Monday, March 11, 2013

Jonathan Rees, Luddite, hates MOOCs

My dad repairs computers for a living. For a long time he worked at a hospital and the main thing that would break down were the printers. They would jam, run out of toner, run out of paper, or just go on the fritz inexplicably all the time. But that made work for my dad so, great, right? Of course, it is possible to make printers that can do some self-diagnostics and to make more reliable printers over time. Now fewer printers break at the hospital. When they do it is easier to figure out what is wrong. In some cases it is so easy you don't need a specialist to do any work, many people can replace the paper when the printer flashes the new "replace paper" button.

It probably wouldn't shock anyone to know that my dad isn't a huge fan of printer self-diagnostics or robust craftsmanship in printers. So I don't think anyone would take him seriously if he wrote an op-ed about how terrible these new printers were and why no one should use them. It would be pretty predictable if his main argument was that, while the self-diagnostics are pretty accurate, they miss subtle problems that only an experience human can diagnose, i.e. you can't eliminate his job.

Enter Jonathan Rees: he's a history professor that took a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC). MOOCs can enroll thousands of students at a time and have major cost advantages over traditional brick and mortar schools since buying bandwidth and webspace are cheaper than building classrooms and the per-student instructor cost is 1/100th as big when there are 100x as many students per professor.

Rees sees MOOCs are a threat to traditional education--you know, the kind that he's employed doing--and he's here to tell you about why this new technology isn't as great as it seems. For some reason he thinks you'll trust him since he's an expert and ignore the massive conflict of interest. And for some reason he doesn't mention the possibility of running an experiment to test his hypothesis, as if he doesn't want to know if it's true.

But maybe that isn't surprising. Maybe the reason he doesn't seem to care if MOOCs work is because he doesn't care--he just wants to preserve his profession (and his job).

That's fine. All I ask for is that they place a conflict of interest note before each article so everyone has fair warning before they waste their time on the article.

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