More on MOOCs

September 10th, 2012

illustraton from the article "Online Education: More than MOOCs"Beatrice Marovich’s Chronicle of Higher Ed article “Online Learning: More Than MOOC’s” (whence I got my image) appeared last week. It was so wonderfully lucid as a thoughtful, dispassionate answer to Mark Edmundson’s “The Trouble with Online Education” that I couldn’t say much more that “Read it!” — and that hardly justifies a blog entry. But the Chronicle has also been publishing more fretful musings about how MOOCs (massive open online courses) will be (or at least remake) the future of higher education, and I can’t let that pass without comment.

The immediate provocation is Kevin Carey’s “Into the Future with MOOC’s,” whose very title is in its own way as eloquent as Marovich’s. While hers reminds us — and I hope we do not need much reminding — that almost all of what is now offered as online instruction is much more intimate and integrated than the vast but rare anomalies called MOOCs, Carey has seen the future, and he knows it is very different from what we know now. He promises that “the MOOC explosion will accelerate the breakup of the college credit monopoly.”

Both pieces are anchored in personal experience, but in tellingly different ways. Marovich tells of how, laid up by an injury, she came to online teaching reluctantly and was surprised by how empowered and connected she and her (regular-sized class of) students felt in the new medium. Carey tells of an awful learning experience he had as a student, one in which his term-long absence in a huge traditional lecture course went unnoticed but some cramming for the final got him a C: if he got credit for that, why not give credit for MOOCs?  That’s like noting that human beings can survive in the polar wastes and then concluding they should settle there.

But wait: that’s going too far. MOOCs are not the problem. As I was at pains to point out in my long post on MOOCs, some MOOCs are entirely estimable teaching and learning experiences. The real problem for those who think MOOCs are going to remake higher ed is something the acronym apparently lets them forget: a MOOC is just a course (and not a course of study). Just in case it’s not immediately apparent, Jason Lane and Kevin Kinser ask and answer the question “Will MOOC’s Take Down Branch Campuses? We Don’t Think So” by putting it this way: “It is one thing for a student to pursue a course or two in an area of personal interest. But this is much different than taking the dozens of different courses required for a degree.”

As I read that, I felt a muted echo of something I read many years ago. I finally realized it was from Chapter 8 (“Re-education”) of John Seeley Brown and Paul Duguid’s masterful book The Social Life of Information (2000). That book, significantly, was essentially an attempt to explain why almost all the visionary prophecies of the nineties about the Internet had failed to come true. Those prophecies were memorably summed up in the “6 Ds”: demassification, decentralization, denationalization, despatialization, disintermediation, disaggregation (p. 22). Carey, in speaking of the “breakup of the college credit monopoly,” is a latter-day prophet of Internet-induced disintermediation. It’s interesting to see how Chapter 8 of The Social Life of Information (p. 215, to be specific) asks and answers whether that will be the fate of university instruction:

Will the university crumble into individual buyers and sellers? After all, you can buy books brimming with knowledge. (Indeed you can even buy credentials and finished college papers.) Why can’t these markets develop to replace the cumbersome university as information provider? Why won’t people just buy and sell knowledge across the ‘Net?

The answer, of course, is that knowledge doesn’t market very easily. As we noted in chapter 5, it’s hard to detach and circulate. It’s also very hard for buyers to assess. Indeed, people attempting to buy knowledge in one form or another often face a curious dilemma. If they can evaluate it, they probably don’t need it.  If they need it, they probably can’t evaluate it.

Essentially — and in it’s entirety the argument is the best that could be made for why a baccalaureate should be 120 credit hours — Brown and Duguid are saying that what matters is the outcome of a sustained and complex process that produces an incalculably affected and complex product. It wasn’t readily acknowledged then, or now, because we have become so good at fragmenting and compartmentalizing knowledge into discrete units called courses. But what that breakdown is missing is what is really valued: the product of the enriching interactions (and checks and balances) of a sustained program of instruction, with all the socialization that requires.

Of course, it takes only a moment’s thought to realize that talk of MOOCs being a “Campus Tsunami” misses the point that courses are just courses, with or without credit, and there is a reason we deal in curricula as well, in majors and minors and gen ed and all that it takes to get into college in the first place. Saying MOOCs will replace the college experience is like saying some breadsticks will take the place of a multi-year meal plan. Let’s not confuse appetizers with sustained sustenance, or PR with education.

  1. ITtraining Says:

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  2. Round Up! : Footenotes Says:

    […] the last few weeks George Otte has been blogging about MOOCs and what they mean for the future of education and technology.  This week some new voices have […]

  3. Tributaries » Blog Archive » Change and Persistence Says:

    […] More on MOOCs […]

  4. Tributaries » Blog Archive » Divining Madness Says:

    […] More on MOOCs […]

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