The problems with MOOCs 3: Homework
I wanted to gain some perspective on MOOCs, so I signed up to take one. The course I signed up for Gregory Nagy’s heavily hyped EdX/HarvardX course CB22x: The Ancient Greek Hero. Harvard’s Crimson reported:
When CB22x: “The Ancient Greek Hero” debuts as one of edX’s first humanities courses this spring, the class will face an entirely new set of challenges than those faced by its quantitative predecessors.
CB22x, the online version of professor Gregory Nagy’s long-running course on ancient Greek heroes, will reach an anticipated audience of 40,000 when it starts this spring as part of edX, the online learning venture started by Harvard and MIT.
“Because we are a humanities course, what we need is a kind of variation of the Socratic method,” Nagy said. “Dialogue is more important than getting X amount of information uploaded at any given moment.”
Departing from the structure of his lecture course, Nagy will conduct dialogues with colleagues about the course’s assigned reading.
To encourage a more interactive experience, a technological development to facilitate private and public commentary is being developed for the class, which, according to Nagy, is the College’s longest continuously running course.
“We’re building a massive annotation tool, which will allow students to comment on any portion of course material, including video, audio, images, and text,” said Jeff Emanuel, HarvardX fellow for the study of the humanities.
[…] CB22x will focus on analyzing ancient Greek texts, including Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. Additionally, students will have free access to the electronic version of Nagy’s new textbook, “The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours.”
“It’s not for money. It’s a labor of love,” Nagy said.
and Nagy even managed to get a plug for his course from the New York Times.
So, I signed up for the course. Now, I have read Homer in multiple English translations, and even some portions in Greek. I have even met Nagy, and I liked his book The Best of Achaeans: Concepts of the Hero in Archaic Greek Poetry, which seems to be the more sophisticated version of the material he plans to present in his course. At first glance, the course looked great. Here are some of the things that Nagy wrote on the class forum:
This is not a course in which we tell you the questions and their answers and in which you are obliged to memorize and repeat those answers to us for a "good grade" (even if you don’t really believe that they are good answers or good questions). That’s not the learning model we are using, though it may well be a fine learning model for other subjects
And Nagy explicitly excluded dogmatic statements:
The Discussion Forums have been a great success in this Course, but recently there have been some posts that convey a distinctly exclusionary message.
* "i am reading the texts and i saw many hellenic words translated wrongly and other things here is a list of the things i saw that are wrong."
* "secondly the word hora doesn’t mean quoting from the core vocab ‘season, seasonality, the right time, the perfect time’ it means only time, season in hellenic is epohi"
* "If I agree with the explanation, with which I don’t, then Zeus Will is definitely not to cause just the Iliad but the whole Trojan war, which is narrated in the previous poems (Kypria epi) and the poems after Iliad (Aithiopis, Mikra Ilias, Iliou persin etc.) that consist the Trojan epic circle."
[…] The problem here is the dogmatic tone of the statements. Assertions of dogma are not in accord with the intellectual ideals of this Class.
Humanism is an endeavor that attempts to understand how we, individually, are different from each other, and in that respect there is no single statement or belief that can be solely right or wrong. We all have different points of view, and it is these that make dialogue vital and wonderful and potentially truthful.
By careful reading of this ancient Greek poetry and literature which we are all presently reading together, we engage in a mutual endeavor toward an understanding of that culture, that is, the bronze age archaic world represented in the Homeric epics, one which is far removed from our own world.
Only by careful and delicate reading of these words can our powers of inference become successful and only then might we present our textually based arguments as part of an ongoing and unfinished discourse. If we draw upon our own particular and personal views we are simply reading ‘into’ the text: this is not the practice nor the ambition of this Course – nor of Humanism.
If we simply and overtly dismiss the interpretations of others in a quick and callous fashion, making the claim that truth is rigidly exclusive, we are not participating in the practice of dialogue and learning.
Nagy is saying all the right words. But how does the course play out in practice?
Nagy gave homework problems which went entirely against all of his noble statements.
Here was the very first problem given to students:
Who was the first to get angry in the Iliad?
* Neither of the two
Now, it is already a red flag that a class in humanities (particularly one with such high goals as Nagy’s class) feels it is necessary to resort to multiple choice questions. Instead, in a normal class, one would ask for an explanation of the role that anger player; or what the sources of Agamemnon’s and Achilles’s anger was, etc. But a multiple choice question?
I answered, without hesitation “Agamemnon,” since Agamemnon freely admits being the first to be angry, and of course, he had taken Chryseis as slave. But alternatively one could argue that the correct answer was Achilles, since the opening line of the poem is about the “rage of Achilles” – that is a central theme of the entire poem.
As it turns out, the only answer that the computer would accept was “Neither” – the following explanation was given:
The correct answer “Neither of those two,” because the first to get angry is Apollo, not Agamemnon or Achilles.
While that answer is defensible, it also is a trick question; and, of course, there is no opportunity for explanation here. Nagy here commits the exact offense he condemns – he gives a shallow and dogmatic assertion to what is really something of a subtle question.
The problem is not the intentions of Nagy, but rather, that the technology for the course supports only shallow interactions, when the course promises to focus on deep themes. In a normal class, this would not be an issue – in class discussion or in an essay, there is plenty of opportunity to understand deep themes. Online, there is only an opportunity to snare students in trick questions.
This experience of MOOC technology not supporting homework matching course material is typical. I’ve talked with a number of online instructors and TAs, and this point comes up over and over again. The nature of MOOC technology means that the only homework and problems that can be assigned are necessarily highly shallow. Complaints of the form: “I did all the homework, and I got 100%, but I don’t understand the lecture” seem common.
While there are any number of critiques of classroom education, in practice the classroom experience takes many different forms, developed over time to match different types of materials. A course on foreign languages is going to be different than a laboratory course on chemistry; a course on mathematics is going to be different than a course on art. And the forms of evaluation and practice are even more varied than the classroom formats. But online, everything seems to boil down to a stupefying same-ness.
Had I been required to take these sorts of online courses to earn my undergraduate degree, I am not sure I would have ever graduated.
In future posts, I hope to take up some other issues with MOOCs: including lecture formats, reading material, student motivation, social interaction, and educational balance.