MOOCs: A reader’s digest

Over the summer there has been intense discussion in higher education circles about MOOCs, massive(ly) open online courses offered by prestigious institutions like Harvard, MIT and UC Berkeley. By now I have realized I will never get around to writing the extensive and thoroughly argued piece on the subject that I have been thinking about. Instead, for what it’s worth I have tried to summarize below some of the main points I am taking away from the discussion in a sort of “reader’s digest”.

The number of contributions to this debate is somewhat overwhelming so I can only link to a fraction of them here, but some of the pieces I found most interesting were those by Audrey Watters (1, 2), Timothy Burke and Dominik Lukeš. There was also a good round-up of posts on MOOCs in Digital Humanities Now that featured, among others, a four-part series by Mills Kelly of Edwired (1, 2, 3, 4) that anyone interested in the subject should read. (I linked to parts of this series in a brief post here on 19 July.)

Based on the above (and more), this is my bullet-point(ish) summary:

1. Everyone is really excited about MOOCs and their promise of transforming higher education by harnessing the potential of digital technology.

2. “Everyone”, that is, except those who actually have any knowledge or experience of using digital technology to improve the quality of higher education. For instance, it is striking how virtually every leading digital humanist you have ever heard of is sceptical or critical of MOOCs as currently conceived (and marketed).

3. This is so significant that it deserves to be reiterated in a bullet-point all its own: Those voicing these concerns are not the educators who never understood the value of digital/social in the first place and who think universities and colleges should just carry on as they always have. (Well, they are also critical but that is another story.) Rather, some of the loudest critics are the very people who have worked for years or even decades to “harness the potential of digital technology” in education because they think it is sorely needed.

4. According to these critics (and I agree), the main reason to be skeptical of MOOCs in their present form is that they are simply not transformative at all. In most cases they consist of little else than a series of video lectures delivered to massive student audiences. No matter how good these lectures are, they provide little to no opportunity of meaningful teacher-student interaction. In other words they may constitute a very efficient method of content delivery, but communication is not what they are about.

5. This is a problem since it is the potential of digital technology to increase communication and interaction that is transformative, not its potential of distributing goods more efficiently or economically. What conventional (as in non-MOOC) education needs is not less interactivity but more, and the current model of massive online courses does not provide that. If anything they go in the opposite direction.

6. Those most fervently arguing for the blessings of the MOOC model are politicians, administrators and technology companies. The two former groups hope to save money while the latter hopes to make (a lot of) it if this model is widely adopted. All of them are probably sincere in their belief that MOOCs actually improve the quality of education, but “quality” is then defined in terms of economically and technologically efficient content delivery, not of learning as a complex and distributed process that requires human interaction in order to be effective.

7. Put differently, those who enthusiastically portray MOOCs as the future of higher education tend to focus narrowly on technology as such rather than on its social ramifications in an educational context. Again, it is here that we find the truly transformative opportunities, as digital tools and social media dependent on them can be used to alleviate and overcome (rather than compound) the flaws in traditional educational models. It is this social aspect that those who have long advocated “digital” or “online” learning are basing much of their work on, and this is the reason they are sceptical or critical of MOOCs.

8. All this being said, unlike many digital humanists I believe there is still an important place in future education for conventional lectures as well as textbooks (although in both cases in digitally evolved forms). While it is true that digital/social tools liberate us from the need to depend on these linear, one-way and static forms of presenting and organizing content, the very diversity and heterogeneity of all the new materials available online will underscore the need for some kind of common frame of reference on which to base more interactive and exploratory learning processes.

9. The reason for this is that learning takes place by relating new data to existing cognitive patterns. The main value of both textbooks and traditional lectures consists in providing such basic structures, not in conveying individual pieces of content. This does not mean, of course, that we should passively rely on those structures in teaching and learning, but rather use them as a starting point for discussions and critical analyses of how knowledge is produced, organized and disseminated.

10. Finally, then, this suggests the role I think that MOOCs do have to play in higher education of today and tomorrow. They can serve as providers of a common core of (high quality) lectures and other mass-distributed content around which more dynamic – on- and offline – learning activities can be built, led by teachers that students can interact with on an individual basis. In such a model we are harnessing the potential of digital technology as well as the opportunities opened up by its social consequences.

Predicting usefulness

Robert McMillan of Wired has interviewed Robert Taylor, formerly of the U.S. Department of Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and later Xerox PARC, regarding the recent discussion about the early history of the internet:

“The origins of the internet include work both sponsored by the government and Xerox PARC, so you can’t say that the internet was invented by either one alone,” [Taylor] says.

So would the internet have been invented without the government? “That’s a tough question,” he says. “Private industry does not like to start brand new directions in technology. Private industry is conservative by nature. So the ARPAnet probably could not have been built by private industry. It was deemed to be a crazy idea at the time.”

In other words: What is a mere curiosity (or “crazy idea”) today may turn out to be a very useful innovation tomorrow, but there is no way of telling in advance.

This is why publicly funded research should be allowed to be experimental and free-ranging, not driven by short-term commercial pressures. An obvious and very simple truth that politicians everywhere seem unable to accept, as they shut down funding to research not deemed to be “useful” or “profitable” enough. The internet has turned out to be quite useful, don’t you think?

