During the past several months, I signed up for three MOOCs—one on modeling (scientific modeling, not fashion modeling, although fashion modeling might have been more fun); one on mathematical thinking; and one on Beethoven’s piano sonatas. Although many people seem to be developing “global” positions on MOOCs, whether they will replace the academy, or play some other--or no--role in higher education, I only have some casual observations at this point.
One casual observation is to wonder with many of them why they are in video form. Why could we not read the same material? Or simply hear it in an audio blog? What is the "advantage" of watching someone talk to a camera? The assumption is that a professor who does a MOOC is a celebrity--on the order, say, of Socrates--and thus so compelling that watching the professor "adds value" to the experience. Based on my limited experience, I would not say that that is always the case.
A more significant observation has to do with audience—who is it that the instructor imagines is engaging with this course? And in responding to that question from my own point of view, I am going to risk appearing to be not a very “good” student, but one easily distracted by irrelevant considerations, but considerations that took me back to my undergraduate (and even graduate) days.
Let’s start with the professor’s wardrobe. I had forgotten how as a student, I wondered if certain faculty members had only one shirt, one sport coat (I don’t remember faculty in suits), one pair of slacks, and one tie that would be (I thought) hard to find in any store, assuming one deliberately looked for such a tie.
With MOOCs, which are videoed, of course, whether the professor is wearing the same outfit in one session as in the preceding is noticeable—whether, as a student, I should even notice this, let alone contemplate it and thus lose track of the lecture, is a good question.
But to watch someone as interesting as the phenomenal pianist Jonathan Biss essentially sit and talk at the student and to notice that he seems to be wearing the same clothes he wore in the last video led me to engage less with the content than to wonder about the logistics of how the course was created—was there no wardrobe adviser? Was the entire series videoed in one day, for example? With Biss, I was also struck—positively, actually—by the way his left hand accompanies or even conducts his talking. I was fascinated to see the engagement of an essential part of his pianist’s body carried into his communication through language.
In some instances, the professor’s lack of awareness of audience struck me as a pedagogical weakness. For example, in the modeling course the professor introduced in passing the “Monty Hall Problem.” This problem boils down to this: on Let’s Make a Deal, you have a choice of three doors; your chance of choosing the right door appears to be 1 in 3; you choose a door; the host opens another door, reveling the “zap” prize; should you now change your choice from the door you originally chose to the other remaining door? The answer is that you should switch your original choice.
I cannot explain why you should switch your choice. Indeed, it is not intuitive to me that one’s chances are improved. Remember, this was something introduced in passing, so the professor did not stop to try to explain it. Had I been a freshman—or even a graduate student—sitting in this class, I would not have raised my hand to ask about it. I would have sat—as I did before my laptop—and been lost, unable to figure out where the professor’s lecture had wandered because I was trying to determine why I must be too stupid to understand what apparently everyone was supposed to recognize intuitively as true.
Had I been a freshman sitting in class, the odds are I would have been lost for the rest of the semester. I now know that students who get lost early in a class usually do not ever recover and end up paying for classes in which they are doomed to fail—an issue that is significant for those of us committed to student success and to understanding how students navigate their way through college.
But I digress. Because this is the modern age and I was not sitting at a computer and not in a classroom, I stopped the lecture and Googled “Monty Hall Problem.” Imagine my surprise to discover that for many people, including some people with Ph.D.s, not only is the Monty Hall Problem not intuitively true, but some people even argue that it is not true at all.
My concern here is with the assumptions someone must make about an audience when offering a college-level course for tens of thousands of students, especially when the open access of such courses gives rise to the idea that one needs to know nothing in order to take the course—no pre-requisites (not even that one can understand the language—in most cases, English--the professor is speaking).
Much as I enjoyed Jonathan Biss’s course on Beethoven’s sonatas, I found the same confusion as to what the audience is assumed to know. And, for what it is worth, while I am totally confused by Monty Hall and while I am not an expert on Beethoven or the sonatas, I did study music, including several of the Sonatas; I have read the Heiligenstadt Testament—the letter in which Beethoven agonizes over his increasing deafness—I know what is meant by the progression from the tonic to the dominant and back again; I can analyze the harmonic structure of a piece that has a harmonic structure, and I have read Charles Rosen’s Sonata Forms—a book to which Biss refers and which to read requires that one can read music if one hopes to make sense of the numerous examples Rosen provides.
But suppose one does not know much about Beethoven, let alone the Thirty-Two Piano Sonatas. I wondered what people who come “cold” to this subject made of a passing reference to the “Harp” Quartet. Actually, I have asked several people, some of whom have guessed it could be a work for four harps; others, who know that a piano quartet is usually a work for piano and three string instruments, have wondered if it is a work for Harp and three string instruments. Those who know already know that it is the nickname of one of Beethoven’s Tenth String Quartet.
When Biss spoke of Beethoven’s fondness for presenting the second theme in the mediant, as opposed to the dominant, I wondered what knowledge of tonality is assumed on the part of people who take this course—which, as do so many MOOCs, says it has no pre-requisites. Incidentally, in addition to a famous example of the second theme given out in the mediant in the opening movement of Beethoven’s Twenty-First Sonata (known as the Waldstein Sonata because Beethoven dedicated it to his patron, Count Ferdinand von Waldstein), there is a breathtaking moment of the use of the mediant in the sixth measure of the first movement of Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto.
Jonathan Biss is one of my favorite pianists—in fact, I intended to hear him at Interlochen on January 14), but a snowstorm intervened. He is in the process of recording all the Beethoven Piano Sonatas. He is a thoughtful and deliberate in his approach to Beethoven. He is an extraordinarily engaging lecturer, partly because it is thrilling to hear what someone who can play these works as he plays them also thinks about these works. But his wonderful series of lectures on the Sonatas illustrates one of the most interesting questions about MOOCs in terms of their role in a college setting where grades are awarded and credit granted: namely, given that a college class is not designed for people who already have a command of the subject, but are relatively “new” to it, what common body of knowledge about a subject can we assume some 20,000 or more people share?