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This blog was started as my reflections on the 2011 Change MOOC. It is now an on going journal of my thoughts on Higher Education, specifically teaching Biology.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Perceived Problems in MOOCs (Part 4: A Degree Means Something)

I'm skipping the fourth proposition in David Youngberg's April 13th Chronicle commentary because it is very ill conceived and insulting to those who have degrees in English and the other 'Liberal Arts'.  Not only does it show a poor definition of liberal arts, but it also shows a poor model of assessment.  Instead, I'm going to focus on the fifth poposition.


David Youngberg's fifth fundamental problem with a MOOC is that "Money can substitute for ability."  It took me a couple times reading through this part of the article to figure out what he was trying to get at with this title.  So that my comments are clear, I've pasted his paragraph dealing with this proposition.  I've also highlighted some points I feel are critical.
Higher education leads to a better salary because a college degree is a signal. Yes, you gain practical skills in college, but a degree is largely about showing potential employers that you're smart and hard working. Grades function the same way. Get an A in philosophy and people will find you impressive even if what you learned isn't practical. But the signal only works if most people didn't get an A. Signaling is relative.

If your wondering, the highlight colors are akin to National Security warnings.  In this case, they are warnings about a really bad perceptual model: that getting a degree at a prestigious school is more important than learning anything, i.e., that money buys success.  Thoughout this whole part of the article, you start to see through the mask.  A degree should be reserved for the elite.  Beyond that, there are some major misconceptions that my friends in industry would really gripe at.

Let's start with "...a college degree is a signal."  That is very true.  It is a signal, but of what?  Does a college degree really show that a person is "smart and hardworking"?  NO, and many people that I meet are starting to realize that, both in academics and in industry.  What is more important is the concept of competencies.  You want to know what the person is competent at doing.  The Bolonga process is based on showing competencies, as is the Degree Qualificaiton Profile from the Lumina Foundation here in the states.  How many corporate giants have to say that they are looking for competent people before the message is heard?  David Youngberg focuses his attention on getting an A as the standard of excellence, but what does an A tell you?  Is the person smart, or could they game the system?  A colleague shared this video with me during #moocmocc.


Tom Peters is a strong voice in business management, and he is telling people that the A does not demonstrate a person who going to be good for the company.  But why?  Learning how to game an academic situation to get an A does not provide the skills needed (or desired) in a rapidly evolving global economy/society.  Do you really want a passive learner who only knows how pass an exam, but not necessarily learn and create, manning your operations?
David Youngberg is more concerned with impressing people with a good grade, instead of impressing them with skills, abilities, knowledge or even a variety of intellectual models.  Philosophy for him is not practical, though it has informed even his discipline for centuries.  The liberal arts are downplayed to business communication, instead of being the seeds for inspiration and innovation.  How many of our greatest thinkers were also accomplished artists or musicians?  (here is a good article if your interested: http://www.creativitypost.com/create/how_geniuses_think/).
"Signals are relative," and that is very true.  But what are the signals we are now looking at, and what do they tell us?

After this last problem, David Youngberg descends into a strange account of why you don't want to make education cheap.  This seems inspired by game theory, but is ultimately reductio ad absurdum, with the conclusion that if education was cheap, everyone would get an A, and thus devalue the meaning of an A.  I think he is holding a little to strongly to the supremecy of an A.

For me, the article revealed a very odd way of looking at the world and education, and the arguments presented were not well considered and out of touch with how the world is changing.

Does this mean that I view online education and MOOCs as the saviors of education?  Do I think that Udacity will ultimately doom universities and college?  NO.

What is occuring now in online education is equivalent to children playing in a sandbox.  We have new toys, and we're learning to use them to influence our world.  Will all of our play produce something that works successfully?  NO, but it will change how we play our games.

As we move into this new age, we are going to what to know the competencies of an individual, not just some grade given.  This does not mean just some sort of certificate or badge.  We are going to want to see what the person is capable of doing (the growing use of ePortfolios is a great example).  The MOOC as it stands now may not even be around in 10 years save for a historic construct.  Individuals will take this foundation and adapt, remix, and rebuild, but that is the nature of Web 2.0 and the amazing connections that we can now form in an information rich era.  David Youngberg's arguments are just a dying gasp from a comatose educational era.