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Zunguzungu
By Aaron Bady
Anyone claiming to be an expert is selling something. I brandish my ignorance like a crucifix at vampires.
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The MOOC Moment and the End of Reform

A shortened version of this paper was given at UC Irvine last week, with the great Tressie McMillan Cottom talking about MOOCs and for-profit education. You can see video of both of us and the respondents here. Much thanks to Catherine Liu, Michael Meranze, and Peter Krapp for organizing and participating.

The MOOC phenomenon has happened very quickly, to put it mildly. Last November, the New York Times declared 2012 to be “the Year of the MOOC,” and while it feels (at least to me) like we’ve been talking about MOOCs for years now, the speed by which the MOOC has become the future of higher education is worth thinking carefully about, both because it’s an important way to frame what is happening, and because that speed warps the narrative we are able to tell about what is happening. Coursera, Udacity, and edX are all less than a year old, and while the first two—which are silicon valley startups out of Stanford, essentially—have already enrolled millions of students, the non-profit consortium edX has grown just as prodigiously. Beginning as a partnership between Harvard and MIT, it now includes a dozen different universities, and that number will surely grow.

The MOOC phenomenon is also a shift in discourse, a shift that’s happened so quickly and so recently, that it fills up our mental rear-view mirror. When the word “MOOC” was first coined in 2008, by a set of Canadian academics who needed a term to describe the experiment in pedogogy they were putting together, the word itself was a niche term that most people in higher education would not hear about, or need to. In the last year, it’s gone from a rather singular experiment in connectivist and distributed learning to a behemoth force that we are told and retold is reshaping the face of higher education. And whether MOOCs are disrupting education through innovation—as Clay Christensen’s model of disruptive innovation in business would have it—or simply representing the disruption of education as it is embedded in the market, the phenomenon under discussion has changed quite dramatically as it has mgrated from Canada to Silicon Valley.

This is why it’s interesting to note that Inside Higher Education’s new booklet of essays, “The MOOC moment,” introduces its subject by writing that:

“The acronym MOOC (for massive open online course) first appeared in Inside Higher Ed in December 2011, in reference to a course offered by a Stanford University professor. These days, the acronym is omnipresent and – to many – needs no definition.”

I would say, in response, that this apparent lack of a need for a definition is exactly why we need to slow things down and figure out what the heck we’re talking about. For one thing, when we start the story in 2011, we forget about the 2008 MOOCs, and if the MOOCs are the future and the future is now, then it tends to have little to do with what was happening at the University of Manitoba in 2008, or why.

The MOOC that debuted in IHE in December 2011 was Sebastian Thrun’s “Artificial Intelligence” MOOC, a course that was offered at Stanford but opened up to anyone with a broadband. The way this story is usually told is that his incredible success—160,000 students, from 190 countries—encouraged Thrun to leave Stanford to try the new mode of pedagogy that he had stumbled upon. He had seen a TED talk given by Salman Khan, the founder of Khan Academy, and when he decided to give it a whirl and it was a huge success, the rest is history. In January, 2012, he would found the startup Udacity.

However, another way to tell the story would be that Thrun was a Google executive—who was already well known for his work on Google’s driverless car project—and that he had already resigned his tenure at Stanford in April 2011, before he even offered that Artifical Intelligence class. Ending his affiliation with Stanford could be described as completing his transition to Silicon Valley proper. In fact, despite IHE’s singular “a Stanford University professor,” Thrun co-taught the famous course with Google’s Director of Research, Peter Norvig.

It’s important to tell the story this way, too, because the first story makes us imagine a groundswell of market forces and unmet need, a world of students begging to be taught by a Stanford professor and Google, and the technological marvels that suddenly make it possible. But it’s not education that’s driving this shifting conversation; as the MOOC became something very different in migrating to Silicon Valley, it’s in stories told by the New York Times, the WSJ, and TIME magazine that the MOOC comes to seem like an immanent revolution, whose pace is set by necessity and inevitability.

For example. When the president of UVA was abruptly fired last June, it would be an exaggeration to say that a David Brooks column and a few articles in the WSJ were the cause of it, but it would not be that much of an exaggeration. As we can now roughly reconstruct—from emails which were FOIA-ed by the UVa student paper—UVa’s rector and vice rector essentially engineered Teresa Sullivan’s resignation because they decided she was moving too slowly on online education. And what you get from reading these emails is an overwhelming sense of speed, which they are repeating, verbatim, from the articles they are emailing and forwarding to each other. The rector emailed a WSJ column “Higher Education’s Online Revolution” with the subject line “good piece in WSJ today — why we can’t afford to wait,” for example, an article she had gotten from a major donor, who suggested that it was “a signal that the on-line learning world has now reached the top of the line universities and they need to have strategies or will be left behind.” She immediately replied: “Your timing is impeccable — the BOV is squarely focused on UVa’s developing such a strategy and keenly aware of the rapidly accelerating pace of change.” At a meeting of UVa deans and vice presidents, UVa’s rector said:

“The board believes this environment calls for a much faster pace of change in administrative structure, in governance, in financial resource development and in resource prioritization and allocation…We do not believe we can even maintain our current standard under a model of incremental, marginal change. The world is simply moving too fast.”

Where does such a person get this kind of conviction? You find the best examples of this kind of rhetoric in the New York Times; a few months ago, for example, Thomas Friedman argued that the “MOOCs revolution…is here and is real” and remarked on “how much today’s traditional university has in common with General Motors of the 1960s, just before Toyota used a technology breakthrough to come from nowhere and topple G.M.” This kind of comparison has become a common sense. MOOCs are a “campus tsunami,” to use columnist David Brook’s term, one that we all need to pay attention to, before it’s too late.

Where this urgency comes from, however, might be less important than what it does to our sense of temporality, how experience and talk about the way we we are, right now, in “the MOOC moment.” In the MOOC moment, it seems to me, it’s already too late, always already too late. The world not only will change, but it has changed. In this sense, it’s isn’t simply that “MOOCs are the future,” or online education is changing how we teach,” in the present tense. Those kinds of platitudes are chokingly omnipresent, but the interesting thing is the fact that the future is already now, that it has already changed how we teach. If you don’t get on the MOOC bandwagon, yesterday, you’ll have already been left behind. The world has already changed. To stop and question that fact is to be already belated, behind the times.

The first thing I want to do, then, is slow us down a bit, and go through the last year with a bit more care than we’re usually able to do, to do a “close reading” of the year of the MOOC, as it were. Not only because I have the time, but because, to be blunt, MOOC’s only make sense if you don’t think about it too much, if you’re in too much of a hurry to go deeply into the subject.

