Yesterday, All Our MOOC Troubles Seemed So Far Away

Everybody remember the expectation that a smart, professorial President would hire an equally smart, skilled staff who would prove that a well-run government can be quickly responsive to the needs of the society, efficient in the execution of its duties, and not just services to the highest bidder?

Yeah, me neither. The current Administration seems determined to help us forget. Today the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology issued a report on massively online open courses (MOOCs) that not only reads as if it was written a year ago, but manages even in the frame of a year ago to take the most cravenly deferential and crudely instrumental posture available in that moment. It’s a love letter to the venture capitalists scrambling to gut open higher education, written at a time when the most thoughtful entrepreneurs and executives involved in organizing MOOCs have all but conceded that whatever their value might be, they’re not going to solve the problem of labor-intensivity in education nor are they going to serve as a primary vehicle for achieving equity of access to higher education for potential pupils.

There was a good deal of I-told-you-so-ing after Sebastian Thrun announced that Udacity would move towards offering MOOCs for something other than basic higher education, in part because Thrun had concluded that they simply couldn’t substitute for existing models of teaching. I don’t think anyone should have mocked Thrun for saying so, even though many of us did say that this is what was going to happen. Not the least because it has happened before, at each major milestone in the development of mass communication in modern societies: the new medium was eagerly held up as a chance to affordably massify education and extend its transformative potential, only to fall short. Largely because no matter what mass medium we’re talking about, this kind of education is essentially an assisted form of autodidacticism. It has worked and still works largely only for those who already know what they want to know, and who already know how to learn.

There are some people who deeply believe that new technological infrastructures can in and of themselves solve problems of cost, equity and efficacy, in higher education or anything else. But at least some of the people who were preaching the MOOC gospel a year ago, where the President’s Council just went in their time machine, did so hoping to draw a Golden Ticket in the “I Made an IPO and Broke Something Important” sweepstakes. Most of those folks seem to be moving on now. In the Silicon Valley game, you don’t have to make money, but you do need to show that you can displace and disrupt an existing service with some speed. That’s not going to happen in this case.

One of the reasons that so many faculty who are otherwise very friendly to digitally-mediated innovation and change were so annoyed with MOOCs is that the intense push by companies and investors to draw attention to MOOCs drew energy and resources away from existing projects that have been using information technology to enhance and enrich traditional modes of teaching, often called “blended learning”. Now that the craze for the MOOC is starting to fade, maybe the blended learning conversation can gain the public attention it deserves once again.

But also, maybe we can hold on to what we’ve learned about the genuinely interesting possibilities of MOOCs. So they’re not going to magically solve the economic problems of education or public goods, or for the more anti-intellectual backers, they’re not going to create a world where algorithms will replace truculent faculty. If we get lucky, they might put some of the sleazier for-profit online educators out of business. However, existing MOOCs are still a potentially terrific implementation of three possible objectives, all of which might even have market value.

1) MOOCs are a model form of new digital publication. If you read this blog, you’ve seen me say this before (and seen me say before, somewhat crossly, that I’ve been saying it for years.) But this is no longer just potential: it’s reality. Does anyone remember how many people bought “For Dummies” books? Or in recent years, how many institutions are paying for a account? The MOOC is a BOOC: it’s an enhanced, interactive instructional guide where other readers and the authors are there to help you learn. An instructional book has never been confused for a face-to-face course in a university, but it’s also a concept that’s been in existence longer than the university itself.

2) MOOCs are learning communities. Again, this is a potential that’s been around since the WELL, but existing MOOCs are a good demonstration of mature technologies and practices that help dedicated groups learn and explore together at various levels of commitment and interest. They can’t teach calculus to a single student who is underprepared to learn calculus, but they can help a very big group of people who have diverse knowledge and a common interest in the future of higher education learn and discuss that topic together.

