MOOCing About with Education

[The following is the text for a short piece on MOOCs that I wrote for the Western News, the “official” newspaper of Western University. The piece is an attempt to bring a little calm reflection to what has sometimes been an acrimonious and overheated debate here on campus. A PDF of the relevant issue of the Western News, within which the article appears (on page 5) is available for download here.]

The MOOC – or, on the off chance that you have been hiding in an attic for the last year or so, the “massively open online course” – is, we have been reliably informed, capable of great feats of pedagogical prowess. It is a transformative application of technology to teaching, a tremendous boon for universities, and a godsend for our hard-pressed students.

And, truly, it may prove to be all of these things. Arguably, however, what MOOCs seem to do best at the moment is polarize people. Try this party trick: introduce the subject at your next academic get-together. Techno-utopians will rhapsodize, Luddites will scowl, and Ministers of Training, Colleges, and Universities (should you be so fortunate as to have any of these at your party) will look alternately shifty and enthusiastic. The MOOC certainly has its champions; equally clearly, however, it faces an impressive phalanx of detractors, particularly within the academy itself.

Pity the poor MOOC: it tries so hard. To impress us, it can deploy a variety of technologies and tools to teach and engage students, including batteries of automated tests, interactive elements, algorithms that help customize content, and communication tools such as forums and instant messages. Some innovators are experimenting with “cMOOCs” that harness the power of peer-to-peer learning and collaborative content creation to make them even more engaging. On top of everything else, they are – most of them, and for now anyway – free for students. What’s not to like? Really, we should be very impressed.

So, why then are so many of us playing hard to get? Possibly it has much to do with the way that MOOCs are being marketed – and, given the fact that most MOOCs are produced by private corporations like Coursera and Udacity, marketed is indeed the operative term. MOOCs, we are being told by politicians, will “disrupt” higher education. This is putatively a Good Thing, as universities are apparently much in need of “disruption.”

Ultimately, though, we have a right to ask: what exactly will be “disrupted”? It is not coincidental that the rhetoric of “disruptive innovation” has been lifted from a business guide, Clay Christensen’s The Innovator’s Dilemma: behind the intended disruption of postsecondary education is not, we are probably right in thinking, a shaking-up of our collective complacency as pedagogues, but rather a business decision predicated upon a desire for more “efficiencies.” The not-so-hidden subtext of the language of disruption that surrounds MOOCs is that new technologies can deliver more cheaply, efficiently, and widely the course content that the professoriate currently teaches.

We aren’t being offered a new teaching tool, then: we are being introduced to our replacement. It’s really rather sad: the MOOC could be a wonderful new teaching tool, but it is instead being trumpeted even by its champions as the Fifth Horseman of the Apocalypse.

Ultimately, perhaps, we are all Cassandra wailing pointlessly against the Trojan horse. Whether we approve or not, the MOOCs are coming. The three largest MOOC producers, Coursera, edX, and Udacity, are doing very well indeed, and new players are entering into the MOOC-building market all the time. MOOCs have the prestige of schools like Harvard and MIT to back them up, and they have some legislators positively salivating at the thought of the savings that they will supposedly mean: a bill introduced into the California State legislature in mid-March would compel institutions there to accept credits earned from MOOCs.

Nor are we safe north of the border: McGill and the University of Toronto are already onside with Coursera. In the wake of the recent announcement of the latter’s participation in the edX consortium, the question may no longer be, “Should Western MOOC?”, but rather, can we realistically afford not to?

It’s an important question: it’s a shame that we are having such a difficult time addressing it properly. In happier and more secure times, the debate about MOOCs would focus upon the pedagogy. It would recognize the benefits, as well as the limitations, that online instructional technology brings to the table, and it would explore the ways in which MOOCs might enrich the experience not only of distance learners, but also of those taking more “traditional” mortar-and-brick based courses.

Instead of being offered innovative technology, however, we have been threatened with cyber-replacement. As a result, we now find ourselves responding to what is in truth a political threat with pedagogical arguments, an untenable position because the MOOC does represent an attractive and worthwhile addition to our teaching toolkit. Who wants to argue that freely accessible knowledge, packaged in cutting-edge online technology and presented by some of the most prestigious teachers in the world, is a Bad Thing? Yet, this is precisely what we currently seem determined to do. It’s a line of argument that is doomed to failure.