I mean that in two different ways. On the one hand, I would put it to you that the logic of the MOOC is a function of shallow thinking, of arguments that go no deeper than a David Brooks or Thomas Friedman column. But they also valorize and reward that level of depth, even make it compulsory. MOOC’s are literally built to cater to the attention span of a distracted and multi-tasking teenager, who pays attention in cycles of 10-15 minutes. This is not a shot at teenagers, however, but an observation about what the form anticipates (and therefore rewards and reproduces) as a normal teenager’s attention span. In place of the 50 minute lectures that are the norm at my university, for example, MOOCs will break a unit of pedagogy down into youtube-length clips that can be more easily digested, whenever and wherever. Much longer than that, and it falls apart; the TED talk is essentially the gold standard. But I want to suggest that the argument in favor of MOOC’s can’t handle all that much complexity either; it makes sense at the speed of a TED talk, or the length a NY Times column, but starts to come apart very quickly if you go any deeper or longer than that.

I’m evoking two kinds of time here. On the one hand, there is the belated temporality where we’re already always behind the times, which is necessary to make the MOOC seem like the kind of self-fulfilling prophecy it has become: if Harvard, Stanford, and MIT are making MOOCs, then anyone who doesn’t jump on board the bandwagon will be left behind. We don’t have to understand why it’s happening, where it’s going, or where it came from; the fact that it’s happening there is all the reason we need. Framed by this temporality, the MOOC becomes a kind of fetish object: because we treat its existence as self-evident fact—or to the extent that we treat its existence as a kind of self-evident fact—its objective reality obscures the contingencies of its production and the ideological formations that make it seem to exist. Why are Harvard, Stanford, and MIT making MOOCs? It doesn’t matter. Only the fact that they are making them is important.

This is a logic that particularly appeals to universities like the University of Virginia, University of Texas, or the University of California, by the way; schools that aren’t in the Ivy league, but who see themselves at the forefront of higher education. But it’s also an argument that only works at the depth (or non-depth) of a David Brooks column, maybe a 6 minute reading time, because its claims only work if you don’t interrogate their foundational premises too much.

For example. On May 3rd of last year, David Brooks began his column “The Campus Tsunami” this way:

“Online education is not new. The University of Phoenix started its online degree program in 1989. Four million college students took at least one online class during the fall of 2007. But, over the past few months, something has changed. The elite, pace-setting universities have embraced the Internet. Not long ago, online courses were interesting experiments. Now online activity is at the core of how these schools envision their futures.”

This is a sophisticated piece of discourse, in its way. By acknowledging that “online education is not new,” Brooks is working to distinguish the thing that is not new (online education) from the form of online education that is new, the MOOC. To re-brand online education—which has generally had a well-deserved bad reputation—he has to conjure forth this distinction, creating space between the old kind of online education (the University of Phoenix) and the new kind, which, because it is new, can shed that baggage. He therefore opens by acknowledging online education’s lack of novelty so he can then re-situate our perspective in a different place, just ahead of the cutting edge: if the University of Phoenix’s online program is decades old—and therefore not cutting edge—the kind of online education that he’s interested in discussing, which is different than the University of Phoenix, IS cutting edge. And the difference is a shift from the bottom to the top, from low prestige to high prestige: “over the past few months, something has changed…The elite, pace-setting universities have embraced the Internet.”

What he’s not saying, of course—what he’s working very hard to un-say—is that Harvard is actually struggling to get where the University of Phoenix already was in 1989. You have to read him against the grain to draw that out, but it’s there: he’s essentially observing the way that Harvard is emulating the University of Phoenix. But, of course, that can’t be, can it? After all, by definition, Harvard, Stanford, MIT are cutting-edge, while the University of Phoenix—a for-profit, low prestige university that markets to non-traditional students and employs a no-name teaching staff—well, they can’t be the cutting edge, by definition.

These definitional “facts” allow Brooks to finesse a truly jaw-dropping rhetorical move: though he began with the statement that “online education is not new,” he manages, in only four sentences, to write the words: “Not long ago, online courses were interesting experiments.”

How does he get from “online education is not new” (old hat, established, conventional) to the line “Not long ago, online courses were interesting experiments”? How does online education go from something older than most of our students to a temporality where it’s just on the cusp of being developed, where in very recent memory, it was pure speculative futurity, where it’s the future we hurtling backwards into?

The key to this piece of rhetorical alchemy is that you can’t over-think it, in the way I just have. Brooks is taking something that lacks prestige and cultural capital—a mode of education that is not valuable, only expensive, not innovative or exciting—and placing the name “Harvard” around it makes it into something that suddenly is both valuable and worthwhile, as a function of Harvard’s symbolic role in American higher education, to define the new cutting edge. And when he writes “Now online activity is at the core of how these schools envision their futures,” he means that because these schools are envisioning it—because attached to that brand—online education is now the future we must emulate and pursue. Because it’s at Harvard, it’s “now” instead of being where the University of Phoenix already was the year the Berlin Wall fell, before our students were born.

 

II.

If I have one overarching takeaway point in this talk, it’s this: there’s almost nothing new about the kind of online education that the word MOOC now describes. It’s been given a great deal of hype and publicity, but that aura of “innovation” poorly describes a technology—or set of technological practices, to be more precise—that is not that distinct from the longer story of online education, and which is designed to reinforce and re-establish the status quo, to make tenable a structure that is falling apart.

If you read the people that were creating MOOCs in 2008, by contrast—as I’ve been doing—you’ll actually see a lot of thinking that’s kind of out there, as far as how we conceptualize what education is for, and what it does. But the innovations in pedagogy that produced the first MOOC in 2008, at the University of Manitoba, had to be forgotten and erased from the historical timeline if the MOOCs that we’re talking about were to become the standard bearer for “cutting edge.” When Inside Higher Education writes about the MOOC moment, after all, that moment has to begin not in 2008, but in December 2011, and in Silicon Valley where and when the hype machine really gets into gear.

Things are moving so fast because if we stopped to think about what we are doing, we’d notice that MOOCs are both not the same thing as normal education, and are being positioned to replace “normal” education. But the pro-MOOC argument is always that it’s cheaper and almost never that it’s better; the most utopian MOOC-boosters will rarely claim that MOOCs are of equivalent educational value, and the most they’ll say is that someday it might be. This point is crucial to unpacking the hype: columnists, politicians, university administrators, educational entrepreneurs, and professors who are hoping to make their name by riding out this wave, they can all talk in such glowing terms about the onrushing future of higher education only because that future hasn’t actually happened yet: it’s still speculative in the sense that we’re all speculating about what it will look like. This means that the MOOC can be all things to all people because it is, literally, a speculation about what it might someday become.

To put my cards on the table, the 2012 MOOC seems to me like a speculative bubble, a product which is being pumped up and overvalued by pro-business legislators, overzealous administrators, and by a lot of hot air in the media. But like all speculative bubbles—especially the ones that originate in Silicon Valley—it will eventually burst; the only question is what things will look like when it does. But if 2012 has been “the year of the MOOC” because it’s been the year of MOOC-hype, 2013 is already something different; so far, a great deal of the MOOC news has been the backlash against it.

