More Morphing of MOOCs

June 7th, 2013

spout of water caused by dropletThe changes MOOCs go through continue, some characterized and perhaps even caused by faculty backlash, with the latest wrinkle in that being the widespread consternation over multi-state, multi-campus deals with Coursera, deals on which a lack of faculty consultation led to what Inside Higher Ed called “Faculty Surprise.”

However understandable, such faculty reaction is tinged by irony: increasingly, MOOCs look less innovative and disruptive. I had commented on the growing “modesty” of MOOCs in an earlier post — how they were less massive, less open, less wholly online, less courses than stashes of “stuff”–but that commentary was not so good as that of Martin Weller, who blogs as “The Ed Techie”  (and whom Joe Ugoretz put me on to — thanks, Joe). Noting how MOOCs have become the online bits of some blended learning (not very new) and the e-learning content for some campus-based learning (no more new), Weller, in a post with the wry title “You Can Stop Worrying About MOOCs Now,” writes,

None of this is bad…. It’s just not very exciting. And it certainly doesn’t warrant the coverage it gets. Can you imagine if Coursera had launched as a provider of elearning content to universities? I don’t think the media would have been as willing to reprint their every press release and promote them so uncritically. So it’s been a smart game to push the ‘future of education for everyone’ line, but surely that game is up now?

That’s a rhetorical question if you think you can stop worrying, but some worry that you can’t. There’s a fascinating line of thought now about MOOCs: far from being innovative, they are counter-innovative. For one thing, there’s a sense that there’s nothing new about them, whether you trace them back to the proto-MOOCs of years past (like TV’s “Sunrise Semester”), as Randy Riddle did in “MOOC Pre-History” (thanks to Jessie Daniels for that one), or you cite “The Pedagogical Foundations of Massive Open Online Courses” as Scott McLemee did in “The MOOC Synthesizer” (Moog, I get it — but it’s also about the MOOC as Synthesizer).

A still more fascinating take on MOOCs as counter-innovative takes on their purported homogenizing influence. An editor of the Christian Science Monitor asks the question “Are MOOCs making education a monoculture?” He certainly has (and quotes) one answer in the open letter from the San Jose State faculty to Harvard (and MOOC) prof Michael Sandel: “the thought of the exact same social justice course being taught in various philosophy departments across the country is downright scary – something out of a dystopian novel.”

This week, Patrick Deneen published an article titled “We’re All to Blame for MOOCs” in the Chronicle Review that came to a similar conclusion, with a twist you can tell from the title. “Higher education is more monocultural than ever before,” he writes; what’s more (and more important), the fact(?) that what was touted as the democratization of higher ed is really its flattening is our fault. We have tolerated and even abetted the decontextualization of knowledge, creating a line of logic that has its logical conclusion in Clay Shirky decrying the locally produced lecture as an “artisanal product”: the future we have paved the way to is the standardized lecture (in really high production video).

A more nuanced analysis by Michael Feldstein (thanks again, Joe) considers MOOCs as the latest development in the evolution of the “course as product.” More than (mere) textbooks, more than (mere) platforms, MOOCs are “forcing us to begin to articulate the value instructors add—both that they can in principle and what they are adding in practice today in large survey courses under the conditions that they are often taught.” It is in this light that something in today’s news — something already blogged about by Tony Picciano – -seems so interesting, and the title of the Chronicle article almost says it all: “MOOC Students Who Got Offline Help Scored Higher, Study Finds.” But let’s allow little more than the title: “On average, with all other predictors being equal, a student who worked offline with someone else in the class or someone who had expertise in the subject would have a predicted score almost three points higher than someone working by him or herself,” according to the MIT research team.

Counter-innovative or no, this is is hardly counter-intuitive. More and more, MOOCs, as they morph, look less and less like tsunami-starting disruptions, more like somewhat new or at least slightly differently-shaped (and shape-shifting) pieces of the vast puzzle of teaching and learning that we have trying to put together for so long. And will for a while yet, I wager.


  1. Anthony Picciano Says:

    Dear Colleagues,

    George has provided us with a good recap of the latest thinking regarding the MOOC phenomenon. As MOOCs wind their way into mainstream higher education as at San Jose State University, they are looking very much like a blended learning model that has been with us since the late 1990s. As educators, we need to look beyond the hype generated by the MOOC financial backers, tech companies and media. There are serious pedagogical, social and equity issues at stake for our students and faculty.


  2. Sean Molloy Says:

    George — Thank you for continuing to sift through all the ebbs and flows of MOOC-mania. Thinking about writing instruction, I wonder whether the biggest application here ultimately may be in basic writing programs, where basic skills content delivery is a bigger part of some teaching models and practices and defining instructor value in terms of local, complex processes of thinking and writing may be a bigger challenge. –Sean

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