A New Era of Unfounded Hyperbole

In 1938, Orson Welles’ broadcast of the radio drama of War of the Worlds caused massive panic among listeners. Early scholars of communication used this event to cement their belief in what was called the “hypodermic needle” theory of communication. According to this model, a speaker or producer injected content into a passive audience. That audience would receive the message and react in predictable ways. Audiences were susceptible to propaganda and misinformation, but also capable of benefiting from high-minded content delivered by reputable sources.

While it did not take long after World War II for more sophisticated media and communication scholars to challenge and reject the hypodermic needle theory, it stubbornly re-emerges in the worst popular media criticism today. You hear it in whines from the right about “liberal media bias.” You see it when liberals blame Fox News for their inability to get more working-class Americans to vote for what liberals assume are their economic interests.

Sadly, the hypodermic needle theory also dominates the assumptions about higher education teaching and renders most recent discussions about Massive Open Online Courses shallow and hyperbolic.

We see it at work in an interesting and potentially persuasive essay by Alex Tabarrok. In this essay, Tabarrok conflates teaching with informing: “The productivity of teaching, measured in, say, kilobytes transmitted from teacher to student per unit of time, hasn’t increased much,” but MOOCs offer just that opportunity to substantially increase the rate of transfer, Tabarrok writes. Ah, if only education were that simple—or anything like the injection or “transfer” of information from one person to another.

I fear that his willingness to be uncritically dazzled by the efficient delivery of content has distracted Tabarrok from appreciating the variety of teaching tactics, tools, and methods that academics experiment with. The cartoon Tabarrok draws of higher education being a series of huge lectures taught by less-than-master professors does not accurately capture the diversity of higher education in the United States or the world.

Beyond that, Tabarrok conflates being a student with being a consumer. He writes “In the online world, consumers need not each consume at the same time, and suppliers need not produce at the moment of consumption.”

Higher education is a complex process through which one is merely guided. It’s a series of experiments that test one’s capacities, assess one’s talents, focus one’s interests, and enable the acculturation into the educated middle class. Along the way there are licensing procedures, awards, successes, failures, heartbreaks, and hangovers. There is, of course, a tangle of productions, consumptions, and commercial transactions embedded within higher education. But there is no single act of production or consumption that captures either the purpose or value of higher education.

Tabarrok acknowledges the value of the “college experience,” but he makes a mistake in distinguishing it from what happens in a course. Courses don’t end when the lecture is over and the book is closed. They are essential and embedded parts of a rich, humane project. Sometimes courses are the least important element of the process of education. Some people, like Bruce Springsteen, learn more from the three-minute record, baby, than they ever learned in school. But many of us would not have encountered that three-minute record without the social and intellectual petri dish we call the American university campus.

The classroom has rich value in itself. It’s a safe, almost sacred space where students can try on ideas for size in real time, gently criticize others, challenge authority, and drive conversations in new directions. But that does not mean that classrooms can’t or shouldn’t be simulated. And for the economic reasons Tabarrok cites there are good reasons to simulate classrooms.

Courses are not anything like plays—unless they are very bad courses. And online courses are not anything like movies—unless they are really boring movies. I have taught online for years with some success, some failure, and a lot of experimentation and learning.

But online teaching and MOOCs are not the same thing. In many ways they are antithetical. Online teaching has been succeeding for almost 20 years now. When done well or poorly online teaching overcomes the very costs Tabarrok cites—transportation, opportunity, etc. Yet when done well online courses include rich, almost constant interactions among students and faculty, a constant forum for feedback and correction, and space and time for conversation beyond the contours of the course material.

MOOCs, on the other hand, are more like fancy textbooks. They are all about the mass market and not the rich connectivity that established online courses offer their limited collection of students. MOOCs condense and fracture course material and present it in the pithiest, shallowest form. They lack improvisation, serendipity, and familiarity. They pander to the broadest possible audience because in the MOOC economy—such as it is—enrollment is currency and quality is measured by the number of people who have checked in without subtracting the number who check out.

That’s not to say that MOOCs could not improve greatly, as I trust they will. But the unfounded hyperbole surrounding MOOCs ignores the real outstanding work professors in all fields have been doing integrating digital and multimedia tools into their courses and the outstanding work being done with online courses that have reasonable, controlled enrollments.

Of course, you can’t make headlines with an outstanding traditional online course on accounting. You can only make headlines by “enrolling” more than 500,000 “students” (most of whom disappear almost instantly) in a MOOC or—better yet—“branding” a MOOC as an extension of a celebrity academic.