Last week, for example, the philosophy department at San Jose State University wrote an open letter to Thomas Friedman’s good friend Michael Sandel, informing him why they were refusing to use his MOOC, a survey course on Justice given at Harvard, and offered through edX. I can’t say it half as well as they did, so I’m going to quote this open letter:

“Anant Agarwal, edX President, has described the standard professor as basically just “pontificating” and “spouting content,” a description he used ten times in a recent press conference here at SJSU. Of course, since philosophy has traditionally been taught using the Socratic method, we are largely in agreement as to the inadequacy of lecture alone. But, after all the rhetoric questioning the effectiveness of the antiquated method of lecturing and note taking, it is telling to discover that the core of edX’s JusticeX is a series of videotaped lectures that include excerpts of Harvard students making comments and taking notes. In spite of our admiration for your ability to lecture in such an engaging way to such a large audience, we believe that having a scholar teach and engage with his or her own students is far superior to having those students watch a video of another scholar engaging his or her students.”

Let me just underscore this point: in order to create the illusion of engagement, Sandel’s MOOC contains footage of Harvard students asking questions, which their Harvard professor answers. But as the open letter from SJSU pointed out,

“what kind of message are we sending our students if we tell them that they should best learn what justice is by listening to the reflections of the largely white student population from a privileged institution like Harvard? Our very diverse students gain far more when their own experience is central to the course and when they are learning from our own very diverse faculty, who bring their varied perspectives to the content of courses that bear on social justice…should one-size-fits-all vendor-designed blended courses become the norm, we fear that two classes of universities will be created: one, well- funded colleges and universities in which privileged students get their own real professor; the other, financially stressed private and public universities in which students watch a bunch of video-taped lectures and interact, if indeed any interaction is available on their home campuses, with a professor that this model of education has turned into a glorified teaching assistant. Public universities will no longer provide the same quality of education and will not remain on par with well-funded private ones. Teaching justice through an educational model that is spearheading the creation of two social classes in academia thus amounts to a cruel joke.”

San Jose State is the ground zero for the MOOC tsunami, in several senses. It’s literally located in Silicon Valley, but it’s also part of the Cal State system, the largest university system in the country, with almost half a million students. Along with the partnership with edX, SJSU also has a partnership with Udacity to offer slightly lower cost online courses to its own students—and also to local high school and community college students—and they say they hope to eventually replace 20% of the curriculum with online courses from universities like Harvard and MIT. They explicitly hope to do so in a way which can serve as a model for the rest of the Cal State system to follow.

SJSU’s president, by the way, might be the most market-minded university administrator I’ve ever come across, and his contempt for his own university faculty is astonishing; when he was asked about the quality of SJSU’s online courses, for example, he just quipped that “It could not be worse than what we do face to face.” He says that kind of thing regularly enough that it’s not a fluke. It’s one thing when you have the President of edX or Thomas Friedman condemning professors as boring pontificators spouting content, but when the calls are coming from inside the building, you have a real problem.

Another tidbit: his Cal State profile page describes “his more than 30 years of experience in the service of higher education and industry,” which is a conflation you rarely here put quite so bluntly. Such a conflation does, however, make a lot of sense in Silicon Valley, where the educational-industrial complex is the foundation on which the valley rests, where it’s pretty normal for a Stanford professor to also be an executive at Google, and for a university president to see his duty as split between working for education and working for industry. But things get weird if that model starts to be the basis from which to transform a public system of higher education. Which is what’s now happening.

 

III.

Let me turn now to talk about what should be the elephant in the room, Senate Bill 520. This is a bill, which, if it passes, will require all three sectors of California’s public university system to accept MOOCs from a certain approved list as course credit. The details are yet to be determined, and it seems most likely that the final bill will be something different than what was originally introduced. But the assumptions and ambitions of SB520 are a useful way to frame what direction the MOOC tsunami is taking: the capture of public education.

For the 20 Million Minds foundation, one of the drivers behind the bill, SB520 is all about options, opportunity, and choice for students. The bill’s sponsor, Senate Pro-Tem President Darrell Steinberg, cites the very real problems of access to over-enrolled courses—and the fact that students are failing to graduate on time, because they cannot get required courses for their majors—and uses this as a rhetorical wedge to argue that MOOCs should actually be acceptable as replacements for normal college classes. As he put it:

“We want to be the first state in the nation to make this promise: No college student in California will be denied the right to move through their education because they couldn’t get a seat in the course they needed.”

But the irony of his formulation is that even he admits that instead of solving a problem which has a very simple definition—which is basically reducible to a number, the fact that there are more students than there are chairs and classrooms—they are simply redefining the problem, imagining into existence a chairless classroom. The problem is real: years of consistent budget cuts have left the public universities without the money to buy “chairs” (and everything that represents), so public universities have shifted the financial burden onto the backs of individual students, whose tuition now pays much more of the cost. Since educating fewer students would therefore cost money, in effect—and it would also cost money to fully staff the necessary courses—there is no solution to the problem that does not require spending more money on chairs, classrooms, and teachers to teach them. MOOCs enter the picture, then, as a kind of fantasy solution to this unsolvable problem: instead of addressing the problem by either admitting fewer students or adding more courses, we will define the problem differently: chairless classrooms! Everyone is happy.

In this case, the cliche that California is where everything happens first has some truth to it: if SB520 passes, it will define the shape of things to come, not only by creating a model for other states to follow, but by creating a kind of market value for MOOCs that didn’t exist before, and which wouldn’t exist otherwise. By making certain selected MOOC’s convertible into course credit—at CCC’s, CSU’s, and the UC system—the California legislature will quite literally create value where it didn’t exist before, by making MOOCs a thing that are worth paying for. This shift is important. But mandating that a MOOC is the same thing as college—that it can be literally credited as a college class—not only changes what a MOOC is, it changes what college is.

After all, if a MOOC is simply a free educational resource that you can find on the web—which is what MOOCs presently are—then there’s nothing to object to in them, and everything to like. Such a MOOC is an almost wholly good addition to the universe: other than opportunity costs and the costs of a computer—which are not nothing, but they are also not that much—it’s simply a free and useful thing, available to those that want it. But the moment that such a use value becomes legible as a market value, when it becomes something that can be exchanged for the kinds of course credits that students pay very high tuition for, MOOCs become a radically different beast, with a radically different kind of economic value. It’ll be much easier to charge for them, on the one hand, and almost unthinkable that associated costs won’t rise, as they did with the once free California public universities (especially since Udacity and Coursera are literally for-profit enterprises). And on the other hand, they will radically devalue the resource that they can now be used to replace: if you can replace “chairs” (by which I mean, the brick and mortar campus) with a chair-less university—if those things are literally exchangeable—then the market value of “chairs” goes down, at the same time as its actual costs stay the same. If we can’t fully staff our classrooms now, how will we staff them in the future, when they have to compete with free?

