Alone in my office yesterday afternoon, avoiding work on a book proposal, I read a couple of really interesting, seemingly-unrelated articles that actually go great together. The first was an old Chronicle piece that I found via Sara Goldrick-Rab’s blog which argues that the destruction of shared governance is a key reason that college costs so much. When faculty have no say in things, it argues, administrators spend money on more administrators rather than on education.
I’d actually take that one step further. When faculty have no say in things, administrators also spend money on complete and utterly hopeless boondoggles. Perhaps it’s a new building that the university doesn’t need, or an expensive climbing wall for the gym or perhaps it’s an online program that only attracts one paying student from outside the system.
Rather than being chastened, the same UC administrators who brought the State of California that failed online education program have indirectly brought upon the debacle described in the link my friend Historiann sent me yesterday. This is the great Jon Wiener in The Nation, describing the history MOOC he took that originated at UC Santa Cruz:
To find out how Coursera works, I recently signed up for a course in my own field, history. The course was on the Holocaust and taught by UC Santa Cruz professors Peter Kenez and Murray Baumgarten. The lecture topics and reading assignments were outstanding, but it turns out that this course, like other Coursera offerings, is nothing like the “world-class education” promised in the company’s mission statement. Coursera co-CEO Koller says they can do better than “the default form of college classes—a professor standing in front of her students, lecturing for an hour.” But the lectures on the Holocaust were nothing more than video of the lecturers standing in front of a class and lecturing for an hour. There was no attempt to intercut the lecturing with visual material, film clips, illustrations, interviews or anything else, and the audio quality was often pretty bad. To young eyes familiar with action movies, fast-paced TV shows and video games, this looks practically Paleolithic. And although the UC Santa Cruz name and seal appeared on every page of the course website, there was no way for Coursera students to ask questions of the two Santa Cruz professors. Instead, students were encouraged to ask each other, in the online “forums.” Then the students voted on the best answer. If you don’t think that’s a good way to learn, you don’t belong in a Coursera course.
It actually gets worse. Here’s the part that just left me stunned:
The video was shot not by Coursera but by UC Santa Cruz, and not for Coursera but rather two years earlier, before Coursera was created, when the course was offered on campus. “The film already existed,” Kenez said, “so we didn’t have to do anything. They hired our TA to put together the material at their website; we had nothing to do with that.” He said he had never looked at the Coursera video. As for the forums, the writing assignments, the student questions and student problems, “I have nothing to do with any of the online activity,” Kenez told me. “I haven’t even checked in. I have nothing to do with the evaluations.”
I’d argue that faculty input is not just essential in creating a decent MOOC, it’s also essential for deciding whether to MOOC or not to MOOC in the first place. After all, we’re the ones who teach every day. We’re the experts, and if you try create an educational product with no little or input from actual educators you’ll probably end up destroying the university’s brand rather than extending it.
Contrary to the seemingly popular assumption in the edtech community that faculty are against virtually everything, you’ll find plenty of takers among highly qualified professors at elite institutions and elsewhere. I sometimes question Cathy Davidson’s judgement on this blog, but she’s absolutely right when she argues that:
Whether online or face-to-face, most courses are only as good as what you put into them. Sitting in an intimate seminar classroom, with the best teacher in the world, you still only learn if you participate. The hyperbole and the “either-or” generalizations tend to be unrealistic about what online education can offer and equally unrealistic about what traditional onsite education can offer. Neither is all good, neither is all bad and neither is a panacea. Nor is either all one thing. It’s not a binary. There is tremendous variety, online and onsite.
The more faculty participation you get in the creation and the administration of any course (MOOC or otherwise), the better the result will be and, perhaps more importantly, the less MOOCish it will be too. My new theory is this: the best MOOCs are the ones with the most faculty input throughout their lifespans, and the ones with the most faculty input are the ones that administrators and private MOOC providers have the least control over.
The many ways in which administrators can destroy a MOOC should be obvious, penny-pinching being the most obvious one of all. Coursera and Udacity are the worst things that ever happened to MOOCs because their business models depend upon teaming up with ambitious administrators to shove a shoddy product (if not with respect to production values, then certainly with respect to educational values) down the throats of both students and faculty alike. I look forward to the inevitable, fast-approaching, post-xMOOC world because it will almost certainly be a period of real pedagogical innovation conducted by people who are more interested in actual education than they are in becoming famous or just making a quick buck.