Guest post on the Lords of MOOC Creation: who’s really for change, and who in fact is standing athwart history yelling STOP?

Howdy, friends–Historiann here.  I’m knee deep in research papers and final exams and have no time for posting, so thank goodness someone out there is writing for the non-peer reviewed world wide timewasting web.  Today’s guest post is by two senior history professors who attended last week’s Annual Meeting of the American Council of Learned SocietiesSusan Amussen, an early modern British historian in the School of Social Sciences, Humanities, and Arts at the University of California, Merced, and Allyson Poska, an early modern Spanish historian in the History and American Studies Department at the University of Mary Washington.  They both attended the panel on MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), and came away wanting to talk about something thing no one in MOOC-world seems to want to talk about:  power.  So of course, they came to me and asked if they could talk to all of you.

Amussen and Poska ask a number of provocative questions:  Why in spite of the hype do MOOCs appear to be merely a digitalized version of the “sage on the stage” style of lecturing familiar to those of us in the United States and Commonwealth countries 100 (and more) years ago?  Why do MOOC-world advocates appear totally ignorant of feminist pedagogy, which disrupted this model of education going on 50 years ago?  What does it say about MOOC-world’s vision of the future of higher education that the Lords of MOOC Creation are overwhelmingly white, male,  and U.S. American professors at highly exclusive universities?  (And for the Lords of MOOC Creation, is this a bug, or a feature?  Friends, I’ll let you be the judges.)


MOOCs:  Gender, Class and Empire


Much of the discussion of MOOCs has focused on (alternately) their promise of providing “the best teachers” to students around the world, and presenting cheap quality education to the masses; or the threat they pose to education, in replacing face to face contact with potted lectures, further deskilling and de-professionalizing those of us who teach at less elite universities.  We want to argue that MOOCs raise broader questions than those usually mentioned. In the course of listening to a discussion of MOOCs at the recent meeting of the ACLS (American Council of Learned Societies), we realized that MOOCs must be analyzed in the context of the U.S. American discourse of gender, class, and empire.

One aspect of MOOCs is that the stars are (almost) all men.  At one website only 9 of 56 History MOOCS were presented by women.  Without a doubt, the model of the MOOC – of the authoritative talking head – is one that privileges cultural perceptions of men and male control over certain types of knowledge.  The gendered nature of the hierarchy of knowledge transmission that takes place is clear in the MOOC model of education. Although “students” are invited to respond at different points, to a large extent, the presenter controls the topic, the vocabulary, and the trajectory of whatever “dialogue” might take place. In recent stories on MOOCs at Princeton and Harvard, the instructors (all men) are described by their reputation as charismatic teachers.

MOOCs have also created new excitement among the mostly male presenters about the possibilities of the flipped classroom. Of course, there is no pedagogical innovation happening here; feminist scholars have flipped the classroom for years. What is flipped is usually the use of class time, not authority.  After all, a MOOC is centered on lectures, which are now given in front of a camera with no students present, thus denying any opportunity for response or interaction from the listener. The instructor remains the sole purveyor of information and the students remain the passive consumers; with pre-recorded lectures, the instructor controls the content even more than is usually case, and it is more difficult to adapt to individual student needs. Ostensibly, the time previously devoted to classroom lectures was now used for greater interaction with the students both in his classroom and around the world; however, such reallocation of time does not, in and of itself, alter the class hierarchy or the passive reception of knowledge by students.  Ironically, it may even re-inscribe that hierarchy: most teachers, even when lecturing, engage with their students and will stop, go back, or re-examine an issue to ensure comprehension and to respond to student questions and challenges.

At the moment, the classism of the MOOCs is most clear in the central unexamined assumption –  that the “best” teachers are at the “best” universities.   Now, it is true that the most prominent scholars tend to teach at the most prominent universities, but the skills of teaching are widely distributed – and the difficult job market of the last thirty years has ensured that there are outstanding scholars at many colleges and universities around the country.   Indeed, those who teach students who arrive at college or university with less preparation have often spent more time honing their pedagogical skills in order to engage their students and address the challenges that their diverse backgrounds, socio-economic levels, and intellectual strengths present. However, the high cost of developing MOOCS means that only faculty at America’s most elite universities have the opportunity to employ those technologies. The wealthy and powerful thus become the purveyors of knowledge and culture to those less privileged across America and around the world.   MOOCs are not, in fact, cheap, but the money goes to technical staff at the elite university, rather than to instructors at less resourced ones.

