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MOOCs and the Mechanization of Education: Widening the Gap Between the Haves and Have-Nots

November 8, 2012

An abridged version of this essay was published in The Chronicle of Higher Education in October of 2012. Unfortunately it is behind a paywall and available only to subscribers. I am now at liberty to publish the essay on my blog. The original 2000 word version had to be cut down to 1200 words for publication, so I am joyfully posting the original version here, complete with an excellent quote from Matt Damon and my use of the term “Mechanization of Education,” both of which were cut. I like the term “Mechanization of Education” because it points to the historical context of MOOCs and because it sounds cool, especially when my 17 yr old son raps it.

Sebastian Thrun left his tenured teaching job at Stanford University after 160,000 students signed up for his free online version of the course “Introduction to Artificial Intelligence.” The experience completely changed his perspective on education, he said, so he ditched Stanford and launched the private Web site Udacity, which offers online courses. “Having done this, I can’t teach at Stanford again,” Thrun said. “You can take the blue pill and go back to your classroom and lecture to your 20 students, but I’ve taken the red pill and I’ve seen Wonderland.” (Thrun is staying at Stanford as a research professor, but will not be teaching there).

What exactly was the “Wonderland” that Thrun saw that sent him into such euphoric zeal that he discarded his position at a premier institution of higher education like he was trading in an old clunker at the car dealer? He saw those phenomenal numbers signing up for his class, and it made him dizzy with delight. Anybody with a Twitter account or Facebook page can understand the feeling. Your number of followers or friends can be a source of affirmation, proof that what you have to say is important. I was on Twitter for several weeks following anybody I found remotely interesting, and then someone told me that it is better to have more followers than followees, so I promptly started culling my list. I didn’t want to be a Twitter loser. But surely those adolescent impulses don’t affect scholars like Thrun.

I teach writing at a mid-level university in the dead center of fly-over country; if 160,000 people signed up for an online course I was teaching, I’d probably take my shirt off, write 160K on my chest, and run around campus whoopin it up. But Thrun is above that, right? He’s driven by higher ideals, right? Well, I don’t know about you, but the longer I live, the more I realize people everywhere are just as likely to be driven by ego as by higher ideals.

We’ve Got Discounts!

Perhaps Thrun and others like him have made the classic mistake of valuing quantity over quality, believing that more is better. Those huge numbers on their screens have made them drunk, clouding their judgment about what is wrong with our education system and what it will take to fix it. Folks often say technology is value neutral, when in fact there are many values inherent with technology, and one of them is volume. Like Wal-Mart, online education promises greater numbers reached; to hell with customer service and quality, we’ve got discounts!

Thrun isn’t the only one plunging headfirst into the digital pool. From Education Secretary Arne Duncan on down to my son’s 8th grade teacher, the push for technology is relentless. If you’re not on board, the sentiment goes, you’re falling behind. Recent conversations have emerged about machines grading essays. Machines grading essays. Some are seriously asking if machines can match teachers in effectively assessing student essays. Peering behind the curtain of this essay-grading wizardry, here’s what I see: less demand on teachers, fewer teachers needed, somebody making money with a product. Believe me, as a teacher of writing at the college level, there are times I would give anything for a shortcut to responding to a pile of freshmen essays. It can be grueling work. But I am like most writing teachers — an idealist, in it for the love of learning. Why else would we do it?  So my colleagues and I plow through those papers, knowing we are giving our students the best chance at growth and success.

We’ve got to question the motivations behind these moves. I’m sure online educators are motivated by the sight of an abundance of learners, but what are the chances that over time those numbers will lose their meaning? Kind of like a person disrobing for a web cam or publishing a lewd video. Surely he or she gets excited about gaining an audience of hundreds or even thousands, but that thrill lacks the true fulfillment of a genuine loving relationship. I imagine such a person initially enjoying all the attention, but eventually continuing the practice for one reason only: money. Is this too extreme an analogy to apply to “Wonderland” Thrun and his internet colleagues? Is it possible that Thrun’s ecstatic experience with online teaching will eventually subside, that the huge numbers won’t provide the buzz they once did, and that all he will be left with is the money that can be made from his venture?

What the future holds

I don’t know Thrun, nor am I a psychologist or a shaman, so I can’t pretend to know what motivates him.  I certainly support his right to quit teaching at Stanford and start his own business, um, altruistic educational venture. I wish him the best in Wonderland. But I’m from Smallville, where the majority of Americans get their education, and it’s a million miles from Wonderland. The great majority of our students will never take Thrun’s course because, frankly, it would be over their heads. My concern is for them and the trickle-down effect that the furor over MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) will have on their education. Though they are not the demographic Thrun is targeting, students like them, who are average or struggling, are the ones who will suffer if this trend continues to grow. Ironically, though the move toward the mechanization of education is being advanced by some of the nation’s most élite universities, in the end it will be the lower half of the student population that will be forced out of the traditional classroom, widening the gap between the haves and the have-nots.

