MOOCs: Massive Open Online Courses

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George Ritzer, Introduction to Sociology. Sage, 2013.

Chapter 1, Pages 16-17

MOOCs: Massive Open Online Courses

Many believe that the future of college (and even high school) education in the United States lies in the expansion of online education, especially of a new system known as “Massive Open Online Education”, or MOOCs. The definition of a MOOC is to be found in its four elements:

  • It is designed to enrol a massive number of students (early courses course have had 100,000-lus students)
  • Even though MOOCs are, at least so far, offered by traditional universities (e.g. Stanford), they are open to anyone
  • MOOCs are exist only online and accessible to anyone with a computer and able to access the Internet
  • And, of course, their main function is to educate

While some the ideas behind MOOCs are traceable to the early 1960s. The first true MOOC began in 2008, but the big breakthrough came in 2011 with three Stanford University MOOCs each enrolling more than 100,000 students and in nearly every country in the world. A corporation, Coursea, where enrollment passed two million students, late 2012) emerged out of this at Stanford and today other companies (Udacity, edX) and many other universities are eager to offer MOOCs. There is a widespread feeling that MOOCs are going to spread rapidly and in many ways dramatically alter higher education. A major driving force is the increasing costs of traditional higher education and the fact that MOOCs are able to reach a far greater number of students at much lower cost (one instructor can teach those 100,000 plus students). MOOCs also utilizes advanced modern technologies rather than traditional, and rather primitive, face-to-face interaction in small classes, or the far less personal large lectures, characteristic of traditional college education.

One MOOC begun in 2012 is an introduction to sociology taught by Professor Mitch Duneier at Princeton University and offered to about 40,000 students worldwide on Coursea (Lewin, 2012a) , along with about 200 other courses. Like all others involved in these early courses, Prof. Duneier is feeling his way through the various aspects of the course. As in most of the early MOOCs, less than 5% of the students who began the course completed it and took the final exam. However, there was lots of student involvement and Duneier found: “Within  three weeks, I had more feedback on my sociological ideas than I’d had in my whole teaching career” (Lewin, 2012a). Feedback came through global exchanges on an online discussion, a video chat room, as well as study groups that formed throughout the world (e.g. Katmandu, Nepal). Duneier was also delighted to find that he could discusss highly sensitive sociological topics such as the lack of public restrooms for those who sold things on the street (a topic that Duneier [2000] wrote about in a famous sociological monograph, Sidewalk).

However, there are a variety of problems associated with MOOCs beyond the fact that such a small percentage of students complete courses. One is the difficulties involved in creating a web-based course that has the production values that students are accustomed to in movies, videos and online content (although one instructor has figured out ”how to make PowerPoint dance” [Lewin, 2013: A10]). Another, is that the requirements of being a good teacher mediated by the computer and the Internet are different from those required in the classroom (and few are trained, or have any experience, in teaching in this way) and for many it will be a difficult if not impossible transition. Then there is the issue of evaluating the work of thousands, potentially many thousands of students, and the fact that this will overwhelm the instructor, even with many assistants. One of the ways this is being dealt with, and it creates many other problems, is to have the students evaluate themselves.  Yet to be determined is how students can earn degrees through MOOCs, as well as how colleges will be able to collect fees and tuition and earn profits from what will ultimately be an expensive undertaking (Lewin, 2013). In terms of the latter, venture capitalists seem to think that the money will be there since they are already investing millions in MOOCs. Finally, there is the worry that this will lead to an even more stratified educational system. On the one hand, students in less developed countries, and in community colleges and lower-tier colleges and universities in the United States, will be exposed to elite educators and courses thereby democratizing education and reducing inequality in education. On the other hand, those in less developed countries and lower-tier educational institutions will be increasingly, if not totally, reliant on MOOCs and similar modes of delivering mass education (e.g., Udemy which allows professors to put their own courses online). In contrast, students in developed countries, especially in their elite universities, will continue to get highly expensive and more effective face-to-face education.

References

Lewin, Tamar. “College of Future Could be Come One, Come All.” New York Times November 19, 2012:

Lewin, Tamar. “Students Rush to Web Classes, But Profits May be Much Later.” New York Times January 7, 2013: A1, A10.

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Violence against Women in India

George Ritzer, Introduction to Sociology. Sage, 2013.

Chapter 10, Page 375

Violence against Women in India

Violence against women, especially rape, is a global problem, but the case of a 23 year-old Indian woman who died as a result of a horrific gang rape in New Delhi in December, 2012 galvanized India and much of the world. This was not an isolated case nor is it restricted to New Delhi. For example, in what was apparently a well-planned attack just a month later in the north Indian state on Punjab, a woman was assaulted after accepting a motorcycle ride from the driver of a bus on which she had been riding. He took her to a nearby village where she was raped by repeatedly by six men, including the driver, the bus conductor and four other men (Timmons and Kumar, 2013).