The third aspect of MOOCs that has been less frequently observed is the imperialist nature of MOOCs: not only is expertise the province of white men at elite universities, it is the province of (mostly) white men at elite U. S. universities. Certainly, the rhetoric surrounding the expansion of MOOCs sounds uncomfortably akin to the enthusiasm of nineteenth-century missionaries who whole-heartedly believed that they were best positioned to bring both Christianity and Western culture to the rest of the world.   Moreover, like missionaries of centuries past, the presenters of MOOCs seem to be blithely unaware of the broader cultural implications of their evangelization efforts.  They do not acknowledge that, like the few eager converts who wandered into missionary compounds, there is a high degree of self-selection in the type of people of join their classes.  They are, by nature, those who are attracted to both this type of provision of education and to Western (and American) viewpoints.  Those involved in the globalization debate hem and haw about how McDonalds homogenizes foodways around the world, but the debates about MOOCs have (surprisingly) lacked any similar discussion about the homogenization of knowledge and perspective.  While this might be less of an issue when the subject of the MOOC is a topic in computer programming, it can be quite serious when MOOCs turn their attention to the humanities and descriptive social sciences.  For instance, to talk about World History from a U. S. perspective and present that view as a definitive narrative obscures the power relations between American scholars and scholars in the rest of the world, and makes it even more difficult to construct counter-narratives to American hegemony and Western dominance.

These dimensions of MOOCs, while rarely articulated, are important considerations for our universities as they consider how to join the bandwagon of mass teaching.  Before we rush into the massive open classroom,  we need to consider whether we want to be so closely connected to sexism, classism, and imperialism.

Right on!  I might ask too that we consider who among us is really resisting change–is it those of us who are MOOC skeptics because we believe in the value of face-to-face teaching from diverse perspectives, or is it in fact the purveyors of and investors in MOOC-world who are selling a product that looks like the face of higher education in the nineteenth century?  Furthermore, does anyone truly believe that the Lords of MOOC Creation would be thrilled to have their children and grandchildren enrolled in online universities with an inaccessible Professor Hologram to guide them and peers to evaluate their work?  Say it in the comments below.

48 thoughts on “Guest post on the Lords of MOOC Creation: who’s really for change, and who in fact is standing athwart history yelling STOP?

  1. Power. That is the elephant in the room, isn’t it? [Gender being more like the elephant’s trunk.] I’ve been writing about MOOCs for a long time now and I constantly go back and forth between: “There’s no way that future generations are going to accept such a lousy education!” and “They’re going to cram that lousy model of education down everyone’s throat whether they like it or not!” These kinds of pointed, informed critiques give me hope that the result of MOOCs will be the first outcome and not the second.

    With respect to gender, I’m actually taking a MOOC right now with a female superprofessor: Nutrition and Health. Kind of the exception that proves the rule.

    PS This is an excellent day for MOOC criticism. If you haven’t seen it yet, everyone should also read this:


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  3. This shift to a MOOC-dominated imagined university could very well be as violent a process as imperialism –leaving upended, hole-riddled universities and colleges in its wake, with as much chance for survival as 19th-century imperialism in the long term.

    My hope is that criticism like this will continue, and remind those who celebrate MOOCs that white, male talking heads might still have their place at the center of Sunday-morning news programming, but that Sunday-morning news programming is a backward, dying format as well.

    I do love the idea of challenging MOOCs on their very backwardness. It’s an argument that might hold water in administrative circles, especially as the constant argument has been that these courses are “the future” of education. Unfortunately many administrations and state governments seem to want to throw away the pedagogical changes and diversity gained in the last 40 years on college campuses.


