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.

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.