To put it slightly differently, pumping up the value of MOOCs in this way—declaring, by legislative fiat, that MOOCs are now convertible with “real courses”—actually does have an important cost. If the platonic ideal of the classroom experience is the gold standard, then declaring that a bunch of other unrelated metals are also gold will lower its value, especially if those metals are freely available, in infinite supplies. Why would someone pay a teacher to give one-on-one attention to students when those students could get the same formal credential from an online course? You can point out that there is an actual and effective difference between a student to professor of 17 to 1 (in the gold standard class) and a ratio of 10,000 to 1, where a student will effectively never have a personalized interaction with the professor. But once market equivalency has entered the equation, once the market recognizes an equivalence between a MOOC and an in-person class, pointing out the difference that is experienced by the student will be trumped by the equivalence of market logic, which will dictate paying the cheaper of the two. An in-person education will become a unnecessary luxury: like gold itself, it will no longer be the “gold standard,” the basis of educational value, but rather, simply, an ornamental marker of elite status.

To Darrel Steinberg, MOOCs can seem like a win-win solution to an otherwise intractable fiscal crisis. Students who are locked out of over-enrolled required courses can complete their degrees by taking those classes with an online provider, possibly even at a lower cost and at no extra cost to the state. Meanwhile, allowing Silicon Valley start-ups like Coursera and Udacity to offer courses that will transfer into the California State and University of California systems will give those companies a legitimacy in the education marketplace that they have never had before. When you see that Sebastian Thrun is one of the people who helped write the bill, and when Darrell Steinberg held his press conference announcing the bill on “Google Hangout” a lot of things become clearer.

If this bill passes, the winners will be Silicon Valley along with the austerity hawks in the California legislature: while the former will have privileged access to the largest student market in the state, the latter will be relieved of the burden of having to educate the state’s young people. And the losers will be teachers and students.

 

IV.

MOOC boosters live in the future; actually-existing MOOCs are a far cry from what their champions promise they will someday become, which allows us to gloss over any troubling trends in their present day iteration. After all, MOOC boosters like to brag about the thousands of students—even hundreds of thousands—who sign on to learn from super-professors like Harvard University’s Michael Sandel or Sebastian Thrun. But completion rates for these courses consistently hover in the mid single-digits. A Software Engineering MOOC taught by UC Berkeley professor David Patterson in May 2012, for example, may have enrolled over 50,000 students, but less than 4,000 actually completed the course, and this is typical. What’s more, as Patterson himself was quick to observe, his MOOC was a “cheating-rich environment”; it is safe to assume that the number of students who actually completed the course is somewhat lower than even the 7% that received a completion certificate.

This doesn’t mean that MOOCs are without value, of course; just because most of Patterson’s students didn’t complete his course doesn’t mean they didn’t benefit from taking it, and it seems reasonable to assume that many online learners are not interested in completion certificates. Patterson observed, for example, that many of his students already had degrees, and that some were instructors themselves; for learners wishing to brush up skills or keep abreast of new pedagogy, a MOOC might be just the thing. In applied fields like software engineering, where the ability to code is a valuable enough skill that course credit becomes almost irrelevant—and where the material lends itself naturally to online instruction—the free availability of high-quality course materials is an almost pure social good.

It does, however, demonstrate what the technology is not good at: accreditation and mass education. It rewards self-directed learners who have the resources and privilege to allow them to pursue learning for its own sake. But if you want it to function as a gate-keeping mechanism, which is one of the things that universities do, it’s not very good at that; a MOOC is almost designed to make cheating even easier that ever before. And if you want to use it to make educational resources available to underserved and underprivileged communities—which has been the historical mission of public education—MOOCs are also a really poor way to do that. Historically, public systems like California’s provided high quality education to citizens of the state who could not have gotten the equivalent anywhere else. MOOCs promise to see to it that what the public universities are able to provide is not, in every sense, the equivalent of what rich people’s kids get.

The irony is that when the term was first coined in 2008, this was all quite well understood; the MOOC came into existence as something that, by its very nature, could never be used to replace a normal college class. The point of it was that it was something fundamentally different than a college class.

Dave Cormier originally suggested the name for an experiment in open courseware that George Siemens and Stephen Downes were putting together at the University of Manitoba, a class of 25 students that was opened up to over 1,500 online participants; for them, this MOOC was part of a long-running engagement with connectivist principles of education, the idea that we learn best when we learn collaboratively, in networks, because the process of learning is less about acquiring new knowledge—the commodified “content” that a Udacity or edX MOOC tries to reify and market—and much more about building the social and neural connections that will allow knowledge to circulate, be used, evolve, and to grow. A class that’s animated by a contractual agreement, which spells out the costs, requirements, and credential that are to be acquired is one thing, and it may even be a good thing; but the goal of these original MOOCs was to foster an educational process that was something totally different: it would be as exploratory and creative as its participants chose to make it, it was about building a sense of community investment in a particular project, a fundamentally socially-driven enterprise, and its outcomes were to be fluid and open-ended. I would argue that getting a “Grade” for such a thing—or charging money for it—would be to fundamentally change what it is.

I could go on; for those of us who first heard of MOOCs in 2012, reading a document like “The MOOC Model for Digital Practice” from 2010, is a strange experience; the things they said about MOOCs in 2010 are hard to square with what people have been saying about them since “the MOOC moment” happened, and it went mainstream.

The MOOC of 2012 looks very different, starting with the central narrative of “disruption” and “un-bundling”: instead of building social information networks, the neoliberal MOOC is driven by a desire to liberate and empower the individual, breaking apart actually-existing academic communities and refocusing on the individual’s acquisition of knowledge. The MOOC being praised by utopian technologists in the New York Times might be the diametric opposite of what Siemens, Downes, and Cormier said they were trying to create, in this sense, even though it deploys some of the same idealistic rhetoric. Rather than transferring course content from expert to student, the original MOOCs stemmed from a connectivist desire to decentralize and de-institutionalize education, creating fundamentally open and open-ended networks of circulation and collaboration. But the MOOCs which are being developed by Silicon Valley startups Udacity and Coursera, as well as by non-profit initiatives like edX, aim to do exactly the same thing that traditional courses have done—transfer course content from expert to student—only to do so massively more cheaply and on a much larger scale.

