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Uncritical Celebration of MOOC

By Li Bennich-Björkman

Despite the significant deficiencies of Internet courses, they keep on making a global impact. The explanation for this lies in our tendency to think intuitively rather than critically.

Massive Open Online Course (MOOC), in a nutshell, means that university-level courses, through the use of technology that makes it possible to have some interaction and discussion forums, are available online and hence globally. The courses are organised around more or less prominent, and preferably naturally charismatic lecturers, but the idea is that the students are also active. A few years of experience shows that the courses may initially have many students registered – and by many I mean thousands or even tens of thousands – but few attend all the lectures when it comes down to it, and even fewer actually complete the courses. Fewer than 10 percent are examined, and a large part of the courses’ attraction is probably their relative novelty and availability. Briefly put, many are curious and shop around, but few are motivated enough to seriously engage in the reading of a course. Experience shows that many employers hesitate to hire people with online courses as their main qualifications. Against this background, one would possibly think that MOOC 's story should be over – like other previous attempts at using the latest technology to revolutionise distance education. That is not the case. Even in Sweden, MOOC is on the agenda, and around the phenomenon still hovers – even though the reality has already bitten – an aura of a grand utopia. How is it, then, given what we know today about learning psychology and philosophy, a phenomenon such as MOOC can make such a relatively large impact in the world of education? How can, in other words, such a hesitant, or at least highly uncertain pedagogical practice spread around the world, while being portrayed as a ‘democratisation’ of higher education? My answer is that it depends on how we think, or rather that we do not think critically but intuitively, and that the effort to override intuitive thinking requires too much energy. This often leads us to judgments and decisions based on different kinds of common misconceptions.

Daniel Kahneman has, since the 1960s – along with the prematurely deceased Amos Tversky – explored how human thought actually goes to those he calls ‘humans’ as opposed to the economic theory’s ‘econs’ and how our thinking affects both assessments, judgements, as well as how we make decisions. In the book, Thinking, Fast and Slow (2012) Kahneman presents for a wider audience many of the most important findings from over 40 years of research. The human mind consists of two interacting "systems" as he metaphorically calls them; "System 1" is based on impulses, intuition, emotions and automatic reactions, and "system 2" is based on critical reflection, self-control, and the circumvention of system 1 when necessary. System 1 is thus the fast, intuitive thinking, which is often right but sometimes – and the consequences of this can be significant – leads us in the wrong direction. System 2, however, is slow, and permits scepticism, ambivalence and uncertainty. But system 2 is lazy and does not want to make an effort in vain. Our way of thinking seeks to minimise effort – that devours mental energy – and tries to maintain a state of "cognitive well-being". Ambivalence, dissonance and doubt do not contribute to well-being (something which also has important implications for understanding how collective political parties and organisations work) and, consequently, we are often quick to draw conclusions that maintain harmony (consistency). Then, system 1 is dominant.

The first question we should ask ourselves is: why is MOOC needed? What is it a solution for? This then leads to the sort of ‘mind trap’ that, in Daniel Kahneman's book, goes by the name of "replacing" difficult questions with simpler, more commonplace ones because our more 'slow' critical reflective thinking is lazy and the faster system 1 thinking is used instead. In other words, "if you cannot find a satisfactory answer to a difficult question quickly then system 1 will find a related but simpler question and will answer that instead". Through this thought-process, cognitively lazy as we are, we think we have found arguments for the more difficult question though, in reality, we have not. This can often lead to really bad decisions or assessments, precisely because it is really lacking adequate information and relevant examination of arguments. Our constant search to find a state of cognitive well-being means that the impulse to replace the more difficult questions with simple ones lies tantalisingly close all the time.

No one doubts that higher education in Sweden, as well as elsewhere in the Western world, has been and is facing challenges. At universities, the share of students is today approaching 40 or even 50 percent of a cohort, and this has for decades been a fact. In its wake followed a galloping bureaucratisation and streamlining, a strong increase in interest – and thus misguided meddling – from political power in this budget-growing area. Intellectual ability, talent and knowledge vary greatly among the students who today begin to read, something that naturally affects educational programmes’ design, quality and requirements. Despite the fact that, because of the developments that have taken place, more teaching resources and tuition have been required, most acutely so in the humanities and social sciences that the majority seek out, the trend continues towards more independent study.

