The truth, of course, lies somewhere between.

It is important to see some of the potentially threatening innovations such as MOOCs in the same way that their providers see them: as experiments. Daphne Koller, co-founder of venture-capital-funded MOOC developer Coursera, views the MOOC as an unprecedented opportunity to use the large numbers of people to scientifically test what works by doing controlled experiments she refers to as “A/B testing,” where a change is made to instruction for some population of students and not for others. Because of the large numbers of students not typically available in traditional educational research, the results of the change can be tested empirically for its effectiveness and the overall instruction changed accordingly.

Clearly, students need to be prepared to use the technological tools of their generation; today that means the computer or tablet. But the successful introduction of technology in whole-class instruction does not easily fit the teaching methods currently employed in most U.S. schools. The majority of K–12 schools do not provide students with laptops or encourage them to use them in the classroom. When they do, students are disruptively herded into computer labs, or carts filled with laptops are wheeled in for specific curricular activities. The use of individual computers makes teachers less willing to introduce technology into their classrooms because it interferes with the whole-class nature of current instructional practice. Contrast this with the almost uniform adoption of digital projectors and “smart boards,” which evolved directly from the last generation of education technology, the film projector and the chalkboard.

One of the more concerning issues about the commercial MOOC providers is the source of their funding, venture capitalists. Venture capital is provided by investment firms to fund early stage companies. These firms typically invest in a large number of startups with the assumption that 90 percent of them will fail, but the 10 percent that thrive will yield a return on investment of at least 300 percent (known as a “3-bagger”). This strategy has been extremely successful in the high-technology sector and in large part is responsible for the phenomenal products and companies that have emerged from Silicon Valley. Venture capital firms provide a strong support network to help guide new entrepreneurs, but their model has its darker side.

There is an inherent instability in any “disposable” relationship. The funded companies typically cede a significant amount of control in exchange for the millions of dollars they receive. When the company delivers the kinds of profits that the funders see as significant, that control can be very constructive and nurturing. But if the company underperforms or takes longer to deliver, it can find itself among the “walking dead,” with just enough capital to stay in business but not enough to grow, closed down completely, or merged with another of the firm’s portfolio of funded companies.

Bill Ferster is a research professor at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education and the director of visualization for the Sciences, Humanities & Arts Technology Initiative (SHANTI). He is the author of  Teaching Machines: Learning from the Intersection of Education and Technology and Interactive Visualization: Insight through Inquiry.