Saturday, February 9, 2013

MOOCs in the News: Uptopian and Dystopian

The MOOC received a decent amount of attention this week in United States' non-academy focused media: Salon's Andrew Leonard proclaimed "The Internet will not ruin college," and Slate's Will Oremus wrote an article about the "MOOC Meltdown" where an "Online Class on How To Teach Online Classes Goes Laughably Awry." Thomas Friedman, in the New York Times, discussed the revolution that is the MOOC, and not surprisingly, academics responded (mostly negatively) to his comments through letters to the editor.

MOOC-Driven Utopias in the Media
These articles and responses pair perfectly with this week's EDCMOOC readings about the future of online culture and education. Where Leonard reminds us that the Internet, through Khan Academy, YouTube, and Wikipedia already provide free education that will not necessarily threaten bricks and mortar universities, Oremus shows us that MOOCs do not always work as they are intended to, and in this case, MOOCs cannot embrace the small classroom (or even small online course) environment; the technology simply does not exist right now.   

In many of our readings, as in Friedman's piece, MOOCs are presented with a utopian education in mind. In "Napster, Udacity, and the Academy," Clay Shirkey explains that "the fight over MOOCs is really about the story we tell ourselves about higher education: what it is, who it’s for, how it’s delivered, who delivers it" Later in the article, he explains "MOOCs expand the audience for education to people ill-served or completely shut out from the current system, in the same way phonographs expanded the audience for symphonies to people who couldn’t get to a concert hall, and PCs expanded the users of computing power to people who didn’t work in big companies."

For Shirkey, MOOCs will expand higher education - in his words, it will expand "what it is, who it's for, how it's delivered, [and] who delivers it." He uses an analogy to music, and starts out describing the Napster phenomena, the music industry's response, and the ways in which recordings allowed more people to access music. In the same way that technology increased potential audiences for music, so too will MOOCs increase potential student numbers.

Not only is the possibility of greater access a utopian vision of the MOOC, but also the type of community created through the MOOC is portrayed as utopian. Al Filreis, an English professor at the University of Pennsylvania, taught a course on nineteenth-century poetry in a MOOC format. He reports that “I’ve had students write to me very sincerely, ‘I went to college for four years but never had a class that made me feel more connected,’ ” Filreis said. “This course has been an excuse for small communities to gather around with a common interest in poetry all over the world. It moves me.” Filreis reports students in different communities, getting together offline, to continue their discussions of the poetry presented in his class. His MOOC, he claims, connected people who may not have been connected at all.

MOOC-Driven Dystopias
These attitudes about MOOCs are certainly utopian. For Shirkey and Friedman, their questions of access are admirable. What neither of these gentleman consider, however, are the barriers to access. Internet access and language, especially, make it difficult for many around the world to access this free education. For many, whether they are in urban or rural areas in the United States, Internet access is still not necessarily readily available in individual homes, whether it is a matter of cost or a matter of technological access to the necessary equipment and signals. If they can access the Internet at a local library, their opportunities may be limited by time and the number of computers.

Moreover, many of the MOOCs are offered in English (lectures, readings, and discussion boards). Though English is the international language of science and business, those people who would benefit most from this online education may also not have access to the English-language education that opens up these courses to them. (watch for an upcoming post on the imperial questions regarding global education in English).

Leonard's piece is more nuanced and balanced, reminding us that the Internet already affects education, but also encouraging us to consider, as does Aaron Bady in his response to Shirkey, who will eventually profit from these courses and how much the for-profit nature and venture capitalism for entities like Coursera and Udacity will affect the educational offerings and, ultimately, the access to that education.

The Pedagogical Place/Space of the MOOC 
Through the first two weeks of the MOOC, I have discovered that there is some benefit to them. I see the MOOC as a place where I can learn about something that I am interested in (for instance, I've signed up for a science of gastronomy course) but also something that my own professional development does not necessarily depend on (I'm an English professor, neither food scientist nor professional chef, nor culinary student). MOOCs are good for exploring topics and subject areas that we don't know much about; for those of us with readily available Internet access and the language skills necessary to access the information, there is very little to lose but time. If we don't like it, we quit, no harm done. If we continue, we will probably learn something.

Can MOOCs replace college classrooms? I don't think so, not even the large lecture hall. Are they the same as smaller, closed online courses? I would have to say, no, even though I have not taken one.

Why, you might ask? Size.

In the online courses I teach, I am able to read everyone's responses, engage with all of my students, have some sense of who they are (even if we never meet in person), and get a sense of theor needs as students.

In the MOOC, I don't feel like the instructors, even if they wanted to, could do that simply because of the scope. Moreover, as a student in the EDCMOOC, I have, more than once, felt overwhelmed by the quantity of information in the discussion boards, the impossibility to read it and respond to it, and the place (or non-place) I feel like I have in the class. Feelings, I have not had before when it comes to education.

What is the purpose of the MOOC? If they're here to stay, how can we use them to benefit students and faculty alike? 


  1. Thanks, Danielle. I think one thing MOOCs are missing -- and which is difficult to replicate --is skilled facilitation by an instructor. People who critique brick and mortar learning, and advocate MOOCs as a substitute miss, I think, the very active real-time facilitation and creation of knowledge that can come in a small group discussion. This can happen, I think, in small, closed, well-planned fora online, but the MOOC we're taking seems sadly lacking in this. Interesting conversations begin, but then fade out. We make interesting comments, pictures, and artefacts. But the quality of our engament with each other isn't close to what happens in a good undergraduate class. I'm an English professor, too!

  2. Philip,
    Thank you for your comment. I really do agree with you, I feel sometimes that we're just skimming the surface of some interesting things in the MOOC, but that the willingness to dig deeper isn't quite there because *we* don't know what to do with everything we're given.