The best line in that “Grading the MOOC University” piece that came out in the Times over the weekend was obviously the part about the superprofessor being:
“out of students’ reach, only slightly more accessible than the pope or Thomas Pynchon.”
That line was also the most obvious. Nobody had to take eleven MOOCs to figure that out as the entire point of MOOCs is to automate the educational process enough so that student/professor interaction becomes unnecessary. That’s an inevitable consequence of the number of students involved.
That’s why I find it so puzzling that the person who has famously stated that any professor who can be replaced by a computer screen should be wants to be a superprofessor. It’s as if Cathy Davidson wants to be replaced by a computer screen herself.
But, of course, her MOOC is going to be different. “Personally,” Davidson writes:
“I’m skeptical of many MOOCs as they are structured now. This is precisely why I am planning to teach one.”
I’ll bet that’s what the people running the first UK MOOC said to themselves before they started. From the write-up in the Times of London:
“In contrast to the set up of many programs offered via Coursera, the developers of Edinbugh’s e-learning course opted against having the content driven by audiovisual footage of lectures delivered to camera, choosing instead to curate open-source online content, including YouTube footage and academic papers.
The decision proved unpopular with some students…as they had been expecting to see professors imparting knowledge as they would in a lecture theatre.”
As I’ve explained before, a class is not a commune. Professorial authority is the glue that holds the whole educational enterprise together. Even if you manage to set up the perfect online learning community, students can only teach other students so much. And a college course that amounts to reading texts on the greater WWW and participating in a few discussions on gigantic message boards is destined to be extremely unsatisfying. Watching videotaped lectures would actually be an improvement.
So Cathy Davidson is already taping lectures for her MOOC that will probably land next year.* She writes:
“And it is hard to imagine that, if you are fortunate enough in every way to attend a face to face university with real profs who listen to your ideas and respond to them passionately and personally, and who include you in their research and who help you on their way into a complicated world using all the best ideas and best methodologies and best tools and best theories available, that you would ever want to give up all that astonishing privileged luxury to take a class online with 160,000 others (even if 90% of them drop out during the term). If your profs are able to offer the full range of classes you wish to take, if they have kept current in their field, if they use exciting new methods and respect your own ability to learn and contribute in new ways, then they are doing a great job and you are spending your money well. Why would you want to take a MOOC in that case?”
Why indeed? But why on earth should you ever settle for anything less?
Instead, superprofessors like Davidson are settling for you. In the name of increasing access to higher education, extremely well-meaning liberals are cooperating in destroying its quality. They’re sending a signal to the people who make higher education budgetary decisions that an automated education is henceforth and forever acceptable. You want to fight permanent austerity? Tough luck. Davidson has already raised the white flag of surrender on your behalf. [“If I had a magic wand…,” she repeats like a mantra, thereby implying that real change is impossible almost by definition.] She’s also raised the white flag on behalf of most of the world’s potential college students for generations to come.
Education is supposed to be an exceedingly personal enterprise. This is why forcing students into MOOCs as a last resort is like automating your wedding or the birth of your first child. You’re taking something that ought to depend upon the glorious unpredictability of human interaction and turning it into mass-produced, impersonal, disposable schlock.
I’ve read Now You See It, Now You Don’t. Therefore, I know that Davidson is a great teacher. However, given a choice between a Cathy Davidson who’s about as accessible as the pope or Thomas Pynchon and the vast majority of the dedicated people working adjunct jobs in academia (who could get a significant raise and still be cheaper than a wrap-around contract with Coursera), I’d take the adjuncts any day of the week.
And yes, I understand that people in underdeveloped countries need higher education too. However, privatizing our system of higher education so that we can export the mere essence of instruction is a favor to nobody. Everybody else on the planet deserves personal relationships with their professors just like American students do.
Maybe Coursera could start a MOOC about organizing the global proletariat in order to demand better educational choices than MOOCs. I know that I’d finish that one.
* Davidson’s post says Spring of 2013, but I think that’s a typo.