MOOCs and Entropy

A couple of quick program notes:

(1)    Because I’m close to but haven’t quite completed the next courses I’d like to review, there will not be a Degree of Freedom newsletter this week

(2)    Check out an interview with yours truly at MOOC News and Reviews!

With that out of the way, I’d like to revisit the challenge of applying things I’ve been studying as part of my One Year BA to the subject of MOOCs and free learning.

Previously, I’ve looked at the economics of education through the lens of what I learned from Coursera’s Property and Liability class, taught by Professor Richard Adelstein from Wesleyan University.  And because Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill have made an appearance in nearly every class that touches on modern philosophical subjects (including Adelstein’s Property class), I took a look at what the theory of Utilitarianism might have to say about the MOOC phenomenon.

Today I’d like to stretch a bit and see if the concept of entropy has anything to say to us about the revolution currently underway in technology-based education.

While I’ve not taken a course specifically in the scientific theory of entropy, a class I took entitled Mysteries of Physics: Time dwelt on the subject at length.

My review of that course expressed disappointment that the professor didn’t seem to deliver the goods in terms of explaining what time is (or might be) in an accessible fashion.  But in an attempt to define the forward passage of time as a process of increasing entropy, he brought up some issues that I thought could be applicable to the subject of this blog.

In scientific terms, entropy represents the number of microstates that can lead to the same macrostate.  To use a simple example, the number of water molecules in an ice cube and a room full of steam might be exactly the same.  But because there are far more ways for water molecules to arrange themselves to create that room of steam vs. the ice cube, steam is said to have higher entropy than ice.

The Second Law of Thermodynamics which says that the universe tends towards higher entropy is illustrated by the fact that, absent outside interference, an ice cube is more likely to melt and then turn into vapor than a room full of steam will coalesce into an ice cube.

Using this universal principle as a metaphor within the context of education, there are just so many things a class taught in a traditional manner (i.e., a room full of students listening to a teacher) can be.  For example, I might have gotten something slightly different out of a class I took when I originally went to college than did the other 25-30 people who sat with me in the same class.  But the number of different experiences people could possibly have had in the course was limited to the number of people sitting in that room.

But if that same class was put online and taught to 50,000 people, suddenly the experiences create by the class vary not just quantitatively but qualitatively.

For instance, several thousand students might simply audit the class (listen to the video lectures) while several thousand others might watch the lectures and do all of the assignments in order to obtain a certificate.  And among those who join the class, many might be working independently, but some might take a class together in their own self-created learning community.

And even those studying on their own are going to be interacting with the material differently (some might participate in discussion frequently, while others rarely, for example).  And given that there is no limitation as to who can take the class (vs. the original college class that might be limited to a few dozen people who are generally of the same age and education level), the experiences people bring to a course will vary far more widely in a MOOC.

So a MOOC can be said to be a higher entropy configuration of education since there are simply more states a MOOC can exist in and still be the same MOOC.  The best analogy I can think of came from a review of the 2005 movie Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in which the reviewer claimed that he had anticipated this story to be made into a feature film since it was simply running out of other things to be (having already manifested itself as a radio program, book series, record series and TV show).

Now if the Second Law of Thermodynamics holds, it will be very difficult for a course that’s been allowed to roam free in the universe and achieve different states to be forced back into its original, lower-entropy configuration.  Which supports a theory I’ve been kicking around that says the most important aspect of the whole MOOC experience has been the normative change it has created within the university system whereby sharing resources (like classes) vs. protecting them as valuable intellectual property is irreversible, even if the current constellation of MOOC providers and institutions changes over time.

So if education behaves like the rest of the universe, then there may be no turning back (even if we have no idea of the final state of online learning might look like).

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