The New Delhi case was particularly outrageous and brutal. A 23-year-old female medical student and a male friend had seen a movie and were seeking a ride when a bus pulled over, they were waved on board, and were charged 36 cents each. However, the bus was not a public but a private bus, although the couple was fooled into believing that it was a public bus. Six men, including the driver and another posing as a conductor, were out for a joy ride on the bus. Soon after the bus departed, the harassment of the woman began and her companion was beaten with a metal rod. The woman was then repeatedly raped by the men and she was penetrated by the metal rod as the bus circled the city. Eventually, the naked couple was dumped by the side of a highway on the outskirts of the city (Mandhana and Trivedi, 2012). The woman survived for almost 2 weeks but then died as a result of internal injuries.

The case aroused global indignation and public protests in India. It also brought attention to a broader pattern of murder and other forms of violence against women in India including killings over dowry disputes, sexual violence, family disputes, and discriminatory treatment of both infant girls and elderly women (Harris 2013). Sexual harassment is common and rape is a daily occurrence in New Delhi. In fact, New Delhi experiences nearly two rapes a day. One woman who lived in New Delhi for 24 years described the ways in which her life had been affected while living in New Delhi:

As a teenager, I learned to protect myself. I never stood alone if I could help it, and I walked quickly, crossing my arms over my chest, refusing to make eye contact or smile. I cleaved through crowds shoulder-first, and avoided leaving the house after dark except in a private car…I wore clothes that were two sizes too large…The steady thrum of whistles, catcalls, hisses, sexual innuendos and open threats continued. Packs of men dawdled on the street…To make their demands clear, they would thrust their pelvises at female passers-by…In my office…at the doctor’s office, even at a house party- I couldn’t escape the intimidation (Faleiro, 2013).

While this violence against women has a long history in India, as well as in many other places in the world, some believe that is has been fueled in recent years by the progress of women in Indian societies and the resulting hostility of males who blame their failures on the success of women (Harris, 2013).

The New Delhi rape has attracted global attention and spurred protests and demonstrations in India (Timmons and Gottipati, 2012). It remains to be seen whether anything changes; whether Indian women will be less subject to rape and other forms of sexual violence and harassment.

Faleiro, Sonia. “The Unspeakable Truth About Rape in India” New York Times January 1, 2013.

Harris, Gardiner. “India’s New Focus on Rape Shows Only the Surface of Women’s Perils.” New York Times January 13, 2013.

Mandhana, Niharika and Anjani Trivedi. “Indians Outraged Over Rape on Moving Bus in New Delhi.”  New York Times India Ink December 18, 2012.

Timmons, Heather and Sruthi Gottipati. “Indian Women March: `That Girl Could Have Been Any of Us”. New York Times December 30, 2012.

Timmons, Heather and Hari Kumar. “Indian Woman is Gang-Raped after Bus Ride.” New York Times India Ink January 13, 2013.

Extreme Weather around the World

George Ritzer, Introduction to Sociology. Sage, 2013.

Chapter 14, Page 585

 Extreme Weather around the World

An overwhelming body of scientific research over a long period of time and covering many parts of the world shows that the global climate has changed and that it is likely to change even more dramatically in the foreseeable future (National Research Council, 2011). As a result, the vast majority of scientists believe that we are in the early stages of global warming that is going to lead to a number of different kinds of weather extremes in various parts of the world (Field, 2012). These extremes, as well as climate change in general, are likely to have increasingly negative effects on life throughout the world. The impact is going to vary in different parts of the world, but in many the effect is going to be negative if not catastrophic. Those who doubt this, and are dubious about global warming, were likely shocked by the extreme weather patterns throughout much of the world in 2012 and which continued into early 2013. While these could have been aberrations, they are consistent with various weather extremes that have occurred for decades, especially throughout the first decade of the 21st century. It is likely that these extremes foreshadow what we can expect in the future. Among them are the following (Lyall, 2013):

  • 2012 was the hottest year in the recorded history in the United States
  • Rio de Janeiro reached a temperature of 109.8 degrees in late 2012- the highest since records began in 1915; the heat wave continued in Brazil into 2013
  • The same was true of a heat wave in Australia which followed two of its wettest years in its history; 2013 began in Sydney with the first days of the year being among its 20 hottest days in recorded history; since the 1950s every decade in Australia has been hotter than the preceding one
  • At the same time, the Middle East experienced extreme cold which brought, among many other stunning weather events, a highly unusual storm dumping eight inches of snow on Jerusalem
  • Extreme cold gripped Siberia and China, among other places
  • The northeastern coast of United States was struck by a devastating hurricane that wreaked havoc on many areas, especially New York City and the Jersey shore
  • England has a had a variety of weather extremes with 2012 being the wettest year in its history resulting in, among other things, floods in various places; London experienced unusually heavy snowfall in early 2013

