So I remain firmly in the camp of people grumpy about the hype over MOOCs. Not so much about the reality of MOOCs, which is something that most of the hypesters remain defiantly unacquainted with.
Digitization in higher education has already often been a powerful, transformative force, and some of what MOOCs do with digitization will be good–occasionally in the way that NASA going to the moon was good, not so much for the moon itself but for all the stuff you have to build to get there.
Just to mention two examples of collateral good things about MOOCs evident in recent weeks. The first is that it’s increasingly possible they may pretty much kill off preceding forms of for-profit online education, most of which make even the most half-assed MOOC look good by comparison not just in terms of the quality of the experience but the cost of the service. More importantly in this context, MOOCs do their business out in the open. You can see what they are, you can see who teaches them. The University of Phoenix and its ilk made it impossible for to see who was teaching, what their qualifications or skill as a teacher might be, or what a class was like until you were signed on as a paying customer, often carrying the heavy debt required to get in the door.
Which leads to the second good thing about MOOCs: even if they don’t succeed in being either the magic edu-topia or devilish capitalist plot that their advocates and detractors envision them to be, they probably will be an important force in bringing more academics into contact with a wider range of the public. Not that MOOCs are unique in that respect–it’s the same kind of thing that Wikipedia, digital culture, crowdsourcing and so on are doing. But it’s one more potentially useful push in this direction.
Most professors are used to a classroom that is a closed environment, to students who more or less accept the curricular strictures and disciplinary parameters that define a given course, and to the ultimate control that student need for certification or assessment has on their behavior in a course.
Professors who have either engaged wider publics about their discipline or research or who have taught in contexts where most of the students are adults seeking enrichment have learned to be open to a far wider range of challenges and to be far less directive about getting to a single predetermined set of outcomes.
You have to make a similar adjustment if you’re teaching a MOOC to thousands of students and many of them have no need for a certification of completion and have a heterogeneous range of reasons for an interest in the subject. Which is what made the story about an economics professor bailing out of a Coursera MOOC so interesting. I basically agree with Professor Catherine Prendergast, who was participating in the course as a student, that the professor was completely unused to having his disciplinary orthodoxies questioned by people defined as “students” and didn’t know how to cope with a group that didn’t simply obey his instructions about what they could and could not discuss.
MOOCs aren’t the best or most generative way I can think of to open classrooms and subject expertise to different kinds of feedback and pressure, but they are A way for that to happen. Yes, that means that Thomas Friedman’s latest blandulations have some validity to them, but roughly for the same reason that it’s possible to think that an astrological forecast has some truth in it: throw enough conventional wisdom and irrefutable fortune-cookie sloganeering at the wall and some of it’s bound to stick.