The MOOCademy Awards

This tweet, from the co-founder of Coursera, highlights several troublesome aspects of the MOOC phenomenon and the manner in which we envision online education in an age of technological solutionism (see Morozov).

Education as fun

No one wants education to be void of fun.  Practitioners and scholars alike work tirelessly to remove boredom, dullness, lifelessness and listlessness from practice of the discipline, because learning happens best if we avoid boredom, dullness, lifelessness and listlessness and replace them with engagement, activity, critical thinking and debate.  And educators hope that, in the end, students find the experience enriching; ergo, enjoyable…and if they wish to call that  amalgam fun, that’s okay.  But fun is not the immediate emotional correlation educators hope to establish between the learner and the learning.  

Moreover, fun is not the immediate emotional correlation Academy Award-contending filmmakers hope to establish between the audience and their motion picture.  At the level where films are considered for the premiere award of the year, the aim of such cinema is higher than a baseline short-term emotional spike.  Rather, the goal of these films is to engage the audience in a emotional journey that weaves content into a contextual narrative, leading to higher-order criticism and debate around the subject matter that transcends the specific narrative.  Looking over the list of Best Picture winners and pulling the most recent 20, I only find six where there is an argument for fun as a prime aim of the film:  Slumdog MillionaireThe Lord of the Rings:  Return of the KingGladiatorShakespeare in Love, and Forrest Gump.  And the argument for at least three of those is weak:  SlumdogThe Lord of the Rings and Gladiator are epic-based films of hero journeys and perseverance told through an historical setting (Middle Earth is historical based on the cultural reach of the LOTR series); the content has a level of rigor, and the genre choice allows for a more passive experience of the film as a ride-along that lets off at the end of a nice roller coaster…rather than a more critical and challenging film.   Shakespeare in LoveTitanic and Forrest Gump utilize well-known historical tropes to tell a hero story, but the history is surface-level and the character interactions with authentic events are tongue-in-cheek; the result of both are pleasing stories that, with the exception of Titanic, have struggled to remain relevant compared to other films of the time.

12 Years a Slave is not a fun movie.  Nor is Argo.  Or The Hurt Locker.  These movies are provocative, engaging, and encourage higher-order thinking from viewers, thinking that moves beyond the two-hour engagement and permeates short-term discussion and long-term consideration and application.  If at the end of the experience (an experience designed to move you beyond the viewing time) you find: the sum of the film, your reaction, your further development and application of the critical thinking behind the theme and narrative, and the eventual role that film plays in your development to be a fun experience…well, that’s great.  But fun was not the primary aim, or even the secondary one.  Fun was the result of primary and secondary aims meeting and exceeding expectations.

There are films that win Academy Awards that are purposefully designed for fun.  In most cases these films win technical awards:  special effects, editing, sound design.  There is an argument to be made here where we view education in this technical format and see fun as a measurable outcome versus the psychological format shooting for a more difficult measure, but I will pass at this moment because culturally when we speak of Oscar-winning films we are looking at the Big 4 (Film, Director, Actor, Actress) and not the technical specs.  

(There is also the argument that Best Picture films are in no way representative of the truly provocative and authentic films of our time.)

Online Education as Video Engagement

It’s tough to build a strong argument on a 140 character Tweet.  It is possible that fun was used due to character restrictions rather than a steadfast belief that we want online education to produce a fun outcome.  While I do not believe Mr. Ng’s tweet involved that situation, if we were to replace fun with engaging, I do not see much improvement in the implications of such thinking.  

On the Internet, content has the potential to be free and ubiquitous.  So is the purpose of online education to scaffold that content through means and mechanisms (such as artifact-driven activities, social learning, high-level application) or to create better content?  If it is the second one, what constitutes better?  Is it a more glossy finish on the content, meaning videos of higher production quality?  Is it a means to track learning through analytics?  Or is it an effort to mix rigorous content with broadcast theory and build edutainment (excellent primer on history of edutainment here)?  

Video alone does not constitute higher-level thinking.  The addition of humor and sfx into an eight-minute video does not create higher-level thinking.  And the weaving of narrative into content in an effort to promote fun can, if not highly accounted for, have the opposite effect of higher-level thinking and instead dilute the message.  

Perhaps the issue is indicative of the STEM-heavy development and current implementation of the MOOC phenomenon; can a more dynamic video experience help someone pay attention long enough to a video on the FOIL method for algebraic equations?  Perhaps.  But this reliance on video lecture as gospel denies the vast and expansive growth of educational theory and pedagogy since the 1970s, a growth that is not limited to educational psychology.  One need only look at the work of Seymour Papert, a father of AI and the cognitive revolution at MIT who later became the catalyst behind constructionism and the notion of creation rather than replication as the hallmark of the technological education revolution.  If the lectures in STEM courses are ineffective and dull, putting them on-line with production qualities does not change the ineffectiveness, no matter what learning analytics you trawl up.  Yet the MOOC revolution has not led to a change in STEM pedagogies where a reliance on lecture for basic skills and concepts is assumed a necessity, but instead transfers STEM pedagogy to social sciences and humanities courses, such as the Intro to Psychology course that was rolled out as part of the Udacity/San Jose State University partnership.  

There are times I want to see a movie because I want to escape, to have fun — some action, some comedy, some genre-bending.  When I go to see a critically acclaimed movie, a documentary, a drama, a biopic or another genre-altering film, I wish to be engaged rather than to have fun.  Critically acclaimed movies do not have to be boring, and education does not have to be boring.  But good, provocative and engaging movies do not seek out fun as an adjective to describe the experience.  If we are to put that label onto online education, a space where fun is paramount and learning happens too, we are limiting the scope and possibility of the field to a box of edutainment that is safe and easy but misses the point and the possibility.