The South Sea MOOC

South Sea Island
Nothing to do with Moocs (Image courtesy of

A colleague has drawn my attention to this excellent post over at Posthegemony. The author argues, quite reasonably that a lot of the on line learning models draw from the sciences and are thus unsuitable for use in the humanities.

Now, I’d be the first to accept that I’m a bit of a sceptic with regard to technology. I use it alot, and  I couldn’t really imagine life without Google, (even if they are telling the CIA what I’m up to every day) or the myriad of apps I use (I’m rather taken with the neat “to do” list app from at the moment, and I love playing with Mapmyride) but I don’t see tech as a panacea. I’d go further than Posthegemony though. I’m not sure that the multiple choice assessment model is all that helpful in the sciences either, at least not in terms of increasing understanding. I’ve been taking part in a MOOC (Well, in a pilot of one), and one of the tasks was to evaluate another course. I chose the Khan Academy Maths course.

While I do quite like the presentation style of the Khan videos I’ve seen, the tests it provides seem to do little more than test arithmetical accuracy. Of course accuracy is important in science but it’s no use without understanding the underlying conceptual structure and there’s no way (that I can see) of acknowledging that a student has understood a concept, or even partially understood it. The real skill in teaching, in my view is getting students from that state of partial understanding to complete understanding (and yes, “bigging up” the students own role in that journey.)


I think computers are long way from that yet, and what we’re seeing is a “bubble” along the lines of the South Sea Bubble, or Tulip Fever of centuries past. I do not doubt that when someone develops software that can display the sort of empathy that a human teacher has, that is the ability to analyse what is wrong and why, as opposed to merely seeing that something IS wrong, we will indeed see considerable profits from on-line education. But I don’t think we’re anywhere near that yet.

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