MOOCs and online agendas

During my first week in one of the Coursera MOOCs I’m taking, University of Arizona’s Astronomy: Exploring Space and Time, I observed something rather interesting in the community portion of the course. At first I was going to simply include it in my first week impressions, but it brings up a bigger issue that I think is worth examining more thoroughly.

I don’t want to go into the details of it, but early in the course, a thread sprung up started by someone claiming the earth is only 6,000 years old. Obviously, this claim has no place in a science class. While the claim was brought informally by saying, effectively, “Here’s what I think, how about everyone else?”, the responses that followed took, in my opinion, an evangelical turn.

The broader issue at play is this: when we teach a course in person, we tend to assume that the majority of people in the class are students whose primary “agenda” for the class is to either learn the material or get a good grade. In my ten years in academia, I can’t think of an instance of ever worrying about whether additional agendas were at play. This is largely because of the major obstacle to participation in an in-person college degree program: you’re paying a ton of money and dedicating an enormous amount of time, which would deter people with more subtle agendas.

In Coursera and other MOOCs, however, anyone can join, and for free. What is to deter competing agendas from entering the fray? In these MOOCs, there will be people who sign up and participate in these courses with agendas rather than to learn from the course’s stated purpose. There will be churches that consider it an act of evangelism to try to educate these people studying the origins of the universe on the earth’s “true” origin. There will be special interest groups that see classes on climate change or other environmental issues as opportunities to change the conversation in their favor or sow doubt when no doubt ought to exist. There will be political organizations wanting to present a biased view of history that is favorable to their platform. These MOOCs risk becoming battlegrounds rather than learning opportunities. We see this already on other social media platforms, where teams of people are paid by particular groups to try to sway the conversation in one way or the other; there is no obstacle that I can see to prevent open online courses from being subjected to the same kind of astroturfing.

When we think of college courses (or at least when I do), we think of them as opportunities for groups of learners to explore a topic together, typically guided by an expert in the field. When people are entering these courses with their own agendas that directly conflict with the material of the course, that opportunity is compromised.

So what do we do about this? I’m not sure. One could argue in favor of a heavy-handed approach, that anyone arguing for pseudoscience or false science in a college science course is simply kicked out; but the targets of that heavyhandedness would likely take this as a sign that science fears their alternate viewpoints and would sooner silence them than engage them in discussion. Those political groups would insist that it is we scientists who are concealing an agenda in our MOOCs. That is, of course, not the case; but an introductory science course is not the place to get into debates with people that have no intention of ever changing their viewpoint. Complicating matters further, though, is that for some of these people, their participation in these MOOCs is earnest: for many, this may be the first time they’re exposed to the scientific process, and they are willing to learn, and if we merely dismiss them as another fundamentalist with an agenda we miss the opportunity to introduce them to a broader view of the world.

So, a heavyhanded response is likely not the best option. Do we engage them in authentic discussion? That is a risky endeavor. For one, engaging in a discussion with completely unsubstantiated viewpoints risks giving them undeserved legitimacy. For another, any authentic discussion depends on both parties discussing on the same grounds; if we disagree on fundamental truths, then we may not ever meet a resolution. If we debate with someone who does not understand or believe the nature of evidence and theory-building, there is no shared understanding that can arise. It is a waste of our time and a needless distraction for the class.

If both shutting them down and engaging them in discussion are undesirable, what then can we do? Right now, my only idea is a third option: attempt to prevent them from entering the class in the first place. Of course, we can’t and shouldn’t do “interviews” for admission to a class for the same reasons stated above, but there are other ways that we can limit the participation of people with little desire to actually authentically learn. The first to come to mind for me is to introduce a barrier to entry. Attach a cost to pushing for your agenda. When anyone can “walk” in and start spouting off with their views as if they are as qualified as the professor, it is unsurprising that we get people promoting their views rather than engaging with course content. If a cost is associated with doing so, I would argue you limit the number of people who enter with an agenda rather than the desire to learn. Of course, this introduces the side effect of potentially preventing authentic learners from joining the class as well; however, we know that paying students are already far, far more likely to complete courses anyway. Depending on how you explain this data, this would mean that either those students who no longer join when there exists a price were not likely to complete the course anyway, or that forcing those students to pay will increase their likelihood of completing the course. Either option is desirable, though it is up for debate whether those would be the actual effects.

This isn’t all or nothing, of course. One could imagine a hybrid model where the payment associated simply gets you access to the community features, but that the content is available for free. This would preserve Coursera’s MOOCs’ desired openness while also attempting to safeguard its courses from outside influences. And, as a happy side effect, the money raised through this mechanism could go toward funding the classroom experience, paying for graders, compensating professors for their time, and building up the platform. I know I’d be very curious to see how the community for this class operated if I had the option of only interacting with those students also paying to participate in the course.

2 thoughts on “MOOCs and online agendas”

  1. Sorry David, I think that might’ve been my AI agent from last semester. I’ll dig into it and see if I can fix it. Probably decimal precision issue, meant to say 6 billion, not 6000.

    Seriously though, I don’t have much of an approach to your question of what to do, other than I guess the instructors perhaps should have some authority when things go off topic. That’s what an instructor would do in class if someone went off (and I have seen similar events occur in classes that were not online). If discussion starts going off topic maybe a comment to try to redirect would be the first action. If it continues to go off then those posts get removed, and if it still occurs then the student is dropped. Discussion off topic is social media discussion, not class discussion. That said, one might argue, if one has scientific evidence over and above a biblical reference (or inference), that the earth being 6,000 years old is on topic. But that’s a pretty big “if”. I don’t think we should ever try to make barriers to getting into a class beyond academic performance and pre-reqs that apply. I do think it is appropriate for the instructors to manage the discussion if it gets off topic. What happens if someone starts selling their cosmetics or soap or other home business products? A “Ned Ryerson” could get on and try to sell insurance. I know the student counts can get very large and it may prove difficult to monitor (hmmm, maybe an AI agent after all), but would hate to end up being a barrier to someone honestly trying to get something from the program because of the few with off topic agendas.

    1. I love the idea that mistakes over the age of the earth can be explained as floating point errors.

      I think you’re echoing the underlying issue, though. There are always going to be false positives and false negatives; unless we have the most liberal or conservative policy regarding how to respond to these individuals, we’re always going to kick out people with earnest interest or allow people to remain with hidden agendas. The question is: on which side do we want to err?

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