The MOOC monster will never be satisfied.

26 04 2013

“Money always has the potential to become a moral imperative unto itself.  Allow it to expand and it can quickly become a morality so imperative that all others seem frivolous in comparison.”

– David Graeber, Debt: The First 5,000 Years, p. 319.

There’s been something of an explosion in professor-as-student MOOC blogging lately. The first one I ever saw was Laura Gibbs writing about the Coursera Fantasy MOOC. My posts on Jeremy Adelman’s World History MOOC (scroll down a bit) benefited immeasurably from Jeremy Adelman’s active participation in the comments. Steven D. Krause is blogging the Duke Composition MOOC, which is an immeasurable service to people like me who don’t see how a composition MOOC is even possible. There’s even an online site now with nothing but MOOC news and reviews (called, fittingly, MOOC News and Reviews).

What all these efforts have in common is a desire to explain the mechanics of how MOOCs work, and to make earnest suggestions for their improvement or improved use on campus.  Krause, for instance, suggests this scenario:

“What if a student could put together a portfolio from one of these MOOCs and use that body of work to place it into a particular level of first-year writing or out of the requirement entirely?  I don’t see how Coursera makes a ton of money from that, but it at least is a use for Coursera.”

Aye, there’s the rub.  While this does indeed seem like a reasonable use for a composition MOOC, Coursera and its ilk will never be satisfied with such a small, comparatively non-renumerative market.  After all, the company has investors to please.  That’s why the MOOC monster will never be satisfied until it takes over all of academia.

You can see more than a tacit acknowledgement of this in the rhetoric of people who urge faculty to dip there toes into online waters before the sharks take over the entire ocean.  Pat Lockley, writing in Hybrid Pedagogy, compares educational technology to the development of the machine gun.  “If you’re willing to hold the revolver,” he argues, “then you must be willing to hold the machine gun.”  [Having just made it through David Graeber’s amazing book, Debt: The First 5,000 Years, all this talk about economics and guns seems particularly apt.]   “To do nothing,” Lockley suggests, “is to let…others have dominion over your pedagogy.”

Well…sort of.  I agree, in the sense that if faculty keep their heads in the sands and keep teaching the way they’r professors taught, they’ll likely be overwhelmed by technological developments that will ruin the economic viability of college teaching of all but the most super of super professors.  I also agree that if you use technology, it can significantly improve the teaching of any subject.  However, to conclude from this analogy that MOOCs are higher education’s one inevitable future is a mistake of historic proportions.  “The real story behind MOOCs,” explains Tarak Barkawi at Al Jazeera English:

“may be the ways in which they assist management restructuring efforts of core university practices, under the smile-faced banner of “open access” and assisted in some cases by their “superstar,” camera-ready professors.”

In other words, bring in the machine guns and we all may just end up shooting ourselves in the foot.

Longtime readers know that when it comes to the war against MOOCs, I am hardly a pacifist.  Of all those MOOC narratives I listed in the first paragraph to this post, I think mine is the closest to being unremittingly hostile.  Yes, I think MOOCs are good for teaching a limited number of things in a limited number of ways, but I believe that no matter how many tweaks you put on them they will never be ready for prime time.  In other words, they can never be allowed to replace real college courses.  Every student deserves access to a professor, both for personal and pedagogical reasons. To abandon that principle, particularly out of naked self-interest, is simply a recipe for disaster.

That’s why we have to keep on MOOC providers to do the kind of things that are good for education, but not necessarily good for their bottom lines because they certainly aren’t doing those things now.  When Laura Gibbs examined the Coursera Science Fiction and Fantasy MOOC after taking it, she found that it hadn’t really changed at all. The moment when I got closest to trolling Jeremy Adelman rather than critiquing his MOOC occurred when he explained to the class that he was only going to reshoot a few of his lectures again because despite the fact that you couldn’t possibly find a more dedicated teacher in this world, he still expected his MOOC to run itself.

When you think about it though, this attitude makes sense.  Coursera is a business. Businesses are in the business of making money.  Reshooting lectures or redesigning courses takes time, money or both.  Since Coursera has a virtual monopoly on humanities MOOCs, there is no competition nipping at their heels.  Their staff, therefore, can devote the majority of their time to expanding their offerings rather than doing quality control.

There’s a part in Debt where David Graeber notes that in order to complain to a king about their policies you have to speak the king’s language.  In this case, the language of all our rulers is money.  Pleas about the need to improve the quality of education might as well be Greek to them.  We can make all sorts of reasonable suggestions about how the quality of MOOCs can be improved, but the private companies that provide those services have no incentive to take them seriously as long as we treat their coming as inevitable, the only outcome of higher education reform even worth considering.

This poses a potential problem.  Inviting an insatiable, giant, man-eating, tennis-playing blancmange to your party is stupid enough, but if you have to be that dumb then at least lay down some ground rules.  For example, don’t let the monster eat you out of house and home. Don’t let them eat any of your other party guests either.  If the monster can’t abide by those simple ground rules, then somebody is going to have to keep a weapon around in order to slay the beast because I can pretty much assure you that it will not go quietly.




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