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.

Public Lecture: Francis Donoghue on MOOCs — 11 April, 2013

Professor Frank Donoghue (author of The Last Professors: The Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities) will deliver a public lecture:

"And the MOOC Shall Inherit the Earth."

“And the MOOC Shall Inherit the Earth: Predicting the Future of Massive Online Higher Education.”
Thursday 11 April 2013
5:30pm
Conron Hall, University College 224
Western University
London, Ontario

With thanks to the Visiting Speakers Fund in the Department of English and Writing Studies; the Dean’s Office, FAH; the Rogers Chair of Studies in Journalism and New Information Technology; the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures; the Dean’s Office, FIMS; and the Dean’s Office, FSS.

With thanks, also, to Donna Pennee.