This is why, instead of de-institutionalizing education or making learning less hierarchical, we see some of the most prestigious institutions of higher learning in the world treating the MOOC as a lifeline in troubled economic waters, leveraging the figure of the “super-professor” to maintain their position of excellence atop the educational field, and even to create new hierarchical arrangements between universities. These MOOCs are just a new way of maintaining the status quo, of re-institutionalizing higher education in an era of budget cuts, sky-rocketing tuition, and unemployed college graduates burdened by student debt. If the MOOC began in the classroom as an experimental pedagogy, it has swiftly morphed into a process driven from the top down, imposed on faculty by university administrators, or even imposed on administrators by university boards of trustees and regents. From within academia, the MOOC phenomenon is all about dollars and cents, about doing more of the same with less funding. And while MOOC-boosters like to deride the “sage on the stage” model of education-delivery—as if crowded lecture halls are literally the only kind of classroom there is—most of the actually-existing MOOCs being marketed are not much more than a massive and online version of that very same “sage on a stage” model. And what could be more hierarchical than a high prestige university like Harvard lecturing to a less prestigious institution like SJSU?

 

V.

I’ve titled my talk “The End of Reform” because I had to call it something; I couldn’t just say that the MOOCification of Higher Education is a Terrible No Good Very Bad Thing, although I think you have a sense of what I think about it.

But I mean two things by that title. On the one hand, MOOCs are more like an end of something than a beginning. Instead of a transition between old and new, they represent the end of a process of constant change that has defined Higher Education for as long as it has existed. At the micro level, MOOCs are cheap because you record them once and then reuse them. They don’t grow and evolve, and they don’t require the hiring of academic faculty, whose intellectual lives keep intellectual inquiry moving forward. This is what makes them cheap, but it’s also what will make them solidify hierarchy by placing a pantheon of academic superstars at the center of pedagogical practice, reifying knowledge into a commodity which, because it has value, cannot be allowed to change. If academic life is anything, it’s a devotion to endless process: the scientific method tells you how to take the next step, not where to stop. MOOCs are structurally devoted to pinning knowledge down like a butterfly, putting it on file, putting a price on it, and floating it on the market.

It also represents the end of reform at the macro level. The University of California, for example, is a profoundly recent creation; it was basically a two campus university until the 1950’s; today there are eleven campuses; online education dates back to the 80’s, well, this university dates back to the 60’s. Same is true with CSU’s and CCC’s; between 1957 and 1965, California established eight new CSUs—out of an eventual twenty-four—while more than half its present complement of 112 community colleges was built in the period between 1957 and 1978. California’s public university system is, in many ways, the biggest and best expression of a moment in time when futurity was incredibly important and possible; it represented a massive investment of public funds in the state’s collective future. The 1960 Donahoe Act, better known as the Master Plan for Higher Education, was a complex piece of legislation, but at its heart, quite simple, a blanket commitment from the state to educate all the California students who wanted an education. And as society grew, the university was to grow with it, adapting to changing needs by staying in a permanent state of reformulation.

Even though Darrel Steinberg’s SB520 begins by citing the Master Plan, his legislation represents a refusal of futurity: because the future is now, there is nothing to plan for; the only reality is the economic reality that a funding shortfall must be dealt with. And instead of solving this problem, he seeks to institutionalize it, render it permanent. We solve the problem of frustrating ambitions by foreswearing ambition, refusing to have desires that can be frustrated.

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42 Responses to “The MOOC Moment and the End of Reform”

  1. Tim Lacy says:

    Aaron: I can’t express enough the kudos you deserve for staying on top of this issue. This is your best piece yet on the nature of the MOOC crisis/moment/b.s. – TL

  2. Anonymous says:

    This is a hugely important critique. Mahalo. I excerpted a few paragraphs for Tumblr and interlaced them with photos from student strikes at CSU, IU and Cooper Union. The faces and bodies whose education is under revision.

  3. Morgan Freeman says:

    Please revise and edit your writing before you post it on the internet.

    • Anonymous says:

      Agreed. Among several errors, the confusion of “here” for “hear” in the last paragraph of section II made me slap my forehead.

  4. Douglass McAdams says:

    Were you paid to write this per use of the word “temporality”

    • Anonymous says:

      Yes, the Temporality Foundation pays a large bonus to anyone who uses the word appropriately in public discourse.

  5. NA says:

    Thank you, you have highlighted exactly the problems of misrecognizing/misusing MOOCs as equivalents to college courses for credit, especially from the POV of a public university mission. Just thank you.

    • ishi crew says:

      Just a few comments here (full disclosure: i have taken over the last few months a math logic type course (devlin of stanford), behavioral econ (with ariely at duke), and ‘social context of mental illness’ (toronto) and am finishing up ‘quantum physics’ (u Md) and have signed up for social epidimiology (Minn) which i may or may not do).

      i’m doing this ‘for fun’ (if it is) and its free, not for credit, and have actually failry few requirements (multiple choice exams mostly) . Im doing it partly as an experiment (and you can be sure, I am viewed as an experiment like other students by the MOOC group—they ask us to fill out questionaries (which i mess around with). The lectures are entertaining (and actually for what i have studied—-eg quantum stuff–are pretty much what you would get in a real class—though real classes are definatley longer and the homeworks are not multiple choice). In fact, i mostly have done just done the homeworks—a few hours before they are due, and look at the lectures and readings if i feel i need to, and dont care if i fail—from what i have heard, i didnt but still await two ‘passes’ or fails.. (they are leniant)

      They really arent too different than any on-line source, or youtube video. You can read this in a library too.

      However, as someone sympathetic to ‘unschooling’ ‘free schooling’ homeschooling’ i think some criticisms of MOOCs are due to people feeling threatened that what they paid to learn under many guidelines may now be available to anyone who puts in the effort for free, and in no need to sit at the feet of some Revered Expert PhD Doctor Sir Ms.

      This does represent a threat to tenured academics, because Pandora may get out of the box so not just UC accepted students get access to it—like free software.

      Besides some academics to me are a joke—who would pay Michael Sandel anything? Alot of law is similarily just rhetoric, and one can listen to rap music for free on Youtube as an equivalent alternative.

  6. Doug K says:

    thank you, a clear and cogent explanation.

    A note:
    “as Patterson himself was quick to observe, his MOOC was a “cheating-rich environment””
    I took that MOOC course. The questions in the Ruby programming exercises showed up on stackoverflow.com within hours of the assignment’s release, and were duly answered by the wonderful coders of that site. Me, I failed to complete the course.. ha.

    • Anonymous says:

      So whom, exactly, were you cheating when you went to stackoverflow for your answers?

      • Doug K says:

        I did not use them – that was one reason I failed to complete.

        It is cheating because anyone could have obtained a certificate of completion, without being able to code so much as a facet of Ruby. Presenting that certificate to potential employers would be dishonest. How do you find that it is not cheating ?

        • Eric Haines says:

          Of course you’re cheating yourself – I interview people and I would consider MOOC certificates as an interesting talking point but in no way proof. Having a certificate without any serious testing behind it is meaningless. The article annoys me in that it considers the low completion rate a minus. Let’s see: the course is free, and your main motivation in taking it is to learn the material. I’d actually be surprised if more than 20% ever finished a MOOC. People invested no money and get no accreditation, so the survivors are taking the course for the sole intent of actually learning the material. Finishing is up to them – some people learn enough and are satisfied, and don’t complete. For a teacher, it’s a dream come true: every student is there because he and she want to know what’s being taught, vs. just gathering some credit hours.

