kitchen table math, the sequel: Eureka, part 4: Why MOOCs don't work and professors are jaunty

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Eureka, part 4: Why MOOCs don't work and professors are jaunty

Eureka
Eureka, part 2
Eureka, part 3
Eureka, part 4
Eureka, part 5

Back to my eureka moment:

Sitcoms explain why MOOCs fail, and why flipped classrooms will fail.

To reprise: sitcoms work because they are funny, and funny works because it is surprising.

Surprise affects us via reward prediction error. When something better-than-expected happens, dopamine spikes, and your brain marks that event as a good thing: a thing to return to, a thing to pay attention to when you see it again.

In short, reward prediction error (via humor, in this case) commands attention.

Which brings me to the difference between a live lecture & a MOOC.

Live lectures are, not infrequently, almost bizarrely jokey. I say "bizarrely" because the jokes don't really fit the content. They're add ons, humor for the sake of humor.

Take a look at Jo Ann Freeman's lectures on the American Revolution. These are fabulous lectures, so fabulous I've managed to watch almost 3 of them, a record for me to date.* I've never made it through more than 1 lecture from The Great Courses.

At times, Freeman is so jokey I feel impatient: Stop joking around about the Founders, will you?

But if I were sitting in the lecture hall listening to Freeman in person, everything would be different. Inside the lecture hall I would feel happy, interested, and best of all awake.

17:03 - 18:11: Here she is on her first semester teaching at Yale. I've seen this section several times now, and I still find it funny (even on tape, which I realize undermines my thesis….)



Here's Lecture 2 Being a British Colonist:



13:42 "I've already given you one arrogant British quote…"
16:53 "As promised, here is yet another arrogant British quote in my series of arrogant British quotes..."
17:36 Freeman laughs out loud at the observation that British observers never view the colonies as "polite."
17:47 Freeman on the British sending inferior goods to the colonies because the colonists wouldn't know
18:51 "I just can't resist adding [this] in, it makes me happy and it's John Adams!!!!

Another example of weird humor in college teaching: Thomas C. Foster's books.

How to Read Literature Like a Professor: A Lively and Entertaining Guide to Reading Between the Lines
How to Read Novels Like a Professor: A Jaunty Exploration of the World's Favorite Literary Form

Notice the subtitles.

"Lively and entertaining"

"Jaunty"

Then take a look at the reactions to Foster on Goodreads. More than a few readers see Foster as condescending. The reason readers see Foster as condescending, I think, is precisely that he is jaunty. He is jaunty about Shakespeare, he is jaunty about the Bible, he is jaunty about Ulysses, he is jaunty about Northrup Frye, he is jaunty about intertextuality for God's sake. Name a work of literature covered by Foster, and you will find a jocular and jaunty tone; open the book to a random page, there jocular and jaunty will be. The entire work is unrelievedly jaunty; Foster never lets up. Reading Foster, you become desperate for whatever is the opposite of comic relief.

Why would anyone, let alone a professor of English literature, write a book that leaves the reader desperate for whatever is the opposite of comic relief?

What Foster has done, I am certain of it, is transpose his classroom voice directly to the page.

It doesn't work.

But inside the classroom, his jocular and jaunty tone does work.

As a first pass at understanding how sitcoms and reward prediction error explain the failure of MOOCs and the impending failure of flips, I would say that MOOCs and flips are catastrophically handicapped by the simple fact that goofy humor works inside the classroom and doesn't work on tape.

Probably for the same reason The Big Bang Theory isn't funny without the laugh track.

Eureka, Part 5 t/k



Flipping the Classroom: Hot, Hot, Hot
MOOCs grow the gap
The New York Times is surprised
In the world of MOOCs, 2+2 is never 4
World's funniest joke: humor depends on surprise
Dick Van Dyke on comedy
Philip Keller on the flipped classroom
If students could talk

How to Read Literature Like an English Professor by Thomas C. Foster
How to Read Literature Like an English Professor by Thomas C. Foster - NOTES

* It's a toss up which I'll finish first: The New Oxford Annotated Bible with Apocrypha: New Revised Standard Version or Jo Ann Freeman's 25 lectures on the American Revolution.

Flipping the Classroom: Hot, Hot, Hot
MOOCs grow the gap
The New York Times is surprised
In the world of MOOCs, 2+2 is never 4
World's funniest joke: humor depends on surprise
Dick Van Dyke on comedy
Philip Keller on the flipped classroom
If students could talk
Who wants flipped classrooms? (Salman Khan on liberating teachers)
True story
Are math & science lectures boring in a way humanities & social science lectures are not?

9 comments:

gasstationwithoutpumps said...

Be careful what you wish for: it would be easy for MOOCs to add laugh tracks.

Catherine Johnson said...

That was my next post!

You beat me to it.

MOOC creators should mike the audience.

Better still, MOOC creators should hire an audience, instruct the audience when to laugh, when to murmur agreement, and when to emit cries of enlightenment and mike that.

kcab said...

Ummm...my son says, "how is that not funny?" We were both laughing.

But I also wanted to say that I think the element of surprise is what kept me in the latest MOOC I did. It wasn't surprise during the videos, but the times I was able to solve problems on the problem sets relatively easily.

Allison said...

The mike is a good reason for another reason. It isn't quite the issue of surprise, but it is related to dopamine.

If you are anxious, the dopamine system doesn't work right. Humor requires a feeling of in-group in order to make you feel safe enough to laugh in the first place. A good comic does encourage that feeling, and makes the in group stronger, which is why the crowd roars more over time. But in a normal classroom setting, there are many times when someone won't feel like laughing, and will smile weakly at best. He doesn't feel safe. Over time, though, the interaction of teacher and students does feel safer, and the chemistry improves. (which is often why a sub doesn't work at all...) So the community in the room creates an in-group, the dopamine system works better, and the class gets more rewards.

Laugh tracks mimic the in-group--the group laughed, and to be in the group, you need to laugh too.

MOOCs need to somehow create the in-group. Watching at home will never do that. Miking the audience might help, but probably more is needed to create that in-group and lower the anxiety.

Anonymous said...

"MOOCs need to somehow create the in-group."

Cocaine for the folks watching at home?

-Mark Roulo

Allison said...

Well, amphetamines do make the want ads interesting enough to read for hours...

Maybe the profs thinking MOOCs would work were all people on ADHD meds?

Catherine Johnson said...

If you are anxious, the dopamine system doesn't work right. Humor requires a feeling of in-group in order to make you feel safe enough to laugh in the first place. A good comic does encourage that feeling, and makes the in group stronger, which is why the crowd roars more over time.

I wonder if that explains the running-gag/Jack Benny problem? (I was thinking Allison would have something to say about that…)

You know Jack Benny is 'thinking it over' --- and when he finally says "I'm thinking it over" it's hilarious….

Maybe the 'group is being strengthened during that pause?

GoogleMaster said...

"It's a toss up which I'll finish first: The New Oxford Annotated Bible with Apocrypha: New Revised Standard Version or Jo Ann Freeman's 25 lectures on the American Revolution."

Oh, with Apocrypha! In that case, clearly you'll finish the AmRev lectures first. Now, if you had only chosen the Protestant Bible, or better yet, the Tanakh...

Catherine Johnson said...

I'm skipping the Apocrypha.