Can a MOOC teach course content to anyone, anywhere? It’s an imagination-grabbing idea. Maybe everyone could learn about topics from the greatest teachers in the world! Create the class once, and millions could learn from it!
It seems like an exciting idea. Until you realize that the entire history of human-computer interaction is about showing us that one size doesn’t fit all.
I went to two terrific talks on MOOCs a few weeks ago. At the GVU Brown Bag, Karen Head and Rebecca Burnett talked about their brave attempt to teach an English composition class free online, for anyone interested. They encountered intriguing challenges. The course said you needed to be fluent in English as a prerequisite, but some people who signed up were far from fluent. The course did reach people all over the world, but some of those people disapproved of Karen’s style of dress. Her attire was conservative by American standards, but the world is a big place and some people felt otherwise and said so, loudly. The instructors used YouTube as part of assignments, but YouTube is banned some of the countries their students live in. Trying to accommodate everyone everywhere turned out to be a stressful endeavor.
The second talk was by Ed Cutrell of Microsoft Research India at the ACM Learning at Scale conference. Ed has been studying engineering education in India. He explained that the top-level universities in India serve about 40,000 engineering students per year. The rest of the universities serve another 4,000,000 engineering students per year. The quality of teaching at lower tier universities in India is wildly variable. In some cases, the instructors don’t know the material themselves. Many aren’t career teachers, but are teaching on a temporary basis until they can find an engineering job. Given those constraints, Ed and colleagues are using a blended learning model where short videos by experts are followed by class discussion. With this approach, the instructor and students learn the material together. Trying to respond to the particularities of a learning context, Ed was able to design a successful solution.
If I am designing a class, even if I limit my audience to “Georgia Tech students,” that isn’t a specific enough. I would design a different class for undergraduates versus graduate students, for computer science (CS) majors versus majors in computational media (CM). I don’t always have the luxury of making those classes different—economics dictates that the CS and CM majors take almost all their classes together. Financial considerations push us to generalize.
Do you own any clothing that is one-size-fits-all? It works great for my nightshirts, but it wouldn’t work if I tried it for pants. And there are some people who don’t fit into one-size-fits-all, even for nightshirts. The analogy to online classes works pretty well. There are a few simple things where one size will work tolerably well. But in most cases we should stop trying to make one size fit all.
Well, I honestly didn’t expect my last post to cause a stir—I think I hit a nerve. So I want to summarize some excellent points people made in response.
First, I think a better title for the post would be, “People should be more reflective about why and how much they travel.” Forgive my rhetorical flourish of calling academic travel “evil.” But the story at the start of the post is true, and I was genuinely annoyed. Some other important points:
Stage of Career
You definitely need to travel more earlier in your career—you’re building a social network. How much more is the tricky part. For grad students and pre-tenured faculty, it helps to have a mentor whose advice you can trust. Someone you can ask, “Should I go to this?”
Kids & Tenure
My reluctance to travel is very much based on my parenting style and priorities. (Please play “Cat’s in the Cradle” by Cat Stevens while reading this paragraph.) But my kids were born after I had tenure, and my pulling back from travel happened as a tenured faculty member. Could I have traveled less pre-tenure? I think so–somewhat. Junior faculty parents are in a tough spot. But there’s nothing wrong with putting family first, if that’s your choice.
When my kids are older I’ll definitely start traveling more.
The Other “Kids”—Your Lab Group
Do you know someone who is always on the road, and spends very little time with his/her graduate students? Who is strongly invested in running a big lab group and having big grants, but not particularly invested in the success of those students?
For some graduate students (the kind who just want to be left alone), that works out fine. Others might want a bit more time with their mentor. So prospective graduate students need to be sensitive to the mentoring style of advisors and their own personal style, and try to find someone who’s a good fit.
I have an embarrassment of riches in terms of cool local colleagues to interact with. I imagine folks who are not so lucky might want to travel more.
How much it makes sense to travel depends on your (sub) field. If your work is for example about influencing national policy, then traveling constantly is central to how you get your work done.
So with all that said, I could say something super accommodating like “everyone has to make decisions that are right for them.” And I am saying that—mostly. But I do think we have a bit of cultural dysfunction. Travel is equated with prestige, and some people are not reflective about how much they travel or why.