The emergence of mass university participation has meant that more and more come to educate themselves, not only in elementary school or college. Many study today 15 years or longer. Basically, it is a win, both for individuals and for society at large. But, at the same time, there is something extremely important about to be lost: I want to call it something as solemn as the university's ‘soul’. What I’m thinking, and I do not think I'm alone, is that universities are losing conditions for developing the critical autonomous approach – let's call it intellectual responsibility – among the students, which they carry with them through life, and which makes us critically reflective and processing citizens. It is here I think the universities’ major challenge for the future lies.

Is MOOC a contribution to resolving how – in an era of ever-increasing demands for knowledge – such a kind of advanced learning can be developed? If so, the answer is MOOC, providing this is done through technical solutions, using the Internet and its global reach to reach ever more people. But then, I mean, we risk replacing the more difficult question about how the university's task of shaping individuals with intellectual responsibility and independent judgment can survive in the mass university era, with the much simpler question of how the pre-existing format – especially lectures – reaches out to more people. Obviously these online courses work in the sense that those who follow them pick up a few things and, in that sense, learn something. But, as Doug Guthrie at George Washington University School of Business puts it, "to design online courses for the masses creates a large collection of people but does not lead to the creation of a classroom”. Something is going on in the context of these courses, but it is to me very doubtful whether we should call it advanced learning.

Higher education’s problem is not primarily to make certain knowledge more accessible. Higher education now reaches many, in comparison to how it was 100 years ago, but also if we compare 20 to 30 years back in time. The deeper problem, which we replaced with a simpler one, is rather, to reiterate, how mass university will be able to maintain a learning aimed at forming autonomous individuals who then carry with them an intellectual responsibility through life, and who see themselves as academics in this more classical sense. If there is something that makes university programmes unique – at least it has been so in the past – it is precisely the ambition of the learning process that an independent judgment that rests on system 2's rationality will emerge. It is these ‘critical’ citizens who ideally populate associations, talk to each other on the streets, go and vote and give democracy meaning. The education debate in Sweden and also, I think, in several other advanced knowledge economies, is largely that the continuous development of ‘critical’ thinking, in this regard, increasingly is threatened when the basic prerequisites such as reading, writing and arithmetic are missing. MOOC solves, in other words, none of this, and is a response to what I think is something of a pseudo-problem today: that availability is low.

Nevertheless, the phenomenon of MOOC is on the agenda – something not least shown by the theme of this issue. So what can explain how this old wine in new bottles got off the ground? Here we come to another of the cognitive traps that Daniel Kahneman highlights, where our system 1 plays on us an inconvenient prank. I think of what he calls the "halo effect", which plays a "large role in the way we look at people and situations”. System 1 leads us, as I said, to reduce ambiguity and to seek, in the case of halo effect, emotional coherence: we like a lecturer’s appearance or manner of speech, so we tend to like what he says, too, regardless of the content. If we like the prime minister's policy, we also tend to like his voice and appearance. Again, system 1 leads us inevitably, to the fullest extent possible, to suppress ambivalence and uncertainty. The halo effect also leads us to presume positive traits and good qualities of what we like, without having any idea if they actually exist. System 1 wants consistency, so we assume that it is the case.

Stanford professor, Sebastian Thrun, developed in 2011 an online course in astronomy that became the launch pad for the MOOC hype that now prevails. At most, the course had 160,000 registered students! Professor Thrun started a company that acts as an intermediary to communicate MOOCs; several of Thrun’s colleagues at Stanford saw the opportunity and followed. Now a number of America's top universities, Ivy League universities, have companies that sell and communicate MOOC: New York University, Princeton, Harvard, Columbia, University of Michigan. The list is long and MOOC is being developed also in German, Australian and Japanese universities. The fact that top U.S. universities – that many of us admire and look up to, that we simply like – are associated with this type of course has led to, I think, many of us also ‘liking’ MOOC. System 1 is on the move and urges that consistency must be maintained: thus become the given objections to MOOC considerably less prominent.

