August 03, 2013

#SciAm has a #MOOC-ed up fail

The August Scientific American has what must be its worst special section since the one it ran a few years ago about electric cars. That one was a journalistic ethics failure on multiple counts. First, it was sponsored entirely and only by General Motors. Second (what a shock!) it tried to claim that GM's hybrid car, the Chevy Volt, was a full electric.

I blogged about that, including the "refusing to accept there's a problem" comments of Scientific American's blogging managing editor/SEO guru Bora Zivkovic, here.

The new #fail? A breathless touting of massive open online courses, or MOOCs.

Most of the stuff in there is either written by, or influenced by, Obama/Democratic neoliberals like Arne Duncan (he has a piece himself) or Silicon Valley-type neolibs like Salman Khan of Khan Academy fame and a senior Google executive, Peter Norvig, director of research. The Democrat-Silicon Valley pair-up is exactly the type of stuff that makes a Yevgeny Morozov barf.

I've blogged a bit before about how MOOCs in the US are likely to be a nonstarter, other than to enrich the bottom lines of university chancellors and presidents who will see them as an opportunity to replace yet more professors with adjunct faculty.

But, going for the feel-good angle, much of the section talks about the bloessings MOOCs will bring to India, or even to sub-Saharan African.

Well, lemme see.

First, you have to have adequate electricity to power your online device.

Second, you must have an online device.

Third, to adequately watch video, you must have an online device big enough for adequate video viewing. No smartphone or smaller sized tablet.

Fourth, you have to have the money to pay for all of this.

Until Google, Microsoft, or Apple address all four of these, who's going to be attending MOOCs in Uganda?

But, that's not all.

The biggie is ....

What will the content of these MOOCs be? Will it be purely "utilitarian" education, designed to make the workers work better, and perhaps be better consuming budding hypercapitalists? Or will there be a Ugandan or Indian version of a humanities and liberal arts education?

C'mon, you already know the answer to that one. Because a Peter Norwig ain't writing about how engaging a MOOC can be for his health.

Instead, it's the "personalization" of Net 2.0, about how you can "individualize" everything.

Wrong. State U., with an adjunct overseeing 700 ppl in a MOOC, ain't individualizing anything. And certainly, no Western(ized) company in Uganda is doing anything like that.

You want a "personlized" MOOC? Pull your wallet out a second time.

File this as another in my "dark side of the Internet" dispatches.


But this is far from the only problem.

Rather, stuff like this reflects a deeper decline in Scientific American.

Twenty years ago, it was still a semi-technical magazine with in-depth articles about science first, technology second. It was kind of like Science News, but in long-form journalism style.

By 10 years ago, it had lost a fair amount of that.

And today? Pure pop science. And perhaps not even on the same level as Discover.

The special section, as far as the science/technology divide, is 100 percent on the technology side.

But, even that's not the real problem.

Rather, the special section is first and foremost a public policy section. True, it's public policy as reflecting advances in technology and their potential to change this area of public policy. But, it's first and foremost a public policy special section.

Honestly? Between that fact and the exact political positioning?

This belongs in the New Republic.

1 comment:

The Bad Boy Scientist said...

SG hits another nail on the head. Sci Am is a publicity tool for 'high tech' companies.

My biggest fear is MOOCs are widely thought to be identical to distance learning (BTW: We've had distance learning for decades - correspondence school anyone?) And it will kill any support for online education when MOOCs crash and burn (the way local-access TV classes did, and edu-tainment did, and gamification of education did and how computers were going to revolutionize classrooms).