  4. Even if one accepts all the arguments made above, stopping the debate where the post ends leaves one with a very weak hand to play. OK, you did call them names. Now what?

    The men domination and the advantage of the resource rich reality spreads much wider than MOOC. Should our small gun fire be targeted at Ft. MOOC or may be, as most guerrilla movements do, we should find an opening we can attack?

    Some try online teaching of different flavors. Some enrich online education using creative educational ideas. There are quite a few interesting ways by which students who work 8 hour days get the full educational value despite studying at home after 10pm.


  5. Jonathan Rees — thanks for that link. The “expanded backstory” on Thrun was very illuminating; my institution has inked a deal with Udacity and the “gawww-ly” (Jim Nabors voice) version of that AI course was endlessly repeated, along with lots of “we can’t afford to wait!!!!” talk.


  6. Excellent analysis! Thank you.

    I just want to add that joellecid is an optimist. “…challenging MOOCs on their very backwardness. It’s an argument that might hold water in administrative circles, especially as the constant argument has been that these courses are “the future” of education.”

    Hah. The admins think MOOCs will be cheaper. Any other argument they throw out is just something they hope will keep everyone from noticing that point.


  7. I also attended the ACLS meeting and had the good fortune of sitting next to Professors Amussen andr Poska. Professor Amussen raised critical questions to the assembled panelists who refused to engage them. They could not see beyond the MOOC bubble and their promotion of this pedagogy. I felt like I listened to a sales pitch. Thanks to both colegas for turning our collective frustration (and those of others in the room) into a trenchant, beautifully articulated critique.


  8. Gracias, Vicki, and welcome!

    I wanted to highlight the last paragraph of Kathleen Lowrey’s blog post on contingent labor & care work that she mentions above. She argues that it’s problematic for the Lords of MOOC Creation to pretend as though the most important work of teaching is “the sage on the stage,” rather than instructor responsiveness to student questions and student work. Everyone really should read the whole thing, but here’s the nut:

    MOOC promoters, by shining such a bright light on their stellar 2%, are performing the same sleight of hand as universities, but far more brazenly: pay no attention, please, to the man (or as is far more likely, those women) behind the curtain. Figuring teaching as performance asks grownups who know better to play a game of “let’s pretend.” Let’s pretend that the largest part of teaching is showmanship rather than care work; let’s pretend learning is all about showering attention on what goes out from the teacher rather than devoting attention to what comes in from the students. The fact that the whole charade hasn’t fallen apart already – that the New York Times instead reports on the shameless mantra to double down on it – is a testimony to what fine, but what thankless, work the university league of care workers is doing, much as their counterparts do for the rest of society. The very young, the very old, and the very dependent are rarely in a position to protest the conditions of work of their caregivers and what those conditions reveal about their own social value. Students, though, are. If they don’t, it’s pretty clear at this point that no one else who can make a difference will.


  9. Without knowing enough about them, I feel the appeal of the MOOC is similar to that of the TED lecture. People who know something about the value of intellect feel like they can be part of the exchange of knowledge, even though it is completely a one way conversation. And then they can impart that acquired knowledge to others and feel some sort of expertise. The fact that the talking heads are a handful of “experts” from a handful of places that everyone recognizes makes them feel like the “knowledge” has value.

    Which isn’t education.


  10. I love all of this as much as I loathe the MOOC as an idea and an ideal. If I could add anything, it would merely be to suggest that the maintenance of elite domination in higher ed and the “dumbing down” of “the rest” either through the supposed innovations at play here, or through the more brutal budget-slashings of the last ten years, matches up too perfectly with the erasure of the middle class in American life.


  11. That was a brilliant post, and thanks to the authors and to Historiann for facilitating it. I recommend sending it to the Chronicle of Higher Education, Perspectives, The Times Literary Supplement, NY Times Education section — anywhere that old fashioned print culture that addresses higher ed can still be found.