A resident of England summed up the feelings of many in the country, as well as in many other parts of the world, about these new weather realities: “’We don’t expect extremes. We don’t expect it to be like this’” (Lyall, 2013: A10). It seems clear that in the future we will all need to learn to expect the unexpected as far as weather is concerned as well as the need to learn how to deal with it as best we can. Of course, what we most need to do is to change the various ways in which humans are serving as the major cause of these climate changes.

References:

Field, Christopher. Testimony of Christopher B. Field before

United States Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works

on Update on the Latest Climate Change Science.

Washington, DC, August 2012.

Lyall, Sarah. “Heat, Flood or Icy Cold, Extreme Weather Rages Worldwide.” New York Times January 11, 2013: A4, A10.

National Research Council. America’s Climate Choices. National Academies Press, Washington DC., 2011.

Are You a Digital Drone?

George Ritzer, Introduction to Sociology. Sage, 2013.

Chapter 16, Pages 666-667

Are You a Digital Drone?

Most people, especially young people, view the Internet as a “playground” and much of what they do their as fun; as an enjoyable leisure-time activity. There is, however, an alternative perspective on this. While you might not see yourself in this way, there are those in sociology and other fields who are coming to look at much of the Internet as a “factory” and what you do there as a form of labor or work (Scholz, 2013). From the latter perspective, you are seen as spending hours every day slaving away on such tasks as updating your Facebook page and checking recent additions to other’s pages or detailing your most recent fashion choices on Pinterest. To some observers, you seem to resmble worker-bees tirelessly toiling away at a never-ending series of tasks.

In addition to thinking about what you do on the Internet as a fun, leisure-time activity, you might also see it as a series of tasks that you perform largely for yourself. They therefore seem to stand in contrast to traditional occupational activities in which you are working for others and in the process enhancing their interests while gaining little for yourself except for the pay involved. However, many critics now view what you do on the computer as very much like such work since you are often working for others and in the process making them wealthier. However, one important difference is that you are not working for a wage; on the internet you are usually engaging in “free labor”; you are working for nothing (Terranova, 2013).

For example, when you write product reviews for Amazon.com you are enhancing the value of that site and the company; you are working for them and you are not being paid for that work. Similarly, you work for Facebook, again for nothing, when you indicate your various likes and dislikes, especially for commercial products. More troubling is the much greater amount of such work that you do even though you are unaware of doing it. Google, for example, uses various data-mining techniques (web crawlers, personalized algorithmns) to track all of many things that you click on (Ross, 2013). The results are used to determine the kinds of advertisements that appear on your computer screen. Google earns money, lots of money, from those advertisers.

To put it baldly, the value of these computer-based businesses is based largely on the “work”- those clicks and likes- that you do for them free of charge. In a capitalist world you ought to be paid by all of them, but of course you are not paid. From the perspective of the critics of capitalism, you are being exploited by firms such as Google and Facebook (Fuchs, 2013). In fact, you are being exploited more than the paid workers in the capitalist system. Most of them are being paid relatively little, but you are paid nothing at all. Low paid work often yields great profits, but work that is unpaid leads to an even higher rate of profit. As a result, Google earns huge profits with a comparatively small workforce and while Facebook is not yet nearly as profitable, it has a market value of $100 billion even though it only has about two thousand paid employees.

While you might regard sites such as Facebook and Pinterest as playgrounds, you might feel a bit different about them, and perhaps behave differently, if you also thought about them as modern-day factories and yourself as unpaid drones slaving away on those sites for the benefit of their corporate owners.

References

Fuchs, Christian. “Class and Exploitation on the Internet.” Trebor Scholz, ed. Digital Labor: The Internet as Playground and Factory. NY: Routledge, 2013: 211-224.

Scholz, Trebor, ed. Digital Labor: The Internet as Playground and Factory. NY: Routledge, 2013.

Ross, Andrew. “In Search of the Lost Paycheck.” Trebor Scholz, ed. Digital Labor: The Internet as Playground and Factory. NY: Routledge, 2013: 13-32.

Terranova, Tiziana. “Free Labor”. In Trebor Scholz, ed. Digital Labor: The Internet as Playground and Factory. NY: Routledge, 2013: 33-57.

