Andy Warhol was a practical joker. I’m not sure anyone ever saw him laughing, but I like to think of his work as a giant parody of industrialization and mass production. Consider the famous paintings of all those Campbell’s soup cans. They’re different, but they all look the same. More importantly, Warhol has decided that this is art. It is, but only in the sense that Warhol wants you to find beauty in sameness and uniformity. There may be some there, but this kind of shock only works for a limited amount of time. If you don’t believe me, just try to watch his eight-hour movie of the top of the Empire State Building (and nothing else).
Do the same in the realm of education and the results will be deadly. Is a MOOC a class or the image of a class? Do MOOC purveyors understand the difference? Do administrators? Does the MOOC Messiah Squad even care?
I thought of this when I read Anne Corner’s comment from my first post on the MOOC session at AHA 2014:
I also particularly liked Ann Little’s comments about not being controversial. That, of course, is half the fun of history and explains why Coursera seems a little bland.
Being a little bland might not be a problem if you’re teaching math. After all, the process is the same wherever you are and whoever you happen to be. This is most decidedly not true with respect to history.
Perhaps I saw the great Tressie MC make this point about MOOCs somewhere at some point, but I know I haven’t made it before. That’s why I was so glad to hear Ann argue the difficulty of teaching controversial material in MOOCs because it reminded me of something. Education isn’t education if the “customer” is always right. Education is supposed to be challenging in every sense of the word. If you’re signed up for seven MOOCs and you have to decide which one you want to invest your time in, are you going to pick the one that makes you feel uncomfortable? Of course not. And where does that leave diversity requirements or distribution requirements or even foreign language requirements?
MOOCs that don’t bring in the eyeballs will have to cater to the lowest common denominator or end up on the dustbin of history. I’m not just talking about required reading or writing assignments here. I’m talking about the material covered in the course overall. As Ann Little implied during our session, if the students want nothing but Whiggish history, then Coursera has every incentive to pressure their superprofessors to give it to them.
So what’s a superprofessor to do? Problem #1 is to make sure that the superprofessor is even involved in the course in the first place after all their lectures have been taped. Assuming they are there, what incentives are they getting to be as challenging in every sense of that word? If success in MOOCs means completion or even engagement, then not much at all. Will they still be adored by their worldwide audience if the superprofessor make them feel uncomfortable? Somehow I doubt it.
Sometimes I get the feeling that superprofessors are like Andy Warhol in the way that they both understand fame. Unfortunately, unlike Andy, most superprofessors do not produce art and do not appear to be joking. No disrespect intended to the two I just shared a podium with. They’re both nothing if not humble in the face of their new teaching-induced celebrity, and I’m sure it’s that celebrity that helped us pack the session last week. But, as Marshall McLuhan suggested, perhaps the medium has become their message.
When you get a chance to watch the tape of our session, you’ll notice how happy I was when Jeremy Adelman walked into the room. When you meet somebody you’ve been watching on the screen for a really long time you want to like them, and are disappointed when you find out that you disagree with them on some issue that’s important to you. This is why I know longer want to investigate the politics of quarterbacks.* When you listen to Jeremy’s and my comments, you’ll see that his and my attitudes towards MOOCs aren’t all that far apart anymore. That’s why I like him now more than ever. But the relationship between students and they’re professors is supposed to be different from this.
One of the side trips I made during the AHA convention was to see Robert Brugger, my editor at the Johns Hopkins University Press. Now that it’s out, I wanted to thank him for putting me through hell during the editing process for Refrigeration Nation because the result is a much, much better book. I think I learned more about writing from him than I did from my dissertation advisor. There were times when I wanted to throw in the towel, but I had skin in the game (so to speak). He invested his time in me because I invested my time in what he (and their excellent outside reviewers) had to say.
Students will never get that treatment in the world where their professor is nothing but a presence on the silver screen. Students will never get that in the world where their education is stamped out of an assembly line, like so many soup cans or Brillo boxes. But you say that this nightmare scenario will never happen? Are you sure? Once you say that an industrialized higher education is acceptable for some people under some circumstances, it will be very hard to draw a line where MOOCs are not acceptable to anybody who can’t pay for the best that academia has to offer.
* I have this persistent horrible sinking feeling that Peyton Manning is not a Democrat. John Elway certainly isn’t.