    I would add one more thing — that the point of education is to teach people how to live better lives, and for the most part, we live our lives in groups, small groups. What goes on in real live classrooms with teachers and students is an extension of what goes on in families with parents and children, in sports with coaches and players, in music and art education, in religious education, in real-live theater, etc — people teaching each other how to live, together. I don’t see a lot of support out there for doing away with real live football coaches and their enormous salaries and staffs of dozens of assistant coaches and instead just letting the young “student-athletes” watch videos of Knute Rockne and Vince Lombardi. When all American universities are ready to do that, then maybe I’ll support MOOCs.


  12. Heh. As a commenter here once said regarding the logic of social media: if you’re not paying for a service, YOU are the product that’s being sold.

    Mark Peterson makes a great point: some kinds of F2F teaching (coaching) are understood to be valuable. Another kind of university activity is also understood to be valuable when done F2F: meetings convened by administrators. Why can’t they send half of the administrators home to telecommute & have all online meetings, and do away with at least half of the Associate Vice Provosts of Effective Instrumentality (or whatever).

    I think ej is probably right about the TED talk pushing a lot of the fantasies about MOOCs and online ed in general. Given the influence of a few columns published by non-educators in the NYT and the Wall St. Journal on the kinds of rich intellectual lightweights who populate most university boards, TED talks–with their slick production values and their just-so answers arrived at in 15 minutes or fewer–are probably more influential than we’d like to believe.


  13. Thanks, Historiann, for hosting, and Professors Amussen and Poska, for that splendid post. Something in this story reminds me of a favorite Republican tactic: you accuse your opponents of doing exactly what you yourself want to do (destroying Social Security and Medicare comes to mind). Journalists then treat the attacks seriously, as one side of a debate rather than a canard, and repeat them. You then support your plan by claiming to be in favor of progress and modernity. That allows journalists to accuse opponents of being scared of innovation (Matt Bai is a prominent case in point). So now, the architects of the MOOC put a privileged white male in front of a camera, while bellowing that their opponents are committed to the outworn tradition of the sage on the stage. And the journalists do what has become their job: they repeat the canard instead of questioning it, and reduce the motives of critics to fear of the new. Back in the day when people thought seriously about the idea of the university, Cardinal Newman described this kind of ad hominem argument as “poisoning the wells.”

    I wonder where the presidents of elite universities (mine included) think our graduate students will find jobs, once MOOCs have “bent the cost curve.” Sigh.


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  15. Excellent guest post and comments. The inequity of the MOOC class structure is now getting attention from those in a position to raise the issues and be heard. And as you and Mark Peterson say, if this is an effective model, why isn’t it used in other (actually) valued areas of the university, like sports and administration?

    That The New Yorker has raised its slumbrous head to question the effects of MOOCs is also encouraging.


  16. Thanks for this excellent post adding to the many many reasons those of us who care about education, teach at public institutions, and believe in the value of interaction with diverse students should oppose this MOOC trend and glorification. I’ve long wondered why a model that has been long criticized (the canned lecture in front of massive numbers of students) is now all of a sudden cutting edge because it is done on a computer. I would like to challenge those elite universities who support this trend to stop producing phd students. After all, how ethical is it to simultaneously produce new faculty and undermine the hope of a decent future job market for them?


  17. So glad you liked the piece, Historiann!

    Lance — I have just requested Jarod Lanier’s newest book from ILL, apparently his argument is about how much of internet utopianism in practice has been obliterating the middle class.

    I like the *idea* of MOOCs tremendously — I think Clay Shirky’s spirited defence of them, for example, is quite convincing. What I don’t like are MOOCs in actual practice. If you look at who promotes them most vociferously (always in for-profit format), it’s actors (and their agents) who would like to see a really inconvenient class of people (students and profs at public unis) disappear.

    Finally, I think the real left and the real right (as opposed to the shape-shifting elite that takes convenient elements of both) could unite in opposition to entities like Udacity. Udacity’s “business model” is stealing public money. It isn’t competing fair and square in the marketplace, providing a “choice” for consumers. It is shopping itself around to higher education bureaucrats, whose decisions control downstream options — sooner or later we are going to see students *forced* to take a certain number of MOOCs to graduate (read Clayton Christensen on BYU-Idaho). Udacity is just conning gullible uni admin suckers (who repeat “there is no time to lose. it’s an avalanche and a tsunami and a tidal wave” with their eyes pinwheeling) into handing over taxpayer money.