We need to substitute for shotgun denunciations of MOOCs and online education a more nuanced and informed critique that acknowledges the roles, potentialities, and value of those forms of learning even as it calls out the “disruptors” for their own disingenuous championing of the form. The answer, in other words, is to do what we do best: employ intelligent and informed critique that cuts through the pretence that political interest in MOOCs is pedagogical and not merely economic and political. And we should not only accept the inevitability of MOOCs, but welcome them when they are deployed in the contexts for which they are best suited, precisely because we do value good pedagogy.

MOOCs are not the enemy: our focus should instead be upon those who are using them to shield a regressive political agenda. After all, the Trojan horse undoubtedly really was a rather handsome addition to downtown Troy; it was not it, but the Greeks concealed inside, that proved to be the problem.

Can I Hear a Third Option, Please? Diane Rasmussen Neal on Change in the Classroom

Last week’s edition of The Western News (for September 20, 2012) featured a story that, while not specifically “about” the digital humanities at Western, is certainly relevant to it and its concerns. Diane Rasmussen Neal’s “Evolve or die: Modern Classrooms Need to Change with Times” addresses the changing technological landscape inhabited by our students, and implies (more explicitly in the title, in fact, than in the text of the article itself) that we run the risk of losing connection with our classes if we fail to take up the challenges posed by new modes of communication and learning:

So, with all these online modalities present in their lives, how can professors increase student engagement and learning success? Is it unrealistic to expect them to listen to our linear lectures twice a week when Facebook photos are beckoning?

Social Media for Academics: A Practical GuideRasmussen Neal’s response, and that of Robert Foster, co-author with her of an article on the subject in her new edited collection, Social Media for Academics: A Practical Guide (Woodhead Publishing), is to turn to the very social media that threatens to usurp student attention, and to employ it in our own arsenal of pedagogical tools.  This,  she suggests, means using “today’s technological tools such as Facebook, Twitter and smartphones” in teaching, to the exclusion even of the Learning Management Systems (LMS) supplied by our institutions (in the case of Western, Sakai), which she characterizes as “technologically dated, cumbersome, expensive, time-consuming and generally frustrating.”

In the place of this latter, she specifically recommends Edmodo (edmodo.com) a tool used widely in online teaching:

The site appears similar in design and function to Facebook, but also includes many of the traditional online classroom tools that we have grown to expect from WebCT-like applications. It’s free, secure, does not require ITS administration and students find it easier – and more fun – to use than traditional, university-sanctioned tools.

The implied focus of much of this article is upon online courses, but not to the exclusion of on-site teaching. As Foster, in the book article he co-wrote with Rasmussen Neal, puts it: “a strong argument can be made that professors delivering programmes in a regular classroom setting would benefit themselves and their students by making use of several of the social media tools that are already available.”

I would tend to agree. I’ve been using Facebook for one of my classes, a large first year course, since 2007, and have found that it is not merely a good way to engage and communicate with students, but that it also helps build a sense of “community” in a course that was otherwise too large to really allow for that sort of connection between students. This year, in the same course (which is now, by design, much smaller), I will additionally be using student blogs for the first time: my hope is that this will enable another kind of student “conversation” online, as students follow each other’s blogs.

Rasmussen Neal teaches in the Faculty of Information and Media Studies at Western: it is perhaps unsurprising that she is such a strong advocate of pedagogical technologies. And given a student body that is probably, by virtue of the nature of that faculty, more open to technology and social media than many, it seems likely that such approaches would succeed admirably.

Are they translatable, or adaptable, to the setting of a more traditional “humanities” classroom? Experience at other institutions would seem to suggest that they can be: the related notions of “hybrid pedagogy” (mixing traditional and digital teaching methodologies) and the “flipped classroom” (in which much lecture material is delivered online, and “lecture” hours devoted instead to in-class group work) have become very popular in humanities courses elsewhere in recent years.

As Rasmussen Neal’s title intimates, however, there is still resistance to such ideas. I have colleagues who refuse to allow laptops into their classrooms at all, so strong is their faith in, and adherence to, a more traditional lecture, or lecture-discussion format. Are they wrong? It seems to me that the real key lies not in a stubborn advocacy of one approach over another, be it traditional or digital, but rather in an ability to adapt to particular courses, kinds of students, and classroom contexts.

There should, perhaps, be a third way, the way of using whatever modality — traditional or new — seems best suited to the very particular circumstances within which we, as teachers, will continue to find ourselves. One size, as we have all surely discovered over our time as pedagogues, seldom fits all.