Another MOOC-related thought (once you start saying “mooc,” it’s difficult to stop):
One of the people I interviewed for the MOOC article was Swarthmore history professor Timothy Burke, who wrote a perceptive post on MOOCs a few months ago on his blog. In our conversation, Burke pointed out that a lot of the massive online classes that have generated so much excitement over the last year are classes that would be largely taught through computers, anyway — computer science, software programming, and web design classes, notably, as well as some math classes. It’s no surprise that such “digitally native” classes would translate well to a purely digital distribution medium, but that fact tells us little about how successfully other sorts of classes would make such a transition.
A few days ago, Wheaton College English professor Alan Jacobs (whom I also interviewed) touched on this same theme in a brief post about my article. “In many ways,” he wrote, “the problem of technology is the ‘to a man with a hammer everything looks like a nail’ problem”:
Once we discover that some subjects — primarily in mathematics and computer science — can be taught via the technologically-sophisticated MOOC method, then it becomes very tempting to say that the most important educational deficiency we have is in mathematics and computer science. This may or may not be true; but if we have what we believe to be a technological solution to a deficiency, then it becomes very easy for us to convince ourselves that the problem we think we can solve is the problem that really matters.
The means shapes the ends, by influencing both the way we define the problem and the way we define the solution. By coincidence, I read Jacobs’s post the same day I was re-reading a chapter from Langdon Winner’s 1977 book Autonomous Technology. Winner describes a phenomenon he calls reverse adaptation, which he defines as “the adjustment of human ends to match the character of the available means”:
We have already seen arguments to the effect that persons adapt themselves to the order, discipline, and pace of the organizations in which they work. But even more significant is the state of affairs in which people come to accept the norms and standards of technical processes as central to their lives as a whole. A subtle but comprehensive alteration takes place in the form and substance of their thinking and motivation. Efficiency, speed, precise measurement, rationality, productivity, and technical improvement become ends in themselves applied obsessively to areas of life in which they would previously have been rejected as inappropriate. Efficiency — the quest for maximum output per unit input — is, no one would question, of paramount importance in technical systems. But now efficiency takes on a more general value and becomes a universal maxim for all intelligent conduct. Is the most product being obtained for the resources and effort expended? The question is no longer applied solely to such things as assembly-line production. It becomes equally applicable to matters of pleasure, leisure, learning, every instance of human communication, and every kind of activity, whatever its ostensive purpose. Similarly, speed — the rate of performance and swiftness of motion — makes sense as an instrumental value in certain kinds of technological operation. But now speed is taken to be an admirable characteristic in and of itself. The faster is the superior, whatever it may be.
Not only does everything look like a nail to the man with a hammer, but the solution to every problem looks like a nail gun.
The implications go well beyond MOOCs, of course.