  18. I found this post extremely interesting. However, I find myself able to agree with both sides – for and against – MOOCS. I do not believe they are going to change the face of education.
    I do believe that online education, when done properly – learner-centered and not just a sage-on-the-stage with one-way dissemination of information via video – can change the learning environment. I have taken online classes with people from all over the country and MOOCs with people all over the world. I would never be able to gain their perspectives if I just attended a face-to-face class in my hometown. Therefore, I do believe there is power there. I believe learning is a social process.
    What I find fascinating about this post is we are still trying to get women to be seen as experts in their fields. That these so-called prestigious schools seem to be the only ones capable of producing “brilliant” professors. I wonder if that is why colleges and universities feel such pressure to produce MOOCS – to highlight that they too have excellent professors who are leaders in their field.
    In any event, it is an interesting time in education and MOOCS are opening up a lot of discussion. I appreciate the discussion and am grateful I found this post today.


  19. Donna, thanks for commenting. I think there is a place for online learning–for example, targeted graduate programs–but I don’t think that MOOCs are at all like those. Most of us teach at universities where we have to teach our students how to “do” college, in addition to our subject areas, so they’re not the kind of students (or at the stage of their lives) when online education will be effective or equivalent to F2F teaching.

    I love the guest post by Amussen and Poska above because it demands that we think about this rhetoric of change and the fetishization of “innovation,” and ask ourselves where the MOOC revolution will leave us.

    Jonathan Rees, Tony Grafton, and Tracy K’Meyer are all asking the right questions, too. As Tracy wrote, “After all, how ethical is it to simultaneously produce new faculty and undermine the hope of a decent future job market for them?” What are we training our grad students for? I teach in a grad program that only grants M.A. degrees, but I too have serious concerns about the future of history education if the only work left for our grads is teaching online or worse yet, serving as facilitators for someone else’s canned lectures in a MOOC. This should concern us not only because of what it means for grad education, but what it will mean for undergraduate education 10-15 years down the road.


  20. Pingback: A shift in the MOOCmentum: coverage of and conversations around our open letter to Michael Sandel (part 3). | Adventures in Ethics and Science

  21. What are we training our grad students for?

    I don’t expect that the MOOC entrepreneurs and their circus superprofessors care one whit about this, Historiann. Elites rarely care about the rest of us, unless whatever diseases we carry might spread to them.


  22. A most trenchant and thoughtful post; thanks, Susan, Allyson, and Historiann!

    What are we training our grad students for?

    This is, indeed, a key question. There’s been a problem for decades with the ratio of Ph.D. recipients to higher ed teaching jobs that actually constitute a career. As a Ph.D. holding a job that only marginally meets that description (full-time but non-TT), I find that one of the things that makes my situation bearable is a relatively high (though gradually-eroding) degree of autonomy in the classroom (and in planning my classes). If you take away the autonomy/freedom to experiment in favor of a curriculum that represents someone else’s intellectual work, you’re really going to have a job that’s unfit for most Ph.D.s (and vice versa).

    In fact, I think most administrators would be happy to have far fewer Ph.D.s (or people who think like Ph.D.s — intellectually curious, independent thinkers, askers of inconvenient questions, etc.) to deal with. But there are those pesky accrediting bodies (not to mention US News), which seem to think that college teachers should be Ph.D.s. I strongly suspect that this is part of the continuing appeal of the large lecture; it allows the “leveraging” of a single instructor of record’s Ph.D. to “teach” a very large number of students. At the moment, the Ph.D. still has to be a local professor; the edupreneurs, I’m sure, hope to see that change (but may have more difficulty than they anticipate making that happen. At least I hope so.)


