IDEAS: The access?
HABER: Right, to Sandel, to Nagy, and to Roth and all these professors on my own time. The trade-off is I can’t march into the president of Wesleyan’s office and say, ‘Why are you making me read this!?’ [Haber brandishes a copy of Virginia Woolf’s “To the Lighthouse.”]
IDEAS: I imagine you could have some great discussions and some that go off the rails, where people are misdirecting each other?
HABER: Yeah, the discussion boards look like comment sections on news stories—really, really thoughtful and really, really misguided. At least half the people taking the courses are outside of the US, meaning that English is not everybody’s first language. Generally I found that any discussion that goes over 25 comments is gravitating toward the mean, which is the same old stale left/right debate. If the discussion goes on over 25 comments usually it’s because they’re having a fight over Ayn Rand.
IDEAS: One of the big questions about MOOCs is how they handle grading. EdX plans to release open source software that grades essays with artificial intelligence. But one of your classes has students grading each other’s essays?
HABER: There are 25,000 students enrolled in the class...so they have set up peer grading mechanism where every student who submits a paper is also required to grade three of them, and to grade them based on a specified rubric....A rubric that is simple enough for anybody to use is going to generate papers that anybody can write, in which case how meaningful are those going to be? Frankly, most of the papers I have written so far are, compare Baudelaire and Freud, now compare Rousseau and Marx.
IDEAS: But you scored poorly on one of them?
HABER: I wrote a clever essay that didn’t really answer the question....And I got called out on it....Peer grading can be used to get people to stay focused on message, but it also means somebody who wants to spread their wings a little bit, they can’t do it there. So where can they do it?
IDEAS: Do you think MOOCs will change the world?
HABER: They’re definitely going to make a big contribution to changing education. The risk is, everyone is so excited about them now, it will be one of those angel/devil things....When in fact, they are an interesting work in progress.
Marcella Bombardieri, a Globe staff writer, is returning to the higher education beat. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.