Interview: Alberto Cairo on MOOCs, the future of education and infographics

Francis Gagnon
December 18, 2012

 Alberto Cairo Alberto Cairo

It’s been a busy year for Alberto Cairo. In January, he started teaching information graphics and visualization at the School of Communication of the University of Miami; in August he published The Functional Art; and, from October to December, he gave his first massive open online course (MOOC) as a teacher.

Having been a student in his MOOC, I was curious to hear his views on this format and data visualization, and to know more about his background. He kindly agreed to do an interview and, with his usual generosity, took the time to share his thoughts at length.

In your review of this first MOOC as a teacher, you describe the format as workshop more than college-level course. Is this how you imagine this new format will evolve? Where do you think it will be some 10 years from now?

It is difficult to say. I am not good at making forecasts. Who is, anyway? Forecasts are probabilistic, so I am going to tell you what my hunch is about what may happen in the near future —not 10 years from now, that’s too far.

First, I don’t think that MOOCs will replace all regular college courses anytime soon, at least in their current format. There’s a lot of hype about MOOCs and, as much as I like the idea behind this model, I can also see its shortcomings. My lab classes, for instance, in which I go very deeply into how to design infographics and visualizations, cannot be taught online completely, since a good portion of them is based on one-on-one interactions with students, on creating personal, mentoring relationships with them. Students work in the lab, I sit with each of them, we talk about their works in progress in front of their computers, etc. (More about this in my next answer).

Nevertheless, I do foresee that MOOCs will (and should) kill the 50 (or 100!)-people lecture-based 101 class. That model didn’t make sense fifteen years ago, when I was in college, and it is a waste of time and resources today, when you have tools that let you offer those kinds of things more efficiently.

More theoretical and introductory courses will inevitably be taught online, as they are cheaper in terms of instructor time, and because doing so improves learning: Not all students are really awake at 9 a.m.; some of them would prefer to do their homework at night. They can do their readings, watch short video lectures, or do their homework when they want and where they want.

And certain courses may not even be taught by professors of the institution the student belongs to. Why would I design my own Biology 101 for-credit MOOC when the accredited college next door has a better instructor and has already spent the money to develop the materials? Online education opens the door for a lot of partnering opportunities. It allows you to avoid duplication not only within your institution, but across the entire institutional ecosystem. It may also put mediocre instructors in danger or, even better, it may force them to improve.

Besides, an online environment allows all students to ask tons of questions (in forums) and engage in long discussions with peers, something that is not really possible during the one or two hours of a regular class session. I don’t really get that many questions from students when I lecture in the classroom, but when I teach online, students come up with useful comments and insights all the time, as they don’t feel the pressure of the time constraint, and they may do it when their cognitive skills are in good shape —after a good cup of coffee, or while ingesting a tasty dinner. Finally, and against what many old school instructors think, it is possible to have synchronous conversations with students in an online course, if you need to.

In the same review, you explain that you took on the teaching of this MOOC as a first step towards some long-term goals. Is this something you can share with us?

Alberto Cairo

The short answer is that I don’t want to face another cliff in my career. The long answer is that there are certain institutions that I love and that I want to not only survive, but also thrive. Reckless and constant experimentation is essential for that.

I am a journalist. I used to work in newspapers, which are usually considered essential for a healthy democracy. Still, they are in dire straits. Why? Because most citizens don’t think like me or my colleagues. They don’t care. They get their information online and, in spite of what most journalists think, that information is not mostly crappy and gossipy. In many cases, it is much better than what they used to get in newspapers. Just to give you an example: I read a lot of science news, and I don’t get them mostly from the media anymore, but from blogs written by scientists. This is called “disintermediation”; it is a form of disruption.

This little anecdote shows that wishful thinking can be really dangerous: Certain institutions with long roots, such as news organizations, know that they are essential for their societies; but being essential doesn’t guarantee survival in the long term. We humans tend to mistake necessary conditions (offering high-quality products or meaningful experiences, among them) with sufficient ones (which are usually unknown).

What I saw happening in newspapers is awfully similar to what I am seeing in higher education: Drowsy institutions with inflexible procedures and obscure lore that are resistant to change just because they feel solidly rooted, stable, and essential. Why would you experiment when your current situation is so comfortable and your model has taken you a long way, up to the present? Because if you don’t seriously —let me stress the word seriously here— try to understand what all new developments, technologies, tools, are capable of, when one of them becomes the next big thing, you may suffer. It is not about burning your ships here; you need to keep using them in routine operations, after all. Instead, it is about taking a few of them and sending them to the open ocean to see if they find something useful. Most of them will be lost, but it may happen that one will stumble upon a treasure island.

So the answer to your question is that my long term goal is to learn as much as possible about how technology reshapes education, and try to give this knowledge to institutions I work for and care about. The only efficient way to do that is by testing, failing, and trying again. So I am trying MOOCs with the idea of bringing that model (or at least, borrowing parts of it) to the University of Miami; I have acquired experience in for-credit online education at the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya —a public school in Spain— for the past seven years; finally I am starting to do some experiments with hybrid classes at the University of Miami.

There’s nothing original in this last idea. It has already happened in basic education (my 7 year-old kid does many activities online), so why wouldn’t colleges go deeper into this model? My courses, which deal with design, infographics, and data visualization, have theory, discussion/critique, and practical components. What I am trying to do is to automate whatever can be automated. That means that if I have to teach how to use a specific piece of software, I don’t explain it all in the classroom. I record a long video workshop about the basics and, after students watch it and work on it at home, I use class time to answer questions or explain advanced techniques, run discussions, critique projects, or work on exercises. Same for some lectures.

Hybrid models allow you to stop being a teacher and become a true mentor, as I mentioned before. They free time and resources that you can use more efficiently. This is where I believe the value of traditional colleges is, and will be: Not in being lectured by a top-notch instructor, but in being able to sit with her or him on a regular basis and have meaningful intellectual cross-pollination.

After two MOOCs as a student, this was your first as a teacher. What surprised you most from this new perspective?

This will be short: What has surprised me the most is how generous people can be with their time. MOOCs allow you to perceive what’s good in human nature, our innate drive to share with others.

Your biography goes back to 2000 when you were at El Mundo. Can you tell us more about how you became a visual journalist? Was this part of a plan or something you stumbled upon?

Since I was a kid, I have been a voracious reader and a visual person. When I was in college, I wanted to do radio, but I was offered an internship at a local newspaper, La Voz de Galicia, to do infographics. They knew I was able to draw a bit, and I was also a journalism student, so I had an uncommon mix of skills. I didn’t know much about infographics at that time, but I learned from some of the best. They inspired me. I haven’t stopped doing graphs, maps, and diagrams ever since.

On data visualization: based on your experience as a practitioner and your role as a teacher, what would you say has been the biggest change in the last ten years and what do you expect it to be in the next ten?

The biggest change I’d say is that graphics and visualizations have gone mainstream. Due to inexpensive technologies and an increasing awareness of what you can achieve with them, they are everywhere: in science, in journalism, in business, in education… This is a trend that I believe will only grow stronger, as what technology is doing is taking advantage of our visual nature.

Francis Gagnon

Francis Gagnon

Francis Gagnon is the founder of Voilà: (2013), an information design company specializing in sustainable development.
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