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The problems with MOOCs 3: Homework

April 16, 2013

For an introduction to this series see here and here.

24 hoursI 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?

*  Achilles
*  Agamemnon
*  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.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. April 17, 2013 6:55 am

    the Socratic method … Dialogue is more important” ….
    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

    Great post! I felt like I was reading Plato’s Phaedrus and these lines specifically:

    SOCRATES: But, my friend, the priests of the temple of Zeus at Dodona say that the first prophecies were the words of an oak. Everyone who lived at that time, not being as wise as you young ones are today, found it rewarding enough in their simplicity to listen to an oak or even a stone, so long as it was telling the truth, while it seems to make a difference to you, Phaedrus, who is speaking and where he comes from. Why, though, don’t you just consider whether what he says is right or wrong?

    PHAEDRUS: I deserved that, Socrates. And I agree that the Theban king was correct about writing.

    SOCRATES: Well, then, those who think they can leave written instructions for an art, as well as those who accept them, thinking that writing can yield results that are clear or certain, must be quite naive and truly ignorant of [Thamos’] prophetic judgment: otherwise, how could they possibly think that words that have been written down can do more than remind those who already know what the writing is about?

    PHAEDRUS: Quite right.

    SOCRATES: You know, Phaedrus, writing shares a strange feature with painting. The offsprings of painting stand there as if they are alive, but if anyone asks them anything, they remain most solemnly silent. The same is true of written words. You’d think they were speaking as if they had some understanding, but if you question anything that has been said because you want to learn more, it continues to signify just that very same thing forever. When it has once been written down, every discourse roams about everywhere, reaching indiscriminately those with understanding no less than those who have no business with it, and it doesn’t know to whom it should speak and to whom it should not. And when it is faulted and attacked unfairly, it always needs its father’s support; alone, it can neither defend itself nor come to its own support.

    PHAEDRUS: You are absolutely right about that, too.


  2. April 18, 2013 12:20 am

    Very good catch, Kurk. Of course, in the case of Nagy’s MOOC, the effect is more insidious, because the “submit” function creates the verisimilitude of interaction, although, in fact, that verisimilitude turns out to be a cruel illusion.

  3. May 2, 2013 6:46 am

    Have you seen this?

    The authors say they fear “that two classes of universities will be created: one, well-funded colleges and universities in which privileged students get their own real professor; the other, financially stressed private and public universities in which students watch a bunch of videotaped lectures and interact, if indeed any interaction is available on their home campuses, with a professor that this model of education has turned into a glorified teaching assistant.”

    Why Professors at San Jose State Won’t Use a Harvard Professor’s MOOC

  4. May 28, 2013 10:00 am

    And now this (where the rhetoric of Marxism and Medievalism in the comments following is just fascinating):


  1. New Yorker on MOOCs | BLT
  2. Postscript on Gregory Nagy’s “The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours” | BLT

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