  23. Great points, CC. This is what I totally don’t get why 4-year & R1 universities really think it’s in their best interests to compete with community colleges & Kaplan/Phoenix instead of explaining and defending the role of universities as engines for the creation of new knowledge. Why should people pay money to send themselves or their children to a residential campus for F2F instruction if the residential universities don’t explain the difference to them? The erosion of the faculty & conversion of most of us into contingent labor paved the way.

    The MOOCs are only the most prominent examples of this, but of course this is what universities are doing with online courses in general: hiring people to teach who have no access to research funds or time, because research cuts into the bottom line of generating student credit hours rather than effectively and meaningfully educating students.

    We need a Swiftian essay here about how universities’ business model is now eating the young.


  24. Great post – and of course all of this is part of the broader trend of sexism in educational technology and dare I say it – in the Digital Humanities as well. Entrepreneur/start-up in this new space = men apparently. Most whats-revolutionary-in-education conferences feature primarily male speakers. Why aren’t we speaking out more?


  25. MOOCs are not inherently sexist or racist. But they are inherently elitist, if elitist means that more resources will go to those who produce the best courses. Of course that’s disruptive, because the way courses have been organized and assessed have not changed fundamentally in the United States for, well, a long time. (Inability and unwillingness to compare teaching within and between institutions.) And who’s to judge teaching quality? That’s one thing that seems to have academics so concerned. Considering that higher education is supposed to be about learning, there’s incredible resistance to talking about teaching quality in an open and transparent way.


  26. Karl, thanks for commenting, but your premise appears to come straight out of canned MOOC talking points.

    You appear to be entirely ignorant or contemptuous of the continuous conversations that academics have about teaching: pedagogy, curricular innovations, etc. are what we talk about all of the time in our day jobs as well as in online forums like academic blogs.

    Who’s to judge teaching quality? We do, all of the time. Do you know that most of us are reviewed every single year before tenure not just by students, but by tenured members of our faculties, department chairs, and deans? Peer reviews of our teaching are part of this, as well as peer evaluations of all of our teaching materials (syllabi, books, assignments, etc.) Do you know that after tenure, we continue to be reviewed on our teaching, research, and service? I personally have never had a COLA increase or raise in my life–only merit increases which are determined (when there is any money for raises whatsoever) by these annual reviews.’

    As for comparing teaching across institutions: where do you think we all come from? Do you think I was built in a lab in Fort Collins, Colorado, and never had contact with any other faculty or pedagogies outside of what I and my colleagues do here? I went to Bryn Mawr and Penn, and then taught at Catholic University, Wellesley, and the University of Dayton before coming out to Colorado State, and bring with me twenty-five years of observing, experiencing, talking about, and learning from professors and colleagues at all of these institutions. Most of my other colleagues have backgrounds at least as diverse as mine–we come from SLACs, regional comprehensives, sectarian colleges and universities, flagship state unis, and the ivies/other private elite unis.

    So, don’t give me this “there’s no accountability” and “we need to compare” schtick. It’s bullcrap, and indicates that you have no idea how faculties actually function, how our work is evaluated year after year, or the bureaucratic substructure of university life.

    And I didn’t even yet point out that teaching is only one aspect of my job, which is something for you to consider. Universities are different from high schools and community colleges in that the faculty here are contractually required to have research agendas and to publish books and articles. That’s 35% of my job, and service (committee work, curricular development/innovation, etc.) is 15% of my job. Teaching is only 50% of my day job, but that’s something that the Lords of MOOC Creation are attempting both to exploit and obscure with their business model.

    Why do you think that it’s professors at Stanford and Princeton (for example) who have been asked to join the MOOC “revolution”? Do you seriously think that their *teaching* is what earned them tenure and advancement at their elite universities? Quite honestly, some of the best teaching I know of happens not at the most elite universities, where the very selective student population makes teaching them pretty damned easy, but at regional comprehensives and in non-elite SLACs. But that’s not the kind of teaching that’s easily scalable to classes of 1,000, 5,000, or 50,000 students, is it?