Looking at the bigger picture, it’s hard not to raise an eyebrow at how much money is being spent on travel. If it’s true that research funds are getting tighter, it will be interesting going forward to see whether our norms about academic travel change.
A colleague recently proudly told me, “I’m not teaching this semester. So I’m going everywhere–traveling pretty much every week.”
“Really?” I replied. “I try never to leave my house. If I can help it.”
He looked puzzled. There was a pause. Then he asked, “You mean you turn down invitations?”
Yes, I turn down invitations. I like to go to my favorite conference (CSCW) every year (if it’s not somewhere remote). And I’ll go to one more conference. One corporate faculty summit is nice. One or two trips to give an invited talk at the school of someone I like. One trip to NSF. And that’s it. That’s my year’s work travel, if I’m lucky.
I was “on the circuit” for a bit when I was a graduate student. But after a while I found out that invited talks in Sweden mainly led to… well, to more invited talks in Sweden. Don’t get me wrong—I loved Sweden. I met great folks there. Does travel broaden your point of view? Sure. But staying home lets me get actual work done.
I first stopped traveling a couple months before my oldest son was born. And for a few years, I was either expecting or had a newborn or was nursing. I took two trips leaving my husband with the baby(s) and getting on the airplane with my trusty breast pump. But each time I wondered—my goodness, why am I doing this? One meeting was at a winery, and I couldn’t go back to my hotel during the day—so I ended up pumping in a coat closet. I was miserable. On the second trip, I paid a fortune for an earlier ticket home.
I do believe that family comes first. Sherry Turkle says she never traveled at all from the time her daughter was Rebecca was born until she was a teenager. It feels good to have a role model. It’s OK for me to put my kids first, because that’s what Sherry did.
But honestly, after a while the “stay home with the kids thing” became an excuse. My husband is an amazing dad, and the boys have a different kind of time together when I’m out of town. It’s probably a good thing I still travel now and then. But having had a taste of a travel-free life, I didn’t want to go back on the road.
When I was younger, travel had a really important role in my professional development. I was building a social network, and also learning the basics of how my field work. That need lessens somewhat as you get older.
I remember as a grad student seeing senior people at conferences sneaking out of sessions to go work in their hotel rooms. It was an entirely mysterious process to me back then—how could you be missing this, I wondered? And it’s still mysterious to me now, but from a different view—why are you here? If you came all this way, why aren’t you paying attention? Are you really so undisciplined that you need to leave town to get work done?
Sometimes I think people travel because it seems prestigious. If you’re going places, you must be important. Raise your hand if you have seen a friend post online about their free airline upgrade to first class. The whole thing is so absurd that they made a movie about it, “Up in the Air,” where George Clooney plays a traveler obsessed with his frequent flyer miles. I hope my anthropologist friends will do a study of human behavior regarding frequent flyer miles. If we don’t document the current cultural logic, those practices will be inscrutable to future generations.
I was general co-chair of CSCW last year, and I got a hands-on view of where your registration money goes. It goes to the hotel. Each conference break costs us about $16 per person. Those cans of soda? $4.50 each. (And that’s a relatively cheap/fair price—other hotels are much more.) Sometimes I wonder if academia is secretly conceived as a federal subsidy for the hotel industry.
I don’t have a whole lot free time in my week during the semester. I’ve got teaching prep, teaching, grading, meetings, reviewing, reference letters…. On top of all that, if I take a trip then I get precisely zero actual research done. The week before the trip, I’m preparing. The week of the trip, I’m away. The week after the trip, I’m catching up. Three weeks shot.
I do still benefit from academic travel. And it’s nice to go meet the up and coming grad students. I try to adopt nice and promising ones, the way I was adopted by mentors way back when. And every once in a while there’s actually a paper I enjoy hearing presented out loud instead of just reading it. But it’s only valuable in moderation.
Rather than being so important that I am summoned everywhere, I aspire to be so important that I mustn’t be disturbed from doing the research that I care about. Actually, I don’t want to be important at all. I want to do work that matters. And to get that work done, I like to (mostly) stay home.
How do you assign readings to a large number of people in a free online course?
