Mind the MOOC?

Siva Vaidhyanathan has a new post up on the Chronicle blog that takes on the hype cycle around MOOCs. Which is a good thing. Experimenting with new ways learning online and off, particularly in higher ed, is more than a worthwhile venture. I think it probably does have a lot to do with the future of the university.

But maybe not in the way University of Virginia Rector Helen Dragas and others seem to think. For those not playing at home, the UVa recently went through a very public and destructive firing and rehiring of their president. The reason, it turned out, is that their Board of Visitors seemed to think the university should be engaging in creative destruction more quickly. Or something similar to that. They wanted more motion, faster. And MOOCs seem to be the current darling of what elite institutions can do to… well to forestall the inevitable.

To be clear, I agree with the economic doom-casters. I think we are in for a cataclysmic and rapid change in what universities do in the US. I think it will feel a bit like an echo of the newspaper collapse, and in particular, we will see a large number of universities and colleges not make it through the process. Part of that is that there will be challengers outside of traditional universities, and part of it will be that traditional universities will find ways of reaching new students. A big part will be rapid changes in how universities–particularly private universities–are funded.

But I think Siva has MOOCs wrong, in part by assuming that there is a thing called a MOOC and that it is a stable sort of a thing. In particular:

He notes:

Let me pause to say that I enjoy MOOCs. I watch course videos and online instruction like those from the Khan Academy … well, obsessively. I have learned a lot about a lot of things beyond my expertise from them. My life is richer because of them. MOOCs inform me. But they do not educate me. There is a difference.

So, there is a question of terminology. Are Khan courses MOOCs? Let’s assume they hold together into courses and curricula, even then, are they MOOCs? Are MIT’s Open Courses MOOCs? I think calling these MOOCs makes about as much sense as calling a BOOK a MOOC. These are the open resources that make up an important part of a scalable online open course (a SOOC! I can wordify too!).

The main issue here is, I think, his insistence on this idea of “education.” I don’t think I believe in education any more. I’m not sure I believe teaching is much more than setting the stage for the important bit: learning. But he is suggesting that there is more here. That education consists of more than just learning.

But I also think it is way too early to guess at what “MOOCs” do well, when they are a moving target. The idea that calculus or chemistry instruction scales well but history or philosophy does not I think has a lot more to do with institutional structures and university politics than it does with the nature of learning these things.

I think one of the major problems universities–both the elite institutions Siva is talking about and the “less elite” universities and colleges–is that they are the wrong tool for the problem they face. They face students coming to college not well prepared by high schools. The first two years is remedial work, often outsourced to adjunct labor. And since the university wants to put its resources into the “meat” of education, the cool stuff students don’t get to until senior year, they are screwing up what is happening up to that point.

The result is Bio 101 and English 101. Courses that best reflect the worst in college education. They are either 30-student courses taught by first year grad students and/or adjuncts, or 1,200-student courses that involve showing up to class, memorizing key terms, and regurgitating them into the appropriate bubble on a Scantron form. It’s not the 20-person senior seminar on Kierkegaard’s less known knitting patterns that are the target of MOOCs, it is the Bio 101s.

Now, part of the problem is that many large state schools (and small private colleges) only have Bio 101s. I regularly had students at the senior level at SUNY Buffalo who had never written a term paper. At Quinnipiac (which boasts very few giant lectures courses), I heard something similar. As bad as Bio 101 is, it’s a cash cow for the university. If you are able to can that cash cow, all the better.

But here’s the trick, if you are able to can it, and make it available to all for free, it’s not a cash cow, it’s an open service to society. It is not the best solution to the problem (reminder: the problem is failing public secondary and primary education in the US), but it is a stop-gap that doesn’t soak the student.

At present, scaled courses follow the trajectory of scaled courses in giant lecture halls over the last two decades: lecture and multiple choice. The real innovation in MOOCs is the potential for creating networked learning communities within these massive courses. I think it’s possible we can do that. I also think it’s going to take a lot of work, and a lot of time. Which means money.

So, if administrators are excited about MOOCs, I say: good. If they don’t understand the monetization of open education resources, I say: join the crowd.

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One Comment

  1. Posted 7/6/2012 at 11:02 pm | Permalink

    Hi Alex,
    A thought provoking post. Here is my response post to Siva http://suifaijohnmak.wordpress.com/2012/07/07/what-makes-the-difference-with-the-different-moocs/ “The real innovation in MOOCs is the potential for creating networked learning communities within these massive courses.” That’s where the connectivist MOOCs could possibly achieve. Mastery of content could be a problem, if that is the case, as you said:” I regularly had students at the senior level at SUNY Buffalo who had never written a term paper. At Quinnipiac (which boasts very few giant lectures courses), I heard something similar. As bad as Bio 101 is, it’s a cash cow for the university. If you are able to can that cash cow, all the better.” If students have not learnt the metacognitive skills and learning how to learn, and how to think (with critical thinking), they would experience great difficulties in pursuing HE. How would students benefit from the MOOCs (x MOOC and connectivist MOOC)?

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