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REINVENTION - by Debbie Chachra

A Novel Approach

What cultural cues do we convey through massive online courses?

Whether we’re mindful of them or not, values are inscribed in design and will inform how people understand and use our creations. - Debbie ChachraIn Neal Stephenson’s 1995 novel, The Diamond Age: Or, A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer, the eponymous primer is a nano-engineered, interactive, artificially intelligent device in the form of a book that has been custom designed and fabricated to guide the education of a neo-Victorian aristocrat’s daughter. A copy accidentally falls into the hands of an underprivileged girl named Nell, and the plot follows her learning and growth until she becomes a teenager. The bespoke primer tells stories, voiced by an actress elsewhere on the network whom the neglected Nell never meets but senses as an empathic, maternal presence. A second version is commissioned for the express purpose of educating a quarter of a million homeless Chinese girls who had been left to die from exposure as infants. Though their primer is mass-produced, it provides a similarly individualized, interactive education, only at scale. The difference is that no human actor narrates the mass-market clone, which is described throughout the novel as markedly inferior.

While Stephenson’s primer remains far beyond the realm of current technology, it serves as a touchstone for online education, especially massive open online courses (MOOCs). As their name implies, MOOCs have two primary characteristics: Anyone can register for and take them (open), and they can reach large numbers of learners (massive). Like the fictitious primer, MOOCs can provide a customized education, mediated by technology, to a large population that might otherwise lack access, for relatively low cost. Thus, the novel offers some insights into delivering on this laudable real-world goal.

Consider the implicit message about education and social class. Both original and mass-market versions of the primer didn’t just convey content. They also developed their users’ culture — that is, the primers passed along a set of values with the information. In the novel, the effects of the different values inscribed in the two versions are made risibly explicit. Nell, tutored with loving human interaction to succeed in a Western society, is unquestioningly recognized by the masses of nameless, machine-raised Chinese girls as their leader.

At the moment, most MOOCs are technical courses that primarily deliver content through short video lectures and problem sets. It’s likely that their creators don’t see them as transmitting any particular set of values. But urban theorist Adam Greenfield has pointed out the need to think consciously about the values we inscribe in what we design because, whether mindful of them or not, values will be inscribed, and they will inform how people understand and use what we create. As educators, we should ask what values are being incorporated into the design of MOOCs. For a start, most MOOCs embody a particular pedagogical approach: that knowledge is transferred from an expert to a newcomer, rather than something that is constructed by the learner by their engagement. More saliently, two of the main players, Udacity and Coursera, are steeped in Silicon Valley’s start-up culture. The third major player, edX, is a nonprofit backed by MIT, Harvard, and other universities. How will the implicitly different values of these organizations be inscribed in the courses they create, especially as Udacity and Coursera try to create viable business models?

There’s no question that higher education is entering a time of massive change. Engineering educators may never have given much thought to the values embodied in how we teach. But we now have the opportunity — and the responsibility — to consider what more besides content gets incorporated in MOOCs as we participate in their creation or use them in our teaching. It’s time to give our values a voice.


Debbie Chachra is an associate professor of materials science at the Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering. She does research, speaks, and consults on engineering education and the student experience. She can be reached at or on Twitter as @debcha. This piece was informed by a conversation with Mark Chang of edX.


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