Universities as brands

Siva Vaidhyanathan in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

Once you consider a university a “brand,” you have lost. I suppose university presidents lapse into such language to placate the MBA’s on their boards. But the challenges and duties of private firms do not in any way resemble the challenges or duties of universities. So we must stop using business language to describe universities. It’s not only misguided and inaccurate, but it also sets up bad incentives and standards. The University of Virginia is a wealthy and stable institution, a collection of public services, a space for thought and research, a living museum, a public forum, a stage for athletics competition, and an incubator of dreams and careers. But it’s not a firm, so it’s certainly not a “brand.”

If students stop coming

In a follow-up to a previous blog post on “the online course tsunami” Mills Kelly of George Mason University speculates on what may happen to the academic labour market if MOOCs (massively open online courses) gain real, long-term traction:

If general education is to be delivered through whatever means (online only/hybrid) seems most cost effective and/or universities opt for a competency model such as I proposed in those long ago posts on the free economy and higher education, then we will eliminate the need for large numbers of junior and/or contingent faculty, because our students will be able to present credentials that demonstrate their mastery of what is currently called general education. Someone, somewhere, will be making money on these courses or course-like options.

This is only one of the possible outcomes that Kelly is discussing, but if this scenario would become real, “tsunami” is no exaggeration of the impact on the entire landscape of higher education (and with it, research).

Update: Kelly has now published a third part in the series focusing on the potential impact on upper-level courses if many students take their introductory courses via MOOC providers.

Libraries without books

David A. Bell of Princeton has a thorough piece on the future of libraries in the New Republic, where he argues that major change is unavoidable:

This technology cannot simply substitute for the great libraries of the present. After all, libraries are not just repositories of books. They are communities, sources of expertise, and homes to lovingly compiled collections that amount to far more than the sum of their individual printed parts. Their physical spaces, especially in grand temples of learning like the NYPL, subtly influence the way that reading and writing takes place in them. And yet it is foolish to think that libraries can remain the same with the new technology on the scene.

It is a balanced, well-informed analysis and Bell is probably as right as anyone can be in assessing the way forward for libraries, but I feel very sad at the thought of physical books gradually being pushed to the sidelines and even “phased out” entirely. A world that means a lot to many is on the brink of disappearing.

Keeping it together

The last few days I have been reviewing an old research proposal that I wrote more than two years ago. I was fortunate enough to receive a grant for the project, but because of various other obligations it was only last spring that I began to work on it in earnest. After some initial weeks of reading up on what’s happened in my field recently, I reached the point where I felt the need to revise the project abstract to reflect developments in my thinking since I wrote it, flesh out more fully the main points and organization of each chapter and so on.

As I have been working on this, I have become painfully aware of how long it has been since I was last in this position, i.e., about to embark on a fully funded, multiple-year project that will (hopefully) result in a book. Yes, writing articles can be difficult and challenging too, but trying to maintain coherence – “staying on message”, as a politician would put it – throughout a few hundred pages of text is a different matter altogether. Apparently it is also a skill you can fall out of practice with if you don’t do it regularly enough.

All I know is that I have been slogging my way through the various threads of research and the lines of argumentation that I want to include in the book, and let us just say that more work is needed. The problem is not really each strand of thought in itself, but rather the totality (in a painfully literal sense) of ambitions represented in the proposal as a whole. There are just too many of them. Or to quote The Matrix: “The problem is choice.” As it always is, isn’t it?

* * *

While the chapter synopses need further, uh, refinement, at least I was able to revise the project abstract into a state that I may dare to share publicly. It is coming soon to a blog near you.

Blogs — a return to seriality?

Speaking of academic blogging, Kathleeen Fitzpatrick just posted a piece on “Blogs as serialized scholarship”, where she discusses to what an extent and in what respects blogging is a new form of scholarly exchange or reminiscent of old ones:

The divergence between the direct, communal kinds of exploration we undertake in a seminar and the discrete, closed form of the journal article mask their common origins in the letter-based correspondence among scholars in the early Enlightenment. The first modern scholarly journals came into being as a means of broadening and systematizing such correspondence, and in the process, gradually replaced a sense of ongoing exchange with one of formal conclusion.

In this sense, today, when a scholar with a blog writes a bit about some ideas-in-process, receives some feedback in response, returns with further ideas, reiterates, and so on, we can glimpse once again the seriality that has always been at the heart of scholarly production.

Interesting argument. I have worked quite a lot with such 18th century scholarly correspondence and agree that there are obvious parallels to blogging (although the speed of exchange is very different today, of course).

Primers on blogging and online learning

Yesterday I came across two good, thoughtful blog posts that each summed up one important aspect of digital humanities practice. The first is Jeffrey McClurken’s primer on “Forms of online learning”, aimed at people who might be interested in the topic but “are not part of the ed tech world” (i.e., people like me). Essentially it is an ordered, structured list of different types of approaches where each is characterised very briefly and a few pros and cons are given.

Although McClurken calls it a draft, it provides an excellent overview of a very diverse range of forms that are often, mistakenly, discussed as if they were one single “thing”. Also well worth reading is Jason Heppler’s post on “What I’ve Learned as an Academic Blogger”, based on his experience of running a blog of his own for four years. I found it particularly interesting and helpful to read his advice on the very day I launched this site, but I could also relate it to my previous experience of academic blogging (in Swedish) for almost two years.

Most of Heppler’s points I agree with, such as the importance of writing regularly and not to procrastinate by fiddling with the design (I am the first to plead guilty on that score, though). Others I rather hope than am convinced he is right about, for example that you can write about many different things and do not have to stick to one topic. I intend to do just that here, but I am also fairly certain that it will make fewer people read the blog. Like Heppler, however, I am more interested in quality than quantity, so as long as there are at least a few readers it is a compromise I can live with.