More Thoughts on MOOCs

Inside Higher Ed blogger Margaret Soltan is creating a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) for Udemy.  She blogs about it here, here, and here.  Her posts made it seem like a good time to reconsider my thoughts on MOOCs.

Short version: I’m as skeptical as before, except now I’m afraid that MOOCs are going to add an extra layer of “invisible” work for T-T faculty that will only fuel the attacks on those positions.

Professor Soltan is absolutely right when she quotes Tony Bates:

[MOOCs] belong to an honorable and well established tradition of continuing adult education that has been offered by universities since the turn of the 19th century. They belong philosophically within the context of thinkers such as R. H. Tawney, Ivan Illich and Paulo Freire, who believed strongly in self-education, as part of their broader socialist views on equality, the need [for] open access to knowledge, and [the need] to educate the workers in order to break the existing hegemony, etc. … Furthermore, lifelong learning is critically important in the 21st century, but is not well done by most universities. MOOCs are an important development that supports lifelong learning. (Original link here)

Except that’s not what any of the cutting-edge purveyors of MOOCs are saying.  Sebastian Thrun didn’t say he could never go back to Stanford in order to join a century-old tradition of adult learning.  Udemy isn’t claiming their platform to “disrupt and democratize the world of education” is a virtual Mechanics’ Institute with a fresh coat of paint.  They’re playing the game-changer card, and they’re playing it hard.

Will it work?  Will video lectures, computer-graded tests and discussion forums revolutionize how we learn?  The prize for best answer goes to Bardiac: ” IF most people learned really effectively by working alone on something (reading or watching or whatever), then the invention of the public library pretty much would have meant the end of the university.”

None of this, of course, is a criticism of Professor Soltan or any of the other teachers who have freely given their time to create courses over at Udemy’s Faculty Project.  Except that there’s the potential here to even further distort the pay-responsibility relationship for T-T university faculty.  Soltan’s not being paid anything to make her MOOC, nor are any of the other members of the Faculty Project.  Of course, Udemy’s not charging the students, but they clearly think the traffic, publicity and prestige will help drive enrollments on their main site (may of the courses there are free too, but Udemy plans to make ends meet by taking a 30% cut of the revenues from the paid courses).

Sound familiar?

Faculty do work because they consider it part of their mission to share knowledge, and promote learning.  They do it for free because they are salaried employees of organizations who have roughly the same mission.  Someone else takes that freely-given work and, in the process of making it accessible, monetizes it.  On occasion, faculty complain about just how much money that someone makes off their work.  Then, to add insult to injury, when the time comes to analyze teaching loads and research funds none of it counts.

We’re not there yet, but I’d be seriously worried that involvement with MOOCs will become, like student advising, journal refereeing, outreach, or scholarly blogging, another invisible duty for faculty (starting with salaried T-T and eventually trickling down to contingent labor, who are even less compensated for it).  I could go on about how those outside higher ed. perceive that invisible work, but it’s better to stick to the topic at hand.

As an extension of the tradition of distance and adult education (separate, but often overlapping categories), MOOCs look promising.  As a way of totally breaking the traditional teaching paradigm, I’ll believe it when I see a MOOC that doesn’t start with lectures.  As a way of revolutionizing and disrupting Higher Ed., let’s hope that the boom comes off the rose before someone uses it as a excuse to gut other institutions.


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