  27. Yeah, that’s a good one on elite institutions and great teaching. It happens, to be sure, and like life, it has consequences. When I was back at Philly International, the routine was: win u-wide teaching award; get denied tenure the following fall; show up somewhere downstream the year later, in person, with audacity, not Udacity. I’m not saying that the teaching wasn’t good–it very much was in the graduate seminars I took. I’m just channeling what the unavailing undergraduate protest groups said about their classroom experience. The instituion responded vigorously. By making non-tenured faculty ineligible for these particular awards! (But not ineligible to be denied tenure).

    If I was ever to MOOC one of my courses, for maximum verisimilitude on a flatscreen near you I’d have to hire three grounds maintenance people to drive their riding grass cutters, leaf vacuumers, or snow blowers (depending on the season) in circles under my “studio” window just as “class” began. Then get the Pepsi guy to back his truck with the piercing OSHA beepers down the “Emergency Vehicles Only” walkway next to the building to slam a five case handtruck full of diet drinks into the vending machine next to the door. (Who intercepts this revenue stream we know not: a department chair at an on-campus I had once said that a single machine in his building was funding an annual lecture series, but we don’t have lecture series). Then, when the Dean’s air conditioning unit kicks in across the esplanade (with its containment apparatus it’s about the size of the Wrigley Field scoreboard), the whole building (ours, not hirs) starts vibrating. So we’d have to license FAA “stick-shaker” pilot training simulator technology to convey that dimension of the learner experience. All things considered, production costs could add up fast to scale the whole thing.


  28. Great article, and I wholeheartedly agree with the main takeaway from this article: MOOCs make everyone open to see one person’s take on a topic. This is very dangerous and needs to be checked immediately. I, as a lowly grad student at a fairly prominent but hardly “famous” state university, would love to make a MOOC*. And why shouldn’t I? The opportunity to share a bit of expertise about a topic I love makes me so excited about how I could take a silly thing that I care about and make it into something that can teach other people.

    However, as a member of the Open Source world, I have a very strict definition of open. It means that truly open education doesn’t just make things open for students, but open for teachers as well. A truly open MOOC can’t be a unidirectional flow of knowledge – it needs to give students the ability to challenge the information being sent to them. After all, every student is a potential teacher, and when you have 100K students, a few of them are bound to know the subject matter better than the talking head.

    Why can’t we open source education? Udacity showed us that it’s possible to do it with just a single teacher. Linux showed us that we can make an operating system with a bunch of quasi-coordinated volunteers working together on the internet. It follows that if we could just get enough people who care to work together, we’d have something beautiful on our hands.

    There’s a great project on Github right now building a “MOOC” in system administration called “Opsschool” [1]. This is a collaboratively built course developed under an open source license and under the public eye. I’ve followed suit to try to make my own in the same way, but when you’re a nobody like me, you can’t expect Sebastian Thrun levels of participation.



  29. Judging by the comments students have made regarding sage on the stage professors and being herded into large lecture halls, they’re not going to do any better in a MOOC than they do in the classrooms. The number one complaint is that they’re bored. If they’re bored they aren’t learning. This causes a disconnect which leads to either failure or dropping out. We already have a problem with a rate that is far too high when it comes to degree completion. MOOCs do absolutely nothing to increase that rate. So far, MOOCs are doing the opposite. They’re increasing the failure rates.

    MOOCs do not create a learning-centered environment. Educators know from experience that this type of environment is successful in increased student retention, yet implementing this environment is resisted throughout the country. Today’s students are not responding to the Instruction Paradigm, yet here we are seeing it being used in these MOOCs.

    This is not a recipe for success, but rather a way for many schools to commit educational suicide. Unfortunately, the pressure to reduce costs is leading many administrators to make some very bad decisions.


  30. Terrific post! Thanks so much for spreading the word on this response to the MOOC. As I’ve said to colleagues, it’s hard to believe that anyone assumes independent thinking can come from a thing that sounds like cattle lowing. That being said, my current instinct (I’m a tenured lady prof who gets very solid student evals) is to make ALL THE MOOCs just to be part of the conversation.

    Thanks again! Delighted to find your site.