MOOCs and the McDonaldization of Education

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George Ritzer, Introduction to Sociology. Sage, 2013.

Chapter 16, Pages 666-667

MOOCs and the McDonaldization of Education

                It will be difficult, if not impossible, to avoid McDonaldization on Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). In fact, we can expect a far higher level of McDonaldization on MOOCs than in a variety of traditional educational settings that are, themselves, increasingly highly McDonaldized. Why?

For one thing, while it is possible to invent each MOOC class anew every semester, there will be a strong tendency to develop a script that can be reused, perhaps modified slightly, each year. To provide predictability in the evaluation of students, detailed “rubrics”, or standardized scoring systems, will be created, provided to students, and used to evaluate them. The more standardized and detailed the rubric, the less room for unpredictability, for creativity, on the part of both students and teachers. MOOCs will tend to be prepackaged systems with a series of short segments (often no more 8-12 minutes of lecture), embedded questions, and immediate (albeit automatic) feedback. In addition, as MOOC classes evolve, they are going to require higher and higher production values to rival those in the movies, TV or Internet performances of one kind or another. Once corporations invest serious amounts of money in techniques to improve the quality of MOOCs, there will be a strong interest in using those courses over and over in order to maximize the return on investment. Furthermore, MOOC classes are likely to be videotaped, or otherwise recorded, so that each class can be repeated semester after semester. Even if this were to be resisted at the major universities (e.g., Stanford) and by the academic stars most likely, at least at the present, to teach these classes, the classes would still be taped so that they could be used, probably for a charge, at lesser colleges and universities. This would be highly predictable with each academic setting that uses the prerecorded classes getting exactly the same content. While some interactive elements could be added to any prerecorded class, it would not even have the limited spontaneity of live MOOC classes.

The efficiency of many McDonaldized systems, including MOOCs, is heightened by substituting non-human for human technology. In the case of MOOCs, this is especially clear in the need to use computer-graded exams rather than more subjective essay exams graded by instructors. Efficiency is also increased in McDonaldized systems by “putting customers to work” rather than having the work done by paid employees (Ritzer, 2013). Obviously, it is more efficient from the point of view of workers, and cheaper from the perspective of the system that employs them, to have unpaid customers do such work. In the case of education in general, and MOOCs especially, there is a strong tendency to have the “customers” in the educational system, the students, do work performed by teachers in other contexts. For example, it is impossible for instructors to respond to thousands of online comments and questions. Instead, through the use of “crowd-sourcing”, students may be allowed to vote up or down on each question and comment. Based on student voting, instructors can focus on those issues that are considered important by the crowd; rather than the instructor, the class does the work of deciding what’s important (Lewin, 2012).  After the video presentation of a lecture, much of the educational process is left to the students either on their own or through in-person or online groups and other forms of interaction. The best example of this is the grading process. In classes of 100,000 students, or more, instructors, no matter how many assistants they might have, are not going to be able to do the grading. Thus, much of the grading is left up to the students themselves. Each student’s exam or paper might be read by, say, five other students with the student’s grade being the average of the five evaluations.

MOOCs tend to limit, if not eliminate, the processes that might serve to make education less McDonaldized. In his work on British education, Wilkinson (2010) argues, following up on some of my ideas (Ritzer, 2010), that the way to do this is to focus on the everyday, face-to-face, activities of teaching rather than developing large-scale systems- like MOOCs- to create a meaningful educational experience. As Wilkinson (2010: 157) puts it, the answer lies in finding ways of ”making ‘excellence’ enjoyable, engaging and rewarding for both children and education workers”. In my view, solution lies in focusing on “everyday activities of education making them not only the center of concern but where the true spectacle of education- excellent teachers finding new and exciting ways to educate students- is to be found” (Ritzer, 2010: 149). The problem with MOOCs from this perspective is that they move in exactly the opposite- and wrong- direction in focusing on creating a new system of education rather than working within the traditional system of everyday face-to-face education where excellent teachers engage with students in collectively finding what works for a specific issue at any given moment. MOOCs lack that direct contact and when classes are prerecorded there is little or no possibility for creative mutual engagement between teacher and student.

References

Lewin, Tamar. “College of the Future Could Be Come One, Come All”. New York Times November 19, 2012.

Ritzer, George. The McDonaldization of Society 7th, 20th Anniversary Edition. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2013.

Ritzer, George, ed. McDonaldization: The Reader, 3rd ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2013.

Wilkinson, Gary. “McSchools for McWorld? Mediating Global Pressures With a McDonaldizing Education Policy Response.” In George Ritzer, ed. McDonaldization: The Reader, 3rd ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2013: 149-157.