  7. dkernohan says:

    This is an excellent critique – many thanks for writing this.

  8. Paul Matthews says:

    Some good points you have raised here. But I dont agree with some of your claims. Regarding lecture length, putting them in to 10 minute chunks simply makes them convenient for downloading, putting on your mobile etc. You can still have a lot of material and a lot of depth over many short segments. Regarding MOOCs being static, I am sure this is not true and that they are constantly being revised and reviewed on the basis of the substantial feedback they get. Lastly, its not all about the lectures – there is still a lot of interaction between students, physical meetups, learning groups etc. You have made a few sweeping statements here of the kind you are trying to pull apart!

  9. Anonymous says:

    This is tendentious. It relies too much on spin and too little on data.

    • Chuck says:

      So it’s unacceptable for this author to engage in your alleged misbehavior, but perfectly fine for MOOC enthusiasts to do so at the expense of students who want an accredited education instead of YouTube credits? OK then…

      • Anonymous says:

        Where did I say that? Oh that’s right; I didn’t. Be better than yourself for a moment and don’t put words in my mouth, OK?

  10. Al Filreis says:

    “From within academia, the MOOC phenomenon is all about dollars and cents, about doing more of the same with less funding.” That’s quite a generalization. It seeks to cover the motives of those of us on university faculties who decide to teach MOOCs. I taught a MOOC (“ModPo,” on modern poetry) and did entirely for the purpose outreach – to share the poetry I admire with tens of thousands of people who otherwise would have no access to the materials I use when guiding people through the poetry. This essay is good because it asks us to slow down about MOOCs, but it also repeats many of the problems of other writing about this trend. It makes huge generalizations. “The MOOC phenomenon is *all about* dollars and cents.” There are as many kinds of courses as there are courses. And there as many kinds of MOOCs (and motives for MOOCs) as there are MOOCs.

    • self-preservation says:

      You’re distorting his meaning. He’s generalizing about the PHENOMENON, not saying that every single person involved in it is after money. MOOCs are so dangerous precisely because people of good will, like yourself, can create them out of a desire to spread the love of poetry, even as the institutions or companies that control proprietary rights to the course after you complete it ARE interested in monetizing it, and WILL, whether you like it or not. That has damaging consequences that have nothing to do with your good intentions. “ModPo” may indeed inspire or nurture the love of poetry in many people who otherwise might have missed out. It will also inexorably contribute to an emerging political-economy of higher education that makes faculty positions like yours, as Aaron puts it, an “unnecessary luxury.” When those of us seeking real faculty employment become instant-graders in a world of MOOCs instead, we’ll have your good intentions, and those of many people like you, to thank.

      • Al Filreis says:

        Thanks for your engaged reply. You should talk with the people who participated in my course (let me know – I can introduce you to them). 92% are not college-aged and most have no access to higher education, or already have degrees, or are disabled and unable to take f2f courses. The course is almost entirely outreach. It’s non-credit, 10 weeks, no grades, with peer-reviewed essays. If it starts to be institutionally misused, I’ll stop offering it. So while there’s a chance my course will “contribute to an emerging political economy of higher ed that makes faculty positions…a[...] luxury,” I do not think we can fairly say that it (in particular) is “inexorably” so. We should encourage the making of open online courses that are interactive, learner-centered, use no lectures at all (refuse the regressive pedagogy), are motivated by the desire to reach people who otherwise have no access, are not easily made into credit-bearing modules, give no grades, etc., and try to resist the temptation to make huge generalizations about what will inexorably happen. Hope this makes sense. If you want to continue the conversation, I’d be delighted to do. My contact info is easily found online. Yours, – Al

        • I’m one of the many students who took ModPo. I am an autistic woman with complex ptsd who was unable to take college classes in a traditional environment.

          ModPo provided me not only with an educational opportunity I would have otherwise never had, it also became a point of social connection. I found myself pushing my limitations and becoming more engaged not only in the topic material but in the wonderful online community that surrounded it.

          In September when the class is offered again, I will return to it as a community TA – something I certainly never thought I would be able to do.

          How can you put a price on that type of experience ,and how it changes someone’s life? Isn’t that what higher learning is supposed to be about– maybe not what it IS, but what it would be in an ideal state – reaching minds and enriching lives. How can that be wrong?

          And I can assure you this is a far from isolated incident – there are so many people whose lives are changing and evolving in positive ways through their interactions and studies in online courses.

        • self-preservation says:

          Thanks for bearing so politely with my snark. If you actually have control over whether or not your course continues to be offered, that’s wonderful, but everything I’ve seen and read suggests that such an arrangement would be an anomaly in the emerging, (generally!) hyperventilating world of MOOCs. In that world, the faculty member’s university has control — which includes the right to re-purpose the course as a for-credit, grade-granting module against the faculty member’s will (they’d probably stick with the peer-reviewed essays, though — none of those pesky grad students to pay!) To be clear, I’m no Luddite — using the web to enhance or extend learning can be great, as Laura Cushing’s response below indicates, and as your dedication to a restricted notion of it suggests. I’m sure ModPo is a great course. I’m concerned, however, that too many faculty aren’t looking at the fine print on who really CONTROLS the MOOCs they create. Is it those same, thoughtful faculty devoted to high-quality pedagogy, or is it administrators and trustees (like those in California) looking to resolve a manufactured budget crisis without re-investing in public higher education? Perhaps I’m being overly pessimistic, but I fear, more often than not, it will be the latter, even if, in your case, it is not. Best wishes, s-p

          • Al Filreis says:

            Thanks for the kind re-rejoinder. Contact me any time if you want to talk more. And please enroll in ModPo and see at first hand the differences we are implementing in the form.

    • Aaron Bady says:

      Briefly: good MOOCs are the ones which are offered for free and not for credit. As I said, those are a pure social good. But “the MOOC moment” is a time in which things called MOOCs are going to actually replace publicly funded courses, for credit: that will be a very bad thing. It’s not that the MOOCs are themselves bad things; its that they are being used as part of a broader structural transformation of the public university. Basically, I agree with everything you say–and if I paint in broad strokes, it’s my failing as a writer, which I’ll cop to–it’s just that I just see a very dangerous trend developing out of it.

      • Al Filreis says:

        Thanks, Aaron. I would enjoy talking with you at some point about all this. Most of the MOOCs I know are, at the moment, free and not for credit. So let’s work together to preserve that option and that majority. And let’s agree on a moratorium on generalizations about what all MOOCs are and what all MOOCs intend. The kinds of concerns expressed by critiques of MOOCs generally (about the pernicious effect on established institutions of higher learning) are relevant – possibly, if the pessimists are correct – to about 8% of those who enrolled in ModPo. 92% are outside academe, adult and indeed elderly and not going to decide NOT to pay tuition, are disabled, are poor, are far-flung and nowhere within reach of colleges & universities, and/or never have a chance otherwise of meeting a faculty member at one of these schools. I teach for them. I teach because I want the poets I care about to have a chance of winning those people as readers. Best wishes, – Al

    • Andrea Gates says:

      Yes. an odd mix of great understanding and frightful ignorance pervades the majority of responses I’ve seen so far.

