Imagining an Age of MOOCs


From Monsters University, Walt Disney Pictures, 2013

by Roland Greene

The MOOC era has dawned with a rush of utopian and dystopian bombast, much of which is bound to be wrong. A platform for enabling high-quality instruction over the internet will probably be a boon for higher education at large, even if it drastically changes the working conditions of many people in the profession. At the same time, MOOCs have demonstrated their value only in a handful of fields that deal in limited kinds of knowledge and assessment (and in those venues, as far as I can tell, they are not especially controversial).

Much of the concern for MOOCs as a sign of the future comes out of the interpretive humanities and social sciences, where online instruction on a large scale is likely not germinal to the future. In these settings, what problem do MOOCs address: access? cost? quality? interactivity? pedagogical experimentation? Each of these assumptions describes a different rationale for the MOOC. Meanwhile, the arrival of MOOCs has coincided with the appearance of start-ups like Coursera, Udacity, and edX that have sponsored a promotional discourse about the entire phenomenon; critical evaluation of MOOCs has appeared tardily and against the trend of a rush of uncritical thinking.

Lee Konstantinou wonders how we should “understand the forces that are pushing for the rapid adoption of MOOCs” (as expressions of “fiscal and labor policy,” I say quoting Ian Bogost in the recent Los Angeles Review of Books roundtable); and whether the phenomenon will amount to a “tsunami or a perfectly ordinary, practically dull” issue (more the latter than the former, I believe).

In several ways, the phenomenon is already sputtering. I tend to think that the start-ups will fall out of prominence as their offerings stop being either “massive” or “open.” Coursera already has, consigning itself to offering prosaic technical support within institutions. Naturally there will be online courses that originate and are populated entirely within a certain institution. Where MOOCs are offered, there’s a good chance that most of the students will show little interest in pursuing a degree or credit.

None of these initiatives concerns me here. Rather, I intend to address Lee’s first question: “what special opportunities or problems arise in online classes that teach literature, the arts, or other humanistic subjects?”

I want to speculate over a couple of posts about that elusive event, the truly massive, open, online course in the humanities, and what it would mean to the landscape of higher education. I believe it will represent a sliver of the future, but one worth thinking about for how it reveals our present assumptions and conditions. In the interpretive disciplines, how would a real MOOC, and beyond that a world of MOOCs, look and feel?

In this first chapter of their existence, some of the appeal of MOOCs has to do with an exhilarating sense of a freedom that cascades from one standpoint to another. I create my instructional “content” and gain visibility; my institution slaps a logo on it and reaps exposure; a start-up platform such as Udacity or edX renders the content into a course and makes inroads in a new market; and the end-user receives the course and obtains education, or not. Another institution might cut into this chain, offering my course to its students as end-users and reaching more students without a commensurate increase in costs. As it stands, everyone feels free, everyone gains a limited share in an enterprise of uncertain value, and no one holds or wants full responsibility.

Here’s an uncomfortable truth: this freedom is less a reality of our industry than a sensation. It’s a momentary diversion during a difficult moment in U.S. higher education. Soon, the feeling of improvisation and new possibilities will be overwritten by a different set of imperatives, now visible on the horizon.

The MOOC depends for its validity on a seamless qualitative connection from its origin (for instance, lectures conceived and recorded in an elite university) to its reception (perhaps in a setting very different from the point of origin, such as a home, a public library, or a community college). Some of the most searching attention to date has followed the question of quality. Who owns a MOOC in the sense of being responsible for maintaining standards: the instructor, the originating institution, the platform, or the receiving institution? A few factors—the cult of academic celebrity, the distributed agency of the digital sphere, and the something-for-nothing ethos of online start-ups—have merged into a fog over this question.

In the pioneering experiments in online education narrated by Filreis and Ray Schroeder, quality is maintained by the hands-on instructor, as an extension of the ethos of the liberal arts college. That artisanal approach won’t survive long when courses get adopted by other institutions to cut costs. Instead, what Schroeder calls “the Augustana experience” will disperse into a hundred other end-use experiences of the same course. Most of the early MOOCs maintain a veneer of interactivity—in Filreis’s and Schroeder’s approaches, responses from students are channeled into discussion forums or other easily managed outlets—but as a mature phenomenon, online higher education will quickly raise the issue of what it means to offer a two-way (or hundred-way, or thousand-way) course. A big part of this issue will be about ensuring the continuity of quality from end to end, but there’s more than that.

Consider a case that illustrates both where we’re coming from and where we’re going. Recently the political scientist Michael Sandel, the instructor of a MOOC offered through edX that is modeled on his popular course at Harvard called “Justice,” was reproached by members of the philosophy faculty at San José State University for failing to consider the online course’s end-use and its implications. For the SJSU faculty, Sandel himself was responsible for that qualitative continuity. Their letter was rightly concerned with the larger implications for the academic profession, especially the availability of academic jobs in a MOOC-driven economy.

Sandel’s reply to the San José State letter hews to one of the standard disclaimers of this first generation of MOOC faculty: “I know very little about the arrangements edX made with San Jose State University . . . My goal is simply to make an educational resource freely available—a resource that faculty colleagues should be free to use in whole or in part, or not at all, as they see fit.” The provost of San José State, Ellen Junn, is quoted in Inside Higher Ed arguing that a MOOC like Sandel’s ought to be incorporated into the local classroom like a textbook, entirely at the discretion of the SJSU faculty.

There’s that ‘freedom’ again. Both Sandel and Junn emphasize the autonomy of the local faculty—although their freedom seems quite nominal when we discover that after the refusal of the SJSU philosophy faculty to offer “Justice,” the administration prevailed on the English department to do so. The fact that the course’s originator and its institutional outlet don’t agree on where freedom ends and coercion begins, or about to whom the online “Justice” course finally belongs, indicates an obfuscation of our moment.

Here’s another dawning truth: MOOCs aren’t broadcasts to be bestowed on the general public and received willy-nilly by people and institutions alike. Nor are they classroom-like interactions writ large, even though many first-generation instructors like Filreis portray them that way. One idea is digital hocus-pocus according to which information floats free of all constraints, while the other is nostalgia for a version of richly crafted liberal education that’s antithetical to the nature of the MOOC.

Rather, MOOCs are concrete ties shared among students and universities in a widely distributed transaction—and where multiple institutions become involved, MOOCs will be common investments, perhaps the most visible such connections across levels (general vs. elite, public vs. private) that have ever existed. They draw people of drastically different states of life and environments, and institutions like Harvard and San José State, into one another’s orbit like nothing has until now. They are a social experiment whose implications are scarcely captured by any of the purposes (access, cost, et cetera) often ascribed to MOOCs.

When that realization gets absorbed, the penumbra of general freedom—undifferentiated and elastic—will dissipate and a different reality will take hold, that of responsibility and mutual engagement in networked higher education. This is a condition that sounds exciting in prospect but for which we are scarcely prepared, in which instructors who offer MOOCs will speak to multifarious students and hear what they have to say in return (no peer-evaluated essays, no lightly moderated discussion forums as glorified chat rooms) and in which our institutions learn to work together across the lines that divide them. David Palumbo-Liu, Cathy Davidson, and a few others are already thinking in these terms, but theirs is a notion of the MOOC that moves against the drift of the moment.

In my next post I’ll continue the thought experiment: what would a true MOOC in the humanities have to be, and what would a landscape of higher education involving many MOOCs look like?

Piece originally published at Arcade | Creative Commons License