Social Justice and MOOCs

As part of the amazing diversity that APA convention offers, I had a chance yesterday to make some comparisons across topics that I might not always think about in the same day. I went to a fantastic and thought-provoking session on Martin Luther King’s 1967 speech to APA, and later I went to a talk by James Pennebaker on his experience with MOOCs [massive open online courses]. That I experienced them so close together, as well as some of Pennebaker’s points, led me to consider the social justice implications of MOOCs.

I will start with the positives, as Pennebaker’s talk was mostly positive, and I thought he made some excellent points in favor of his version of a MOOC — the SMOC, or synchronized massive open course.

University of Texas Tower and Littlefield FountainFirst, Pennebaker has always struck me as a curious, insightful and humane researcher, and his approach to his class was no exception. He professed to love teaching intro psychology (he mentioned it as being part of his contract when he came to UTexas). He applied his scientific curiosity and experimental openness to his own class, experimenting with different technologies and approaches to student learning. When approached by Stanford professors to try a MOOC, he was open to the research opportunities it presented.

Second, Pennebaker noted the benefits of collaboration with teaching, finding the back and forth interactions with his co-teacher Sam Gosling incredibly rewarding. He described both Gosling and himself clearing their fall travel schedules so that they could be present for these classes, in a way that they had not done previously. The collaboration clearly freshened up the experience of teaching intro psych for both of them.

176722241Third, Pennebaker paid particular attention to how different social classes did in his SMOC, first noting that differential academic performance by socioeconomic status is a huge problem in intro classes (what he called Big Old Classes, or BOC) and then being optimistic that his SMOC approach seems to particularly help this group of students. I think Pennebaker should be commended for this attention to “telling it like it is,” at least on the baseline of how students performed in previous iterations of intro psych. He also noted the different academic performance of lower SES students as a social scientific puzzle. These students often enter the University of Texas looking great on paper (top 5 percent of their class, etc.) but flail early on in classes. One of the big positives (although tentative) of this class was that Pennebaker noted that lower SES students actually did better in their other classes,both during and after taking this class. Pennebaker speculated that this was likely due to the daily quizzes, instilling good habits (and providing frequent feedback) among students who had likely gotten by without deeper conceptual understanding in (what Pennebaker guessed) lower quality high schools.

Now, the negatives (in terms of social justice). I think the best illustration was an interaction during the question period. There were two, in my mind related, questions. Pennebaker answered one question, “Should I do this with my 30 person class?” with, no, this is a replacement for BOCs. And another question, “Are you able to provide real writing feedback?” with “no, not really, but we weren’t able to do that in the past with 500-person lectures either.” In regard to the writing, he was hopeful that algorithmic approaches like his LIWC [linguistic inquiry and word count] program might in the future be able to offer some rudimentary feedback. So, Pennebaker seems cautious in whether this SMOC should replace courses which are not BOC, big lecture courses. But yet, a few moments later, he expressed excitement about expanding the course, and “moving into the AP market.” This is a huge problem with MOOCs, piloting on high-achieving University of Texas students (even lower SES ones) and then seeking to scale well beyond, in the hope of saving money. I am sure Pennebaker’s and Gosling’s course is a wonderful experience, but I am equally sure that all the online community building and fancy analytics won’t replace the expertise and humanity of a skilled high school Psychology teacher like Steve Jones or Maria Vita.

Related to this negative, I often find that excitement about MOOCs or flipped classrooms is often as much a testament to what they are comparing them to: often poor-quality lectures and inattention to teaching. Pennebaker himself noted how important the daily quizzes are, as well as the interaction between himself and Gosling. Each of these is not a feature of a MOOC, but a discovery of old pedagogical techniques.

In closing, I am still a MOOC skeptic, but I was impressed by some of Pennebaker’s findings, if a little disturbed by his vision of a future of higher education dominated by celebrity superprofessors. I hope that going forward, Pennebaker and his fellow MOOC teachers will recognize that these courses that they are building are not merely fun pedagogical experiments, but are being “weaponized” in a way, in a massive paradigm shift in academic labor (and K-12, too, as his AP comment notes). Pennebaker’s and Gosling’s course might be a wonderful experience, but I don’t think psychology as a whole is improved by an increased reliance on big star celebrities as we further diminish high school psychology teachers, or even teaching of psychology in smaller places like where I teach. Dr. King noted that social scientists have escaped the guilt of the physicists in designing the atomic bomb, but I worry that perhaps in 20 years, we may look back in regret at some of these bold experiments in pedagogy, not seeing the damage that they could do to the profession of teaching psychology.

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