I’ve been puzzling over this question this week. I voted against the creation of our online master’s of computer science, and I still have serious reservations about it–particularly about the hastiness of the development plan. But since we’re going ahead with the program, I was thinking maybe I’d offer a class. (We’re doing it–I might as well help.) Our model is that classes have a for-credit section for which students pay a low tuition, and a free not-for-credit one (MOOC). The for-credit students will have access to our library. The free students of course can’t. So this week I asked what I thought was a simple question: how do we get readings to the MOOC students?
I asked colleagues teaching online classes, administrators, and our library. No one really had an answer. One colleague suggested the students “will just have to find the reading on their own.” (That seems like a lawsuit in the making–encouraging copyright infringement.) Another said “I might not assign any reading, since the MOOC students can’t get access to it.” (Really? Does the future of higher education involve watching videos and not reading?)
At first I thought, “This is an administrative detail. They’ll figure out a solution.” But I woke up this morning with another view: there is a collision between potential changes in higher education and changes in publishing.
Open access publishing would solve our problem. There are more and more demands for publishing to be open access. It seems wrong for federal research dollars to fund work and have the results end up behind a commercial pay wall. Georgia Tech now has a policy requiring faculty to publish in open access venues, though there is as yet no enforcement, there is an easy exception mechanism, and most faculty don’t even know the policy exists. But moving to open access publishing in the future doesn’t solve the problem of how we access materials already published under a for-pay model. (You know–most of the world’s knowledge except a few recent things published open access and a few really old ones in the public domain? That stuff?) And it doesn’t solve the problem of how publishers stay in business. I would not want to be a book or music publisher at the moment.
OK, maybe this really is an administrative detail. Maybe we can ask MOOC students to pay a small fee to get access to licensed readings. (Though as I’ve written before, free is radically different from cheap in a psychological sense.) We’ll figure something out. But this detail is a symptom of fascinating broader issues. There is a collision between changes in higher education and changes in publishing, and a collision between some changes that are happening at lightning speed and others that will take a decade or more to sort out.
“Mom, you sure played a lot of Pokémon today,” said my 9-year-old son.
I looked at him. I hung my head. “You’re right,” I said. But I was caught in a frustrating part, and the same characteristics that make me good at finding a bug in code (“I’m going to fix this if it kills me”) also sometimes make me stubborn about a video game (“They say you can catch a Riolu here, and I’ve tried 100 times… so where’s my Riolu?”)
I should back up a bit. The previous weekend, it rained all weekend. Again. (Atlanta is on track to set a rainfall record this year.) And in the middle of a weekend at home where our plans were rained out, our household “screen time” limit was chaffing on the kids. We let them have at most 45 minutes in the morning and 45 minutes in the afternoon of screen time–any kind of screen. On a rained-in weekend, my son was challenging why we had this rule. In exasperation, he asked, “Show me the study that says it’s bad for you! What study shows that?”
Oh, ouch. He’s got a point. I told him about Sherry Turkle’s book Alone Together. I told him about the cool paper by Morgan Ames and Jofish Kaye about how parents of different social classes manage their children’s media use differently. But honestly I couldn’t come up with a hard reference. How could you do a careful study of that, I pointed out? So I trotted out the music analogy. Look: some parents think it’s wonderful if their kids practice a musical instrument five hours a day. Some parents want their kids to be concert musicians and focus on just that one thing. We don’t. If you played your saxophone in all your free time, we’d say you should take a break and go play a video game! A healthy life is balanced.
Ye standard “Life is Balance” speech was not especially convincing. If I could’ve pulled out a careful study proving my point, he would’ve accepted it. But I didn’t have one. (Please send me references!)
And I swear I didn’t do it on purpose–the Pokémon thing. But this morning I turned to him and said, “So yesterday you pointed out that I played too much Pokémon. Why did that bother you?” And he replied, “well I mean, Mom you were just sitting there all day. You didn’t do anything else. You…” He stopped and looked at me. “Ooooh, wait….” He smiled and shook his head. He understood. The perfect pedagogical lesson–and totally accidental.
In response to this my younger son did a comic role reversal, and made me promise I would be more careful about my screen time, or they’d have to start timing me. I sheepishly agreed.
How do you manage your children’s screen time? How do you explain the rationale for your policy to your kids? Leave me a comment!