Monday, April 8, 2013

A non-apocalyptic view of MOOCs

Massive open online courses have been trumpeted as the death-knell of liberal education, eliciting elegiac murmurs from those who like liberal education, or think they like it, and generating euphoric shouts from those who do not like liberal education, or think they do not like it. I see things differently. For me, MOOCs are but the academic manifestation of Web 2.0. Remember that the standard model of online education came in during the late 1990s and was very much Web 1.0: platforms like Blackboard were static, hierarchical and only interactive insofar as their clear model, the USENET groups of the early 1990s and the listservs of a few years later, were interactive. MOOCs as a platform are attempts for the online modality to catch up with how multimedia our classroom are--rare is the class in which I do not show a video or at least check a fact on the Internet--and indeed how multimedia our research is. When I am researching a topic these days, I am as likely to look at YouTube or Netflix as JSTOR or Project Muse, and that is true even if say I am researching the fifth century AD. There are so many resources out there that are relevant to any given topic.

Furthermore, the 'massive' in MOOCs is a clear reflection of the impact of social media, particularly Facebook and Twitter. Platforms like Blackboard centered around small classes and direct instructor-to-student contact, assuming that would foster immediacy and engagement. On social media, though, one can have thousands of friends of followers without limiting engagement, indeed the larger one's train of online interactants, the more effective one's clout (or Klout). The importance placed on delivering the message and responding to those who are interested in it, rather than fostering a designated community of pre-culled individuals, constitutes a sense of the identity and ontology of the learner, which MOOCs have in common with social media. In other words, it is not a small size that guarantees a community but an atmosphere of active participation and solicitation of intellectual involvement.

Much like social media--where the people with the most friends or followers are already-established celebrity, and those who have had their reputation emerge organically form the medium itself may have substantial but in aggregate terms far smaller followings--there is no structural autonomy in MOOCs, the canonicity of the topics and teachers spill over from the anterior world. Much like an All-Star game in sports, MOOCs attempt to leverage the fame already attained by their participants within a practice to a far larger group of people in different places and contexts and attempt to make them interested in their allure. MOOCs will be a threat to the way academia has traditionally operated when they do not just utilize star professors but generate them. As it is now, the stars teaching in MOOCs were all generated the conventional way--through doctoral training, on-site classroom observation, journal and/or book publication, and peer review.

It is as if Latin America were not a place where baseball players were found but where they went to play for lucrative rewards once they had become famous. Indeed, MOOC professors are the David Beckhams of their 'game', in that what people are experiencing is not just their skill at their craft--which his undoubted--but the aura of fame, the social capital, they have already accumulated in their 'home', To take an example of what I mean, when cinema started around the turn of the last century the people who did it, the people who starred in the movies, were new, one did not just have theatrical performers transfer over, new people became famous and more importantly there were new ways to become famous that the movies provided. When MOOCs generate rather than channel celebrity, they will have achieved structural autonomy as a platform.

Moreover, the institutions sponsoring MOOCs are established brands, category leaders, who are providing MOOCs for free more or less as ways of extending the brand. The admissions elitism, the social capital which came from high selectivity--in other words from keeping as many people out as possible--seems to be less of a priority than garnering publicity and fostering brand awareness. One can posit that elite universities have gotten all they can out of exclusivity and are turning the wheel to inclusivity, and even if one posits this in a dark, Adornian way as a cynical admission that all the hegemony that can be reaped from the exclusivity has been, that the allure of high-stakes admissions is now played out (something gestured at laterally by articles such as this one) context. In a way this makes good business sense Apple or Microsoft did not become category leaders by only letting a few exclusive customers buy their products after a rigorous vetting process. In a way it is a response to globalization, as so many of the applicants to high-prestige US universities are now from abroad. In another way, MOOCs can be seen as a way of justifying the expense of college tuition to stakeholders such as parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents of traditional-age undergraduates, that what the younger members of their family is getting is good and worth the expense. On a higher level, MOOCs are kind of an answer to the culture wars' of the 1990s, or perhaps a symptom of their unexpectedly benign resolution, as much of the attacks on 'political correctness' and so on in that era came or were addressed to parents who were baffled by trends in contemporary humanities academia; perhaps MOOCs might bridge the gap and make these stakeholders feel more included in the approaches and methodologies at play in the contemporary humanities classroom.

There seems to me a clear age gap between the students in practically oriented MOOCs, who I see as 'young' adult learners, in their late 20s or so, whereas the students in humanistic MOOCs (and this is a totally anecdotal sample, based on the people I know personally who have mentioned enrolling in MOOCs to me) tend to be older, people in middle age or after, busy, working people too distracted to study full-time but who nonetheless desire intellectual illumination. When people in their late 20s are interested in this sort of thing, they will (again anecdotally) be likelier to watch/listen to YouTube videos or TED talks, material they can digest on the go and not necessarily have to interact with. Older adults on the other hand, further removed from literally being in school, might want some interaction, a feeling, however remote and indirect, of engaging with a professor of the knowledgeable, enthusiastic, and wise sort they remember from their youth. In addition, MOOCs do offer some sort of institutional apparatus or connection, whereas TED talks do not come directly from a university. Indeed, MOOCs and TED talks both flank, but in neither case directly embody, the Open Badges movement which allows credentialing of expertise without any sort of affiliation with an existing educational institution, no investment in storied tradition or category-leader prestige. MOOCs have this residual aspect, and this accounts both for their heft and their ability to make news, but also lead to questions as to whether, in an educational era that will inevitably be less elitist and more democratic, they will in their present mode have staying power. A third vector here is the Yale YouTube videos, which give lectures from actual classes again without any interaction. In my (again, personal and anecdotal) experience these are largely watched by other professors, interested to see in what their distinguished colleagues are up to in the classroom.

Thus I see MOOCs as not an apocalyptic but a transitional phenomenon, whose thrust is less to indicate that traditional liberal education is being put out of business but that the expertise and allure the traditional model has fostered now is considered worthy of export beyond the traditional (in both age and ‘space;) populations it has served. As we have known as far back as Newman's 
Idea of a University" whuch as fate would have it I am teaching today) the theoretical and the functional interplay in the coalescence of a liberal-arts ethos, and though the modality may change in this century, the underlying pertinence of the model will not. I suspect the specific configuration of MOOCs will change, and the name itself may not be used, but the phenomenon will certainly have impact. Until and unless online-only education can produce, can generate, stars, though, I think the traditional academic platform will still have the pride of place.