You might think I’m overreacting. Alarmists rise up every time technology takes a leap forward. But I want you to cast your mind 20, 30, 40 ahead. It is not hard to imagine a day when only the élite will experience a face-to-face education. The great masses will be educated online. Colleges will be the first to switch, but the change will slowly overtake secondary and primary education as well. How can this happen, you ask? Because the move toward the mechanization of education is driven by a holy trinity of interests forming an unstoppable alliance. Consider:

1)      State & Local Governments – As budgets are squeezed, state governments are cutting back education funding, looking for ways to cut education costs. Several state governments have already mandated at least one online course for high school students, paving the way for the future.

2)     School Administrators – As school budgets feel the pinch, administrators find that online classes are most cost effective. Money talks.

3)     Technology Companies – Big money comes to state and local government, school administrators, and teachers, offering goodies galore in exchange for using their products in the classroom. What better way to expand their market than by luring younger customers through the classroom? The infiltration of business into education is a problem that is only going to grow.

It is unlikely that our higher ideals will be able to stop these forces.

Changing Higher Education Forever

“The Stanford Education Experiment Could Change Higher Education Forever,” read a recent Wired Magazine headline about Thrun’s online class. Indeed, many universities are jumping on the MOOC bandwagon. Earlier this year, Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology announced they were also feeling the love, and joined forces to offer a variety of free courses online in a partnership they’re calling “edX.” These changes may be exciting for intellectually driven people in the U.S. and around the world who will finally have access to the lectures of elite thinkers, but the impact on the average American student is murkier. What these students need most isn’t to hear amazing ideas from brilliant teachers – these students need immediacy.


The average high school and college student in the U.S. has a modest level of literacy. In order to thrive in education, they need immediacy. Teachers who practice immediacy call students by name, get to know them personally, and give the occasional pat on the back. As a college writing teacher with class sizes limited to 25 students, I’ve always prided myself on learning my student’s names within two weeks of classes starting. I go over a list of their names and recall their faces. My previous college provided me a picture roster, which enabled me to get a head start on learning names. One of my role models at that school was a woman who has taught there for over twenty years. One semester, she taught in the same classroom immediately after me. As I was gathering up my stuff after the first day of class, I was blown away as she greeted every student who walked through the door by name, treating them as if they were old friends. That’s immediacy.

More than mere friendliness, immediacy means students receive customized instruction. Teachers learn what makes each student tick, pushing and prodding one, giving space to another, according to each one’s needs. Teaching is an art form. An imperfect art from, no doubt, but an art form nonetheless. It requires the teacher’s entire person, all the senses, including intuition. And it requires every tool in the teacher’s bag, including tactile and other forms of non-verbal communication.

At a recent rally in D.C. protesting the Obama administration’s education policies that are centered on standardized tests, actor Matt Damon (whose mom is a teacher) summed up the role of teachers very well:

My teachers were free to approach me and every other kid in that classroom like an individual puzzle. They took so much care in figuring out who we were and how to best make the lessons resonate with each of us. They were empowered to unlock our potential. They were allowed to be teachers.

That kind of awareness and responsiveness is achieved at the highest levels in a face-to-face context. That’s why many Silicon Valley parents, including executives from Google, Apple, and Ebay, send their children to the Waldorf School of the Peninsula, where no electronics are allowed in the classroom. They know what we know: the teacher motivating his or her students, and giving each of them the confidence needed to overcome every obstacle, is a very personal, creative, challenging task. Putting machines between the teacher and student (either online or in the classroom) alienates the ones about whom we claim to be most concerned: the struggling students.

There’s No Place Like Place

Students not only need immediacy, they also need a place for learning. One aspect of the radical disruption Thrun and others are advocating is taking education out of the classroom and putting it on the student’s personal screen so the student can learn on his or her own time in his or her own place. But has it ever occurred to them that the students with the greatest educational needs often don’t have a place conducive to learning at their disposal? For those students, a place of learning becomes a haven, an escape from the chaos that otherwise characterizes their lives. I know this because they’ve told me so. Place matters. It always has, and always will. Just ask the thousands of people who pay hundreds of dollars to attend TED conferences rather than watch the videos at home.

