Udacity, MOOCs, hammers, and the problems of education
Last week’s big news was that Udacity intends to switch its focus from higher education to corporate training. A number of colleagues have provided thoughtful responses to these news, including Michael Caulfield, Audrey Watters, Rolin Moe, George Siemens, and Bonnie Stewart.
Here’s my take on this development: Maslow once said: “I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.” It seems that Udacity has discovered a solution and after realizing that it’s not a solution for the perils facing higher education, that solution is taken elsewhere. Reflecting on the xMOOC phenomenon it appears that this is a consistent approach. If MOOCs don’t work for X, they must work for Y, and if they don’t work for Y, they must work for Z.
I have drummed this tambourine in the past. This is educational technology history repeating itself. During the mid-90’s the instructional media/design field was engaging in The Great Media debate. In short, on the one side of the debate were individuals who argued that media do not influence learning outcomes. On the other side of the debate were individuals who noted that media provide affordances for learning. In the midst of the debate Tennyson (1994) noted the following:
I refer to this transition from scientist to advocate as the big-wrench approach to complex problem solution: The advocate, with the big wrench in hand, sets out to solve, suddenly, a relatively restricted number of problems. That is, all of the formerly many diverse problems, now seem to be soluble with the new big wrench (or panacea).
If educational technology companies (and Centers for Teaching and Learning) are eager to improve education, rather than searching for problems to apply their solutions, they should focus on identifying problems and designing solutions to those problems. Higher education may lack a lot of things, but what it does not lack are problems in need of solutions. Talk to any faculty member and ask: What problem are you facing in your teaching? Observe classrooms and see what things appear commonplace but hinder practice. For example, one of the projects that I had the good fortune to work on emanated from the observation that instructors asked students to borrow video cameras, record assignments, and return tapes to the instructor to watch and return feedback. This process usually took 6 weeks. We automated a lot of this process by developing an online assessment environment through which students recorded their assignments on webcam, instructors were notified of the availability of the video, and were then quickly able to student feedback. By eliminating the need for video cameras and tapes, and introducing an environment that addressed needs and problems, we were able to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of the process and drastically reduce the amount of time by which students received their feedback.
Tennyson, R. D. (1994). The big wrench vs. integrated approaches: The great media debate. Educational Technology Research & Development, 42(3), 15–28.