3) The mass response to MOOCs are evidentiary proof of the transformative potential of traditional higher education. They’ve been misused as vehicles for transforming higher education, but what they really document is that people who’ve had higher education want to have more learning experiences like that for the rest of their lives. It’s why I always feel so sad when I talk to a Swarthmore alum who just wants to talk about books and ideas and research again and who starts to think that this alone is a reason to go on to graduate school. It’s not a good reason to do that because that’s not what graduate school typically services. But look at who takes MOOCs: it’s a close overlap with people who take community college courses for enrichment, with people who join book clubs and go to lectures, with people who just want to know more and talk with people who also have that aspiration. What have MOOCs shown so far? That there are a lot of people like that. They’re busy people, so they often drop out. But I bet those people are to support for educational institutions as a public good, ready to believe in the potentialities of education for a democratic society. MOOCs might not entirely scratch the itch for lifelong learning that many people who’ve had a taste of education develop, but they’re one way to respond to that desire, and more potently, an affirmation that the desire exists.

If the White House wants to pay attention to something important, they might start there rather than embracing the hope that market forces will automagically deploy the MOOC to finally relieve the technocrats of the burden of maintaining and extending public goods.

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5 Responses to Yesterday, All Our MOOC Troubles Seemed So Far Away

  1. Jerry Hamrick says:

    Another good one, Professor! The hits just keep on coming.

  2. Kevin Werbach says:

    Tim, where in the PCAST memo does it say MOOCs can “solve the problem of labor-intensivity in education” or “serve as a primary vehicle for achieving equity of access”? It talks about the failure at SJSU, and notes concerns that MOOCs will undermine good teaching, displace faculty, and de-emphasize critical thinking. It then says, “it is too early to tell whether substantial gains in the quality of instruction, access, achievement, and cost will be realized.” Doesn’t sound like the document you described.

    The memo has plenty of problems. You’re right that it doesn’t capture the evolution of the debate over the past year, and while it recognizes that nothing in MOOCs is fundamentally new, it fails to acknowledge the cMOOC precedents. And I wish that, in addition to recognizing that there will be multiple forms of MOOCs with different price points, it had expressed a preference for openness and affordability. That’s an important area where the government should put a thumb on the scale, lest we recreate the obscene oligopolies of textbooks and academic journal publishing. Overall, though, it’s primarily a call for more research, and more sharing of research about MOOCs. That’s a good thing, no?

    Your worries about MOOCs, and your points about the other directions they could go, are valid. I just hate to see MOOC skeptics make the same kinds of generalizations that they rightly criticize from the MOOC boosters.

  3. Timothy Burke says:

    Kevin, I think the tone is set right in the summary: “Let market forces decide which innovations in online teaching and learning are best.”

    I get that this is an attempt to head off accrediting agencies stepping in to set standards, but there is a third way that doesn’t even seem to occur to PCAST, in part because it also doesn’t occur to the Administration’s current Education Secretary: that higher education is best approached as a public, not market-driven, good and that decisions should follow from that insight.

    But once you get to the letter, it leads with the MOOCs = efficiency gains and cost reductions. Other possibilities get mentioned here and there, but that’s the big frame it offers. This is precisely what was pernicious about the craze for MOOCs a year ago,
    and what is pernicious in general about one kind of address to the issues around higher education.

    Cost reductions from technology use, if they come, are best seen as Christmas presents, unexpected positive additions. When the first and last rationale of technological innovation is to save money, not only does that sideline all the really transformative uses that do not save money, it tends to produce a drive towards cost reduction that continues whether or not the technology worked.

    The letter is not just stuck in the discussion of a year ago. It is giving too much of an endorsement to the wrong kind of interest in MOOCs and would have been doing so if it had come out last year.

  4. Kevin Werbach says:

    I agree the big issue for higher ed is public vs. private goods, and as I acknowledged, PCAST missed an opportunity to take a stand. (Or perhaps you’re right, they never saw the opportunity to begin with.) Sadly, as a nation we’ve pretty much already made the decision there.

  5. Matt G says:

    Craig Mundie (one of the authors of the PCAST report) gave the keynote address at a computer science education conference I attended several years ago. The talk focused on a Microsoft effort to produce humanoid robots that would greet visitors to buildings on the Redmond campus (the problem was that visitors wasted a few minutes having to check-in at a main desk). If Mundie had broader applications in mind, they weren’t discussed. It was a vision of the future I found shockingly unimaginative.

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