That this could even be a really bad idea – but one that is to some extent profitable for the universities embarked on this road – is an exhausting thought to keep in mind when we know that Stanford, NYU, and Harvard are some of the world's best universities. But, had MOOC originally been launched by some less reputable colleges in the U.S., or universities in Eastern Europe, the situation could be quite different.

The halo effect of the link to the top universities involved may have contributed to MOOC as a concept and therefore it got a way too positive, or at least uncritical reception, especially among university administrators and politicians. In combination with a difficult question (how do we develop advanced learning in the era of mass university?) being replaced by the easier one of availability and existing technologies, MOOC has emerged as the solution. System 2, our critical thinking skills that allow ambivalence and uncertainty, are unlikely to be heard and we are quite pleased with that. What happens now?

"The lesson is clear", writes Kahneman, “when system 2 is committed elsewhere, we can be convinced of almost anything. System 1 is naive and programmed to believe, system 2 has command of doubt and the ability to relate sceptically, but system 2 is sometimes busy and often lazy”. This leads to three further cognitive traps: the tendency to confirm, overconfidence and ‘Wysiati’ (what you see is all there is). The tendency to confirm again means that system 1 is in charge, and the idea about which we are positive – MOOC – we are looking positively to confirm instead of examining it critically, which would be a challenge for our cognitive wellbeing. "If system 1 is involved, the conclusion comes first and the arguments follow." There is also a consistent trend in our thinking to accommodate an overreliance on the confirmation we find, and when it comes to the ‘Wysiati’ trend, we use the existing information that is, even if the decision or judgment we face would require more evidence (things we do not ‘see’). System 1 does not pose the question of what type of information is needed to make appropriate and informed decisions but takes the one that is present: in our case, one ‘sees’ that the MOOC is ‘open’, ‘available’, ‘popular’ and involves ‘skilled lecturers’. Impressions, rather than reflections, dominate. Other information, such as that which focuses on how investment in MOOC affects the internal structure of universities, why very few students complete the courses, why these heads start the studies, and how the ubiquitous problem of motivation and structured reading works for MOOC, is something that must be actively sought out and processed and is therefore rarely considered. The trend that we see all there is, leads us in the opposite direction.

From the cultural history research that sometimes goes under the name of ‘culture studies’, comes the term ‘moral panic’. This refers to the excited mood that occasionally has whipped up when new forms of association or new technology have influenced young people's behaviour in particular. Light-reading novels and entertainment literature – ‘the Nick Carter debate’ – was met with fierce indignation 100 years ago, as were motion pictures in the early to mid-1900s. Ethnologist, Jonas Frykman, has written about the "dancehall land" in Sweden in the 1940s, and other studies show how jazz and then rock aroused strong reactions. More recently, I myself remember the debate on violent videos (and the proposed ban on satellite dishes), and why not mention the panic about what computer games can do. Common to the moral panic’s expression is precisely the phenomenon that is currently in focus, which often has the newsworthy meaning of an ultimate threat to a healthy lifestyle. In a way, the positive responses in some quarters when it comes to MOOC constitute a ‘reverse moral panic’, in that they express an uncritical celebration of the promise of a future ‘golden age’.

But the success of MOOC has fundamentally to do with how we think, make judgments and decisions, and choose to act. The same applies to many other major innovations that, in recent times, have had pervasive, but often unforeseen and even disastrous, consequences. New Public Management (NPM), school money and the construction of school choice reform where far-reaching deregulation is creating an unwieldy school market are just some examples. Many bewildered people ask when faced with a fait accompli: how did it get like this? Everything seemed so promising after all. Where we imagine ourselves to be rational, in the sense of weighing the pros and cons and making broad-based decisions, it turns out that in fact we are often too intuitive, impulsive and decide on a conclusion for which we then seek confirmation. Lazily, system 2 lets us have our way, while system 1 makes sure that we are doing well cognitively; in any case, this is true if we are to believe Kahneman and his colleagues, and I think we definitely should.

NR 7 2013

Axess Magasin

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