  31. Pingback: MOOCs: Gender, Class and Empire | CommonGround

  32. An interesting post and discussion after. One item not discussed: the nature of knowledge presumed by the MOOC. It seems to me that this is part of the commodification of knowledge. In the MOOC model knowledge is something substantial that exists largely inside the head of knowledge possessors and can be transmitted, mostly through its articulation as verbal formula, to someone who lacks that knowledge. It being the case that knowledge is a commodity, the desirable thing is to possess that commodity at the lowest possible price, even while the current possessor can sell it at the highest possible price. Thus the priciest possessors at the priciest institutions disseminating it at the lowest cost to the consumer is the best model – the Texas $10,000 education.

    If we see knowledge as something built in community, it become much more difficult to disseminate, even to commodify, and far more expensive and far less stable.


  33. As a person with a PhD in the humanities (German Studies) who left academic 16 years ago (trouble finding a permanent position), I’m fascinated by the debate literally raging around MOOCs.

    Since MOOCs are still a moving target both from a platform standpoint and from an execution standpoint, it seems to me that the debate is not so much about what MOOCs are (for what they are is not what they have been or will be), but what they represent: devaluation of in-person instruction, devaluation of the work of educators in general, further incursion of market economics into higher education, “commodification of knowledge,” techno-utopianism and “solutionism,” and, as this article bluntly states, “sexism, classism and imperialism.”

    In other words, all the frustration and anger evoked by the myriad crises facing higher education today (and even education more broadly) find their expression in the “MOOC Moment.”

    Which makes me wonder: Can this moment be effectively used to address the institutional problems facing higher ed and in some way resolve them? If so, is it possible that MOOCs, particularly in their more evolved future form, may in fact be part of the solution?


  34. Coursera, the largest online class organizer, was founded by Daphne Koller, a CS professor at Stanford specializing in artificial intelligence.

    The ultimate LORD OF MOOC CREATION is female.

    Good luck in this new world!


  35. So who says a “Lord” can’t be a woman? I think you are far too literal, Andrew. Besides, the gender component of MOOCs discussed in this guest post is about the “superprofessors,” not about the purveyors of MOOCs.


  36. Pingback: MOOCs: Education’s “The Emperor Wears No Clothes” Moment | Class War University

  37. Pingback: MOOCs, Language, and Corporatespeak | True Stories Backward

  38. Historiann,
    I know that there are dedicated and hard-working teachers out there. (I tried to be one of them during my very short university-level teaching stint.) And I agree with your point about the lack of correlation between great teaching and school reputation. I’m not a MOOC insider, and have only done a few lessons on khanacademy (which is not a MOOC), but I’m fascinated by the potential to reach so many students so easily. I recall most fondly those small seminars with engaged teachers. But some others just phoned it in. When a professor steps behind the dais, pulls out yellowed notes from 1994, and drones on for an hour (even recycling jokes from the days of yore), and at every session takes two or three questions from the same two or three students, I think that there must be a better way. This is the kind of “learning experience” that MOOCs have a good chance of replacing.

    The issue of which schools are getting involved in MOOCs is intriguing, but I would not be surprised if imaginative and compelling teachers from non-elite schools (or even from, gasp, outside academia) end up getting the last laugh.


  39. The modern university has a lot of problems right now. I don’t see “phone it in” teaching as one of the biggest problems. But even if it were, there are already solutions for fixing that particular problem: intervention by colleagues (with the threat of a stalled or thwarted advancement, if necessary), plenty of teaching resources, and the like. The solution is not MOOCs so that *everyone* has to watch a proffie phone it in from 2010 or 2012 indefinitely into the future!


  40. Pingback: Guest post on the Lords of MOOC Creation: who’s really for change, and who in fact is standing athwart history yelling STOP? | Think. Learn. Speak.

  41. Pingback: This is not part 1 of a post about MOOCs | info-fetishist

  42. Pingback: MOOCs: Education’s “The Emperor Wears No Clothes” Moment | Privately Investigating

  43. Pingback: Peter Onuf on MOOCs |

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