MOOC Monsters

June 25th, 2013

Blind monks examining an elephant

Much as I love the parable of the blind monks and the elephant (see the accompanying image), there may be an even better metaphor for what’s going on with MOOCs. Two weeks ago there was a remarkable essay in the Chronicle titled “Why We Fear MOOCs.” (Given the MOOC-saturation of the media, anything about MOOCs that sticks in the head more than a week is remarkable.) It begins with a definition of monsters taken from anthropology. Monsters fascinate and terrify, not because they’re utterly alien, but because they inject the known with the unknown, the familiar with the uncanny (turning the living into the undead, the man into the wolf, and so on).

I confess that one reason the article came (back) to mind was that I went to the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers last night. (It was part of the Bryant Park Summer Movie Series.) It actually improved the MOOC-monster analogy for me. So much of the movie is trying to figure out what’s going on, reading signs that something’s awry (that a boy thinks his mom’s not his mom, that nobody goes out to eat any more) and coming up with this or that hypothesis (a contagious neurosis and other allegorical suggestions that we’re losing touch with what it means to be human). Ultimately (spoiler alert!) it turns out that seed pods are growing and hatching doubles that are passionless but persistent, at least at propagating. The most memorable scene in the movie has our beleaguered hero looking down on the town square full of people early in the morning — too early. Trucks come in loaded with the pods, and the changed citizens bear them off to neighboring towns.

This is what made me recall the article, or rather where it went from the monster analogy. Mary Manjikian, the author of “Why We Fear MOOCs,” saw two major points of hybridity, both upsetting the idea of “going to college”: that MOOCs messed with the idea of a “residential campus,” and with set time frames like semester-long courses.

True. But the trucks with the pods put me in mind of stuff people seem to find a lot scarier than not having their kids hang out in dorms and take classes in standard terms. If MOOCs represent an invasion — and that is in fact a metaphor that has been popping up here and there — the creepy thing is trying to figure out if people and things are what they say they are. Like the hero of Invasion, who can’t trust people like the gas station owner or the police chief to be themselves, do we know who’s who, who’s in charge? This is in a fact what’s been fueling the faculty backlash — something nicely summed up and reviewed in a recent New York Times article. Though the article’s title (“Online Classes Fuel a Campus Debate”) seems to suggest it’s the mode of delivery that’s the problem, the real issue is control: “On many campuses, faculty oppose the spread of MOOCs, angry that their universities joined in with little consultation, undercutting the tradition of shared governance.” But that could be changing: “Now a new discussion has begun about whether universities should collaborate to develop and share their courses and technology, rather than working with outside providers.”

In other words, it’s the fear of alien invasion and especially corporatization that seems to be frightening folks. It’s not the online aspect. Notably, a gathering of global online educators said they’ve been doing MOOC-like stuff all along, the idea being that they just didn’t get the attention that the investment of a lot of venture capital did. And a gathering of chief academic officers didn’t object to MOOCs, just MOOC providers: “Universities in Consortium Talk of Taking Back Control of Online Offerings” the headline read. It’s not change we oppose, the provosts were saying. It’s the change-agents coming in from the outside and taking over our stock and trade.

Great. So the MOOC providers may be galvanizing rather than transforming the inertia-ridden sphere of higher ed. But there’s a part of me that can’t shake one point: what closed down the farm stand at the movie’s outset? Nothing grew faster than those seed pods.

  1. Anthony Picciano Says:

    Dear Colleages,

    George has provided important commentary to our discussions of MOOCs. I agree with his conclusion:

    “In other words, it’s the fear of alien invasion and especially corporatization that seems to be frightening folks. It’s not the online aspect. .. So the MOOC providers may be galvanizing rather than transforming the inertia-ridden sphere of higher ed. “

    Change (alien invasion or technology) brings reactions and push-back. It manifests itself in every segment of society.

    The corporate involvement with education is well-funded and well-organized. Hedge funds, venture philanthropies such as Gates, lobbyists and their agents in departments of education at the federal and state levels see MOOCs and any other technology as something that has to be forced on educators, their unions, and students.

    As someone who started teaching online in 1996, I have absolutely no problem with online technology as long as the faculty or teachers are making the choices for students. The MOOC approach is to take some of this if not a lot of it out of the hands of local faculty and into the hands of selected faculty and corporate entities. My problem here may also be that I have always promoted a faculty-involved, highly interactive model of online instruction that I find lacking in MOOCs.

    Lastly, if I can play a bit with George’s last line: “what closed down the farm stand at the movie’s outset? Nothing grew faster than those seed pods” with my own personal question:

    What would I have done if the first few times I taught online, ninety percent of my students withdrew from the course?

    Tony

  2. Tributaries » Blog Archive » “Innovation Exhaustion” Says:

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