Online courses from teachers like Thrun can provide excellent learning opportunities for many people. And students certainly need to develop competency using digital tools, especially for research. But that’s not what average students need most. Their greatest need is for mentors and teachers who can skillfully guide them through the learning process.

Magical Thinking

Unfortunately, Thrun is only one of many superstar thinkers who are getting caught up in the pizzazz of a massive digital audience. Giddy with their own potency (real or imagined), these thought leaders will add fuel to the fire in the push toward the mechanization of education.

But the mechanization of education is an exercise in magical thinking. Exhausted and desperate for answers, we are tempted to think that machines can save us. But they can’t. Wonderland isn’t the answer. The greatest things happening in education are occurring in classrooms around the world, as teachers look into the eyes of their students and find ways to bring learning to life.

It’s a sacred trust that we must not abdicate.


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  1. Greg, you’re making me want to leave my counseling practice and get back to the classroom!

    Of course a somewhat similar dynamic plays out in my field….Just create a book (the DSM) that can label everyone, and create drugs that will pretend to fix people who identify with the created labels. But I have clients who have tried the mass-marketed pills with no success and who crave the place of the counseling office, where someone looks them in the eye, knows their name, listens, and helps them learn and change in the ways they learn best.

    (I’m not saying that no psychiatric drugs are of value. Sometimes some of them are needed and helpful. But I do believe the money driving the enterprise has skewed research and skewed our view of human nature.)

    Thanks so much for sharing your passion and experience.

  2. Hello, Greg,

    Your essay articulates very well some of the ideas I have had about the effect of MOOCs on education. I am, myself, very enthusiastic about Coursera but realize that it actually benefits only students with a privileged background: students who already have some education, are motivated, and are technologically-savvy.

    I was enrolled in a world history class through Coursera and, at the end of the class, the professor invited some of the more active students to participate in a live webinar. To my surprise, most of them were older than the average student- a retiree, a stay-at-home mom, a professional historian etc. None of these Coursera students resemble the ones that I teach at a community college here in California.

    • Thanks for the comment. That’s the same thing I see: age is not the determining factor in online learning compentency. One’s level of literacy is a much more accurate indicator of one’s ability to engage with texts online.

  3. Thanks Greg for making this available. Found out about your blog from Larry Cuban’s, and have a background in secondary education (chemistry teacher for 2 years) but am now in industry, and am very interested in what MOOCs have to offer.

    I do agree with many of your points about the advantages of face-to-face, as well as the intense financial pressures facing education at both the primary, secondary, and university levels.

    However what you seem to propose is ‘more of the same’ will get better education for the average and below average student?

    One glaring problem that hasn’t been adequately addressed by the existing university system is the persistently poor graduation rate. (Here’s a NY Times piece from 2009, one of many: ) Of course the debate rages about whether it is a function of more money or better curricula or something else. MOOCs offer a different approach to education, one that in the large corporation I work for is implemented with very good effectiveness – asynchronous training, with follow-up online quizzes and other follow-up to apply what was presented.

    I agree that there is no substitute for a live presentation – an upcoming TedMed conference in Washington DC costs almost $5K to register – and remote web presentations in my industry hasn’t replaced the flesh-and-blood sales rep. However remote web presentations are very effective for what they do, are scalable and very efficient to move the sales process along.

    I’d be interested in your ideas / suggestions on how to help the least advantaged students in a cost-effective manner, aside from spending more money…

    • Thanks for commenting Dale. I definitely recognize that there is a problem; I just don’t think MOOCs are the solution. A group that I work with–the National Writing Project–has had Federal funding cut, even though their work is outstanding and has consistently proven to promote practices that greatly increase literacy rates in elementary students.

  4. Reblogged this on From experience to meaning… and commented:
    MOOC’s again and an interesting essay on it. It is true ‘mechanization of education’ sounds great!

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Online learning is an advanced form of learning which will propel top performers forward and leave bottom performers behind « The Digital Realist
  2. California dreamin’: The Age of the MOOCs is here « The Digital Realist
  3. MOOCs and the Mechanization of Education: Widening the Gap Between the Haves and Have-Nots (Greg Graham) | Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice
  4. Teacher Immediacy | Cynthia Clark
  5. MOOCs and the Mechanization of Education: Widening the Gap Between the Haves and Have-Nots | greggfesta::TODAY
  6. Online Education: The Problem With a “One Size Fits All” System of Education | Social Justice and Education
  7. What would Kierkegaard have thought of MOOCs? | Jon Malesic's Blog
  8. leerexperiment | The Sausage Machine

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