  11. Anonymous says:

    You have written the best anti-MOOC piece I have seen yet, but I’m still not buying it. As a MOOC student (3 completed, 2 in progress) I think the disadvantages (lack of direct access to the prof, etc) are overated and the advantages of convenience, cost, and access to the lectures of some really great teachers are underated.

    One point that I think you are missing is that the real differences between a MOOC and a more conventional online class is the role of the professor’s robot grader/assistant. Instant feedback on your homework often turns out to be more useful than the opportunity to track down an often distant and difficult prof during his office hours.

    Reform, as you have said, may be over. The revolution is already happening.

  12. I also think you might have missed the point of a MOOC from the end user perspective. I have completed 6 courses and sampled several others. I have a master’s degree in physics and thus missed out on liberal arts. Hooray for the MOOC! ModPo, Modern History and Greek and Roman Myth were all excellent courses that I would never have had the opportunity to sample otherwise. I read voraciously, but there is no substitute for a competent guide to assist with a study outside your field. Want college credit? Take a proctored exam. Want to earn money from a MOOC? Charge a nominal fee. My understanding is that a course costs the university ~$50,000 to produce. For $1 per student they can make a tidy profit. Worried about your teaching job? No way. These classes are not substitutes for a decent university course – but they are a great way to see if you like a subject, to assess whether you are prepared for an an advanced course, to pick up some necessary background courses or to review. If the calculus class I’m paying hundreds of dollars for is full of students who have completed a MOOC in PreCal, both students and professors will be better served.

    • Aaron Bady says:

      If there wasn’t a concerted campaign to use MOOCs to substitute for college courses, I’d be all for them. As I said, a pure social good. I agree with you on that. But there *is* such a campaign.

    • Chuck says:

      “These classes are not substitutes for a decent university course – but
      they are a great way to see if you like a subject, to assess whether you
      are prepared for an an advanced course, to pick up some necessary
      background courses or to review.”

      I sense that you’ve missed a point, namely, that MOOC classes *are* on course to be substitutes for decent university courses as a means of reducing the financial overhead caused by paying for classrooms and faculty. I believe points III. IV, and V have covered this point.

      “If the calculus class I’m paying
      hundreds of dollars for is full of students who have completed a MOOC in PreCal, both students and professors will be better served.”

      Will you still feel this way when the calculus class you’re taking had mandatory PreCal completion instead of learning it in a classroom?

  13. Won't Drink the MOOC-Aid says:

    Thanks for this excellent contribution to the critique of MOOCSs. It’s been a good week for that critique: see the New Yorker article, http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2013/05/20/130520fa_fact_heller?currentPage=all

  14. P { margin-bottom: 0.08in; }

    You have good observations and
    critique, and there’s certainly room for suspicion around MOOCs, but
    this article succumbing to a somewhat paranoiac cultural-studies
    frame. Yes, there’s hype around MOOCs, people championing them for
    some questionable reasons, and incomplete referencing of the history
    of online pedagogy. But there are also real issues and opportunities
    driving the phenomenon, not merely deluded or cynical hype, and you
    tend to caricature MOOCs as rather more fixed and well-defined than I
    believe them to be.

    In your presentation, the current
    mainstream system of in-classroom teaching is self-evidently the
    “real” and better educational experience, and MOOCs are an
    unproven threat. I’d say that the current system has pervasive
    problems of cost, access, equality, and outcomes, and we’re in a
    moment of new possibilities opening up to address some of those
    problems: not only the MOOC form, but more flexible accreditation,
    perhaps not controlled by the incumbent higher-ed sector; new
    learning approaches and technologies.

    Pullback in state funding is not the
    only problem in U.S. higher-ed. Consider Josh Freedman’s “Why
    American Colleges Are Becoming a Force for Inequality”
    (Atlantic, May 16)

    http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2013/05/why-american-colleges-are-becoming-a-force-for-inequality/275923/

    A complex set of interlocking forces
    have made higher-ed’s costs rise steadily (independent of state
    funding issues), and their contribution to social mobility/equality
    to fall or reverse.

    Meanwhile, we have fast-evolving new
    technosocial capabilities to study, collaborate, and organize
    differently, which are helping to transform many other areas of life
    such as work practices, and housing, while education has largely
    continued in traditional methods and rising costs.

    The notion that traditional classroom
    teaching is the best approach for everyone is clearly not the case,
    as the previous comments on this article demonstrate. Large portions
    of people don’t learn well in, or can’t even get access to, such
    learning settings. I also believe we’re just embarking on an era of
    innovation in new technology-assisted learning practices, from
    personalized software/media tools to virtual/online collaboration
    spaces to augmentative technologies transforming in-person
    interactions.

    > the logic of the MOOC is a
    function of shallow thinking,

    > of arguments that go no deeper
    than a David Brooks or

    > Thomas Friedman column.

    I’m not so inclined to think the
    Stanford, Harvard, & MIT professors leading the big 3 MOOC
    platforms are stupid or shallow, not the many professors like Al
    Filreis who embrace MOOCs as a way to teach much larger and more
    diverse student bodies. Many people, professors and administrators
    and students, engage in MOOCs to try it out and think about where it
    could go.

    Also, rhetorically, this is one of many
    broad-brush write-offs of MOOCs or MOOC advocates in your article,
    for example:

    “MOOCs are cheap because you
    record them once and then reuse them. They don’t grow and evolve.”
    “MOOCs are structurally devoted to pinning knowledge down like a
    butterfly, putting it on file.” “The MOOCs…aim to do
    exactly the same thing that traditional courses have done—transfer
    course content from expert to student.” “MOOC’s are
    literally built to cater to the attention span of a distracted and
    multi-tasking teenager, who pays attention in cycles of 10-15
    minutes.

    I’m afraid these come off as
    dismissals, not observations, that don’t take MOOCs or their
    potential or advocates very seriously. Unfortunately, the result may
    be that your article is not so likely to be taken seriously by anyone
    who doesn’t already generally agree. I’d say, why blog just to the
    choir, and a bit of the fringe? Most of the potential impact is among
    the people starting from other positions.

    > “a technology…which is
    designed to reinforce and re-establish the status quo.”

    MOOCs massively threaten the status quo
    of the present higher-ed system. They challenge prevailing cost
    structures, prices, and accreditation practices.

