OpenFiction [Blog]

MOOCs and the liberal arts

Posted in mitx, MOOC, Open Educational Resources by scarsonmsm on May 14, 2012

Great article in Forbes about an 11 year-old’s experience with one of Stanford’s MOOCs. Well worth the read for all kinds of reasons if you are interested in these courses, but illustrates a concern I’ve had for a while now. The child is learning Game Theory, a largely quantitative course (at least in the way this one is presented), as are most of these MOOCs (at least of the Stanford & MITx ilk–the Siemens-Downes-Wiley variety are much less so). As Stephen points out in his OLDaily on the article, the kid uses his newly developed quantitative skills in an ethically questionable manner. From the article:

But he took his lessons to more unexpected, and depending upon how you look at it, somewhat disturbing places. At school, students were asked to form teams and go out onto the streets and raise money for kids with cancer. His team had to choose a location and that is where he informed me that he used his game theory. On their street they saw a homeless man (a comparative rarity in Toronto). He realised that the homeless man had already worked out what the best location for charitable contributions was. In this case, it was at a point next to a subway entrance and a Starbucks. He convinced his team that they could set up their own stand right there. Two things could happen, he explained to me. One is that the homeless man, moved away to come back another day. The other was that the homeless man stayed in which case he believed that his team would have edge in their claim as their cause was for other people and his was just for himself. In the end, the homeless man abandoned the post.

These MITx-ish MOOCs, and other scalable assessments online such as Khan Academy, are good at teaching skills to vast numbers of people where the outcomes are computable, but not so good at teaching when it might or might not be appropriate to employ those skills. There is, I think, a great dystopian sci fi novel to be written around millions of people trained to develop AI that have no ethical understanding of the impact of the technologies they develop. There is a real danger of our STEM education outrunning our liberal arts education in ways that might have significant consequences. You don’t have to point any further than the roots of the ’08 financial crisis to see quantitative cleverness unhinged from ethical control nearly taking down the global economy. The risk is real.

On the other hand, the Siemens-Downes-Wiley MOOCs* do have the capacity to address the qualitative. They are not as scalable and accessible to your average learner (in my opinion) and generally lack quantifiable measures of learning that I’ve seen. But at least they lend themselves to teaching humanities subjects. I’m really interested in how well the MITx-Stanford MOOCs will handle the humanities and what the limits of automated essay grading will be. Stay tuned and keep the doomsday bunker stocked.


* Do we need names for these two varieties or what? I really think it’s unfortunate that the term MOOCs got adopted to cover courses like Stanford’s and MITx’s, as they aren’t open in the way that Siemens-Downes-Wiley courses have been. Brandon suggested the other day calling the MITx-Stanford variety MOCs (Massive Online Courses) for that reason, and I second the motion.