Couch Potato U.

Authors: Jonathan Grudin
Posted: Wed, March 06, 2013 - 8:19:48

An essay by Clay Shirky asserts that MOOC impact on higher education will parallel the impact of MP3s. The music industry could suppress Napster but not a deeper change: We can listen to the song we want when we want rather than buy it packaged in a CD with unwanted content. Whether or not a particular MOOC platform succeeds, the significant change is that students can now learn what they want when they want, freed from the education industry’s packaging of desirable and less desirable content into majors and degree programs.

MOOC deniers argue that quality control is hard, higher education is more than classes, and elite credentials will retain value. Do these arguments impress you? The Web ushered in an era of lector emptor, caveat emptor, employer beware. If you are hiring a credential, OK, but if you are hiring for skills, you will find a way to assess them. Clever universities and other brick-and-mortar or online entities will find ways to provide the extracurricular benefits. Shirky’s analysis is looking good.

A nagging question remains. Audio- and video-recorded lectures have been around for decades. Why haven’t they taken off? MOOC epicenter Stanford proved in the 1970s that students who met in small groups to view and discuss a pre-recorded lecture did better than students who attended the lecture [1]. This finding was replicated by various education research teams, yet the approach never got traction. Why?

Was it the difficulty of producing or finding good lectures around which to build courses? Is a live performance preferable when it is an option despite inferior learning outcomes? We need to know—what might overcome the preference for live performances or be added to online performances to make them feel live?

As couch potatoes, we consume video content alone. Sort of. Studio audiences accompany late night viewers and laugh tracks are a staple of sitcoms because the ersatz camaraderie is effective. Download counts give a sense of crowd participation to TED talks and other YouTube viewing.

We’re easily enough pulled away from the couch to mingle and applaud with other people. Hollywood box office set a record last year. I often trek to local theaters, concerts, athletic events, and live lectures to see things that I could view from a better angle at home, more comfortably and with less time traveling and waiting in queues.

How important is the sense of synchronized co-viewing? Do most addicts of daytime soaps discuss the week’s action with friends? I avoid pre-recorded athletic competitions and award ceremonies that I would watch as live broadcasts even when I don’t know who won. I don’t know why. Perhaps I don’t feel I’m temporally accompanying the spectators visible at the event, or I won’t be likely to discuss the activity later with others who saw it earlier. Perhaps when watching such an event I unconsciously hope to magically influence an outcome by rooting, which I know I can’t do if it is already over.

Returning to the theme of education, assignment deadlines and quizzes provide a sense of group participation, along with some flexibility in when the content is viewed. Clay Shirky’s elite university experience included great lectures and small discussion sections. MOOCs could rise or fall on well-designed small-group student interactions as much as on lecture quality, for all but the most motivated and capable students. Stanford in the 1970s found that the psychology of engagement trumped content quality. In those trials, teaching assistants led the group discussions, but others established that TAs are not necessary [2].

MOOCs are working for some people. We don’t know how effective these channels will be for what percent of the population, or what the impact will be on post-secondary or even secondary education. Will only a few instructors be needed? Did the explosion of pop music recordings decrease the number of high school garage bands performing at local functions? Perhaps not. Has the Web, Wikipedia, and YouTube concentrated instruction? Print encyclopedias are gone, but more people contribute to Wikipedia entries and are recording and uploading how-to tutorials for almost anything imaginable. An instructor might utilize available materials for most lectures, yet for one or two topics of the highest personal interest create and even upload a lecture.

Technology over the next decade is likely to profoundly reconstruct education: K12, post-secondary, and informal. If you have an opinion as to how it will play out, I’d like to hear from you.


1. Gibbons, J.F., Kincheloe, W.R., and Down, K.S. Tutored videotape instruction: A new use of electronics media in education. Science 195 (1977), 1139-1146.

2. Stone, H.R. Economic development and technology transfer: Implications for video-based distance education. In Contemporary Issues in American Distance Education. M.G. Moore, ed. Pergamon, 1990, 231-242.

Thanks to Bob Larson for pointing out Clay Shirky’s essay, and to interactions blog readers who have contacted me directly. To jump-start use of the online Comment field below (which perhaps should be labeled Discussion) I considered hiring Turkers, but instead I’ll offer a bribe: your beverage of choice when next our paths cross.

Posted in: on Wed, March 06, 2013 - 8:19:48

Jonathan Grudin

Jonathan Grudin is a principal researcher in the Natural Interaction Group at Microsoft Research.
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@Peter Sisk (2013 03 06)

I took Eric Lander’s intro biology course for credit at MIT five years ago. I’m taking it again with my daughter for free on Edx now (started this morning). It’s hard to imagine anything much more appealing than Eric live, but what a treat to be able to share the course with my daugher, who is probably going to end up at a more Liberal Arts-y institution than MIT, and would probably be too late to take 7.012 from Eric even if she were to go there.

The rhythm of an online course is completely different from that of a series of online lectures: the lessons are broken up into short chunks. There are trivial quizzes during and after most chunks, just to be sure you’re paying attention (and also maybe to provide you with a little positive feedback: “HEY!!!  I got it right! I’m getting this!”) Then there are weekly problem sets that I have found to be significantly challenging (like grad-school level difficult, in some cases). The problem sets are graded automatically and also by peer review. Some courses give the student multiple attempts to get the problem sets right, while others allow only a single submission without penalty. Finally, there are online discussion fora, where students can share their insights, questions, likes, dislikes etc. I have found that if you make the effort to do the problem sets, you get “hooked into” the course. Once you’ve done one problem set it gets harder to walk away from the course. I think that this particular form of free, rigorous online education is world changing and am fascinated to see what develops. The article compares the effect of MOOCs to that of file sharing on the music industry. I think it could be much more profound than that - perhaps as world-changing as the effect of the invention of movable type on the dissemination of knowledge and culture.

@Amelia Abreu (2013 03 07)

The point you make here about engagement gets at what is so far noticeably absent from the rhetoric around MOOCs, and points to a larger issue: pedagogy. The pedagogical tactics for MOOCs appeal to a very specific type of learner- one who can work confidently alone. While MOOCs are touted as a solution for the skills gap in the STEM workforce, I’m doubtful that they alone can engage the students who are so underserved by traditional STEM education.

@ 8641532 (2013 03 18)

Richard Grusin has a brief manifesto “20 things the matter with MOOCs” here. Interesting.

@Preston Lathrop (2013 04 05)

I have an opinion as to how it will play out, so you are hearing from me.

My opinion is that you have posed some of the right questions in this blog post. Journalists who cover business and education have in my reading either not posed any questions or posed only inconsequential questions about MOOCs. I agree with @Amelia Abreu that pedagogical questions are important, but your personal reflection on broadcast viewing seem more decisive to me.

The classroom is an architypical venue, like the theatre or sports field. MOOC developers won’t succeed—I don’t believe—by trying to replicate that venue. They have opportunities, however, to address participant needs that physical-world venues meet, such as awareness of classmates and a sense that the class is a timely event (as opposed to a tired old recording).