MOOCs: Menace or Magic? Both?

This morning, I read the NY Times article The Year of the MOOC. The title is interesting. One year. “I like to call this the