    > “MOOC boosters live in the
    future; actually-existing MOOCs are a far cry from

    > what their champions promise they
    will someday become.”

    true, but unsurprising and, I think,
    legitimate. We have only begun to explore the possible practices and
    technologies which might be used in this area: for example, new types
    of online forums and collaboration environments; arrangements for
    local events, peer-to-peer groups, supervised test-taking, etc;
    individualized instructional methods; means of authentication and
    fraud prevention.

    Anyway, should living in the future be
    so questionable? It’s looking at potential and how to evolve. By
    contrast, extolling the traditional classroom as inherently superior,
    or hoping for a return to the massive public investment level of the
    1960s, seems a bit like living in the past. I too would like to
    redirect the state budget towards education, but I also want the
    higher-ed system to be cost-effective and innovation-embracing. While
    we can and should be skeptical about movements like MOOCs, I think we
    should also try to look through the hype for the possibility of major
    change.


    Tim McCormick
    @tmccormick tjm.org Palo Alto, CA

  15. Adam Lipkin says:

    Aaron, I was under the impression (after listening to a keynote by Cable Green at a conference last month) that the California bill was to require the UC system to accept approved courses if they couldn’t offer their own, but focusing on “traditional” online courses (like UMass Online, etc) that might be available elsewhere, not MOOCs. Reading the bill, I’m not seeing any mention of MOOCs either. Has there been an explicit statement on that front?

    (Otherwise, a fine article, but that one section felt like a distraction.)

    • Aaron Bady says:

      Well, first, everyone–including the bill’s sponsors–is talking about the bill by focusing on MOOCs. Here: http://campustechnology.com/articles/2013/04/30/california-do-moocs-deserve-credit.aspx for example. The reason it isn’t in the bill as such would be that “MOOC” isn’t a coherent enough of a concept to be named specifically (not to mention that one of the letter, O for Open, would exclude courses you must pay for). But that goes back to my point: this is less about MOOCs as such than about the way that MOOC-talk is being used to sneak for-profit online courses into the public systems.

  16. I find I must take a rather radical position, and agree with all sides in this debate. Yes, MOOCs are over-hyped, and yes, they are industry-disruptive for higher education, and life-changing for their participants. Also,

  17. david says:

    One of the best New Inquiry articles i’ve read… can someone please interview Hubert Dreyfus in relation to this.

  18. Eric Haines says:

    So the central thesis is along the lines of: as soon as someone attempts to make a living wage from providing a MOOC, that is clearly evil. Ideas that come to my mind while reading this article are the phrases “creative destruction” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Creative_destruction and an xkcd on “slow down” http://xkcd.com/1215/. No one likes the idea of educators possibly losing jobs – I don’t, I admire anyone who educates others. However, there are no guarantees of employment, that things won’t change.

    I helped create a MOOC with Udacity about interactive 3d rendering. It’s not for credit, but if someday it was for credit, that’s fine. The point of “credit” is to verify the fact that someone has learned some area of knowledge or some skill. Properly testing someone to prove they have that knowledge is a technical challenge, not a philosophical issue.

    As far as stagnation from MOOCs goes, that’s a claim that I almost wish were true. In my own case, the technology I cover will have evolved considerably in a year; in a few years the course I expect the course will look quaint, both in presentation and content. Technologies evolve – MOOC classrooms will change. Finally, the fields of study themselves evolve, and this evolution affects how a field is taught. I’ll be surprised if any MOOC currently being offered is both unchanged 5 years from now and still being used.

    Educational methods likewise evolve; the short video length has been shown to be more effective than a solid 50 minute lecture. Progress can be marked and learning can be resumed after a break of a minute, hour, or day. A movie we watch is not less enjoyable because we can pause and resume later. It’s not teen attention span that’s at fault, it’s rather that research has shown that none of us can listen with full engagement for more than 16 minutes straight. “50 minutes” is there to amortize the time spent getting to the lecture hall, it’s not due to some educational principle.

    If education becomes less expensive and more easily available, that’s not a terrible thing for society as a whole. Education evolves. We no longer consider the only and best method of education in all fields to be engaging in the Socratic method. Jobs may be lost, schools may close. Yet the net effect would be a more educated populace, since overall costs would decrease. Creative destruction happens in all other fields; education is not sacrosanct. Those dollars and cents don’t come from thin air, they come in large part from students and their parents. Money spent poorly on education is money that isn’t available otherwise to do some good, including more education.

    If some people want to use MOOCs as an excuse to cut spending on education, please do fight that – I will. If people want to use MOOCs to widen the availability and lower the cost of education, I support that. We don’t expect each teacher to write their own textbook. Why should we expect them to avoid using other media in their classrooms? MOOCs are being used as prerequisites for courses – you know all the MOOC material, you breeze through, otherwise you spend the hours if you want to succeed at the upcoming course. Parents will continue to want the best education they can get for their children, they are likely to spend the same and get more for their money.

    We agree that face-to-face one-on-one interaction between teacher and student is a great thing. So flip the classroom and make lectures the homework, leaving the teacher free for that one-on-one interaction instead of lecturing. I’m surprised this common use of MOOC methods isn’t touched upon. Instead the silly “secret” of low completion rates of MOOCs is brought out as proof of their poor quality. Please think it through, e.g., http://www.realtimerendering.com/blog/dirty-little-secret/. Since MOOCs are free, every student that completes a MOOC actually wants to learn all the material, for its own sake. That’s an inspirational testament to some students’ desire to learn, and a thrill to any educator excited about imparting their knowledge.

  19. Matt T Grant says:

    Very interesting and closely argued piece. I especially liked the deconstruction of David Brooks.

    Two things jumped out at me. On the one hand, you say that MOOCs might make best sense in fields like software engineering where the skills taught have value in themselves and certification is less important.

    In the next paragraph, however, you go on to write that a MOOC “rewards self-directed learners who have the resources and privilege to allow them to pursue learning for its own sake.” This seemed like a contradiction to me since, learning to acquire a practical skill is not learning for its own sake.

    Also, towards the end, you refer to the process of “reifying knowledge into a commodity which, because it has value, cannot be allowed to change.” I do not believe that, simply because a commodity has value, it (the commodity) cannot change, if for no other reason than the fact there is no such thing as “immutable value” in a market driven system (or, arguably, in any human system).

    I also found this part of the argument unconvincing since it is not the case that MOOCs follow a “set it and forget it logic.” Just because it was recorded once doesn’t mean it can’t be remade and simply because someone is giving a lecture live doesn’t mean it’s not the same lecture they’ve already given for a decade.

    By the same token, doesn’t the fact that people create textbooks (where purchase is frequently mandated) or other scholarly works mean that knowledge has always already been commoditized?

    Thanks for taking the time to write this, Aaron. It really got me thinking.

  20. MOOCs Forum says:

    Very thorough analysis of the past, present, and future potential of MOOCs.

    A new journal called MOOCs Forum just launched its preview issue featuring case studies and discussions from experts in the field: http://www.liebertpub.com/mooc

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