That leads me to Tabarrok’s claim that MOOCs offer a way for the most students to encounter the best teachers. How do we know that the best teachers are the ones doing the MOOCs? How do we know that the most popular MOOCs are the best? Are we to assume that popularity is a proxy for quality?

In short, we should not assume that. Quality teaching is contextual. My sister teaches math in a community college. She has students of all ages, most with a limited foundation in math. Most have children and work several jobs. She draws them into the field, inspires them to push further, gives them frank feedback, and spends hours with them after class. I, on the other hand, stand in front of hundreds of the brightest, most privileged young Americans and tell them how copyright works and privacy doesn’t. I have a global reputation as an author and scholar. My sister has a local reputation as a caring yet demanding teacher. Which Vaidhyanathan is the better teacher? Anyone who witnessed our courses would conclude that my sister is. But “the market” foolishly rewards me with prestige, a higher salary, more prepared and acculturated students, and global recognition. Which one of us would attract a bigger MOOC following? For this reason and others, you are not going to see either Vaidhyanathan performing for the MOOC audience any time soon.

MIT president L. Rafael Reif, in his inaugural address in September, declared that MOOCs represent “a great step forward for humanity, a step that we should all celebrate. I am deeply proud that MIT and its edX partners, Harvard and U.C. Berkeley, are helping to lead this revolution, higher education’s most profound technological transformation in more than 500 years.”

How could President Reif possibly know that MOOCs represent any significant change to American higher education, let alone its “most profound technological transformation in more than 500 years”?

As someone who has sat in many a classroom in Austin, Texas, I would nominate air conditioning for that honor. And as someone who researches the ways that technology affects society and vice versa, I would nominate the rise of the mainframe computer in the 1950s and 1960s before a simple Web-based platform that hosts text and video.

This may or may not be the dawn of a new technological age for higher education. But it is certainly the dawn of a new era of unfounded hyperbole.

Let’s be clear. MOOCs offer many advantages to institutions of higher education. And universities would be foolish to miss out on them, regardless of the empty rhetoric surrounding the MOOC madness. MOOCs offer great opportunities for established colleges and universities to market themselves in powerful new ways. Instead of showing off videos or images of lovely campuses filled with happy young students, universities can invite prospective students into a lecture (hopefully a good one) with a famous professor (hopefully a good one).

MOOCs offer even better opportunities for great populations of humanity who do not have access to high quality courses. If even one young person in a corner of the world without universities gets excited and motivated by physics or poetry, then the whole MOOC endeavor has paid off.

As of 2012, MOOCs are a public service that America’s wealthiest universities have chosen to engage in. Designing and running a MOOC is expensive, just like almost everything else in higher education. But these universities see a duty in sharing knowledge and expertise beyond their walls. This is not a new ethic among universities. But it’s easier to do than ever before.

So let’s focus on what we can learn and accomplish from the MOOC experiment and leave behind the unfounded hyperbole.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Alex Tabarrok reviews why traditional education is getting more expensive; he finds that its productivity has not been able to rise as fast as productivity in other sectors. Online education offers a promising alternative, and he explains how, if done properly, online education can realize productivity gains along many different dimensions. He concludes that online education is disrupting traditional educational forms, and that it is not yet clear what new forms will emerge from this exciting transition.

Response Essays

  • Alan Ryan views online education as potentially beneficial for students of lower-income families, but he demurs somewhat: As a technology, lectures have mostly been obsolete ever since the spread of the printed book. And the tutorial system as employed at Oxford will not realize many efficiency gains by going online. Additionally, the ability to selectively view the best fifteen minutes of any current professor’s oeuvre bodes ill for the professoriate, whose careers may all become just that short.

  • Siva Vaidhyanathan criticizes the “hypodermic needle” theory of communication, in which a communicator uses mass media to inject content into a passive audience. He argues that Alex Tabarrok’s lead essay is to some extent guilty of employing this theory. The true value of higher education lies not in injecting information, but in students’ and educators’ interactions. Online education can sometimes duplicate this process, but MOOCs are typically little more than “fancy textbooks.” While they have promise in some areas, we shouldn’t trust the hype.

  • Kevin Carey argues that the implications of online education are even more radical than Alex Tabarrok’s lead essay might imply. The introductory courses that scale well are almost certain to go fully online soon. Accreditation for online learning can’t be far behind, possibly by way of systems other than the traditional university credit. Little stands in the way of this shift except “habit, convention, and government regulation.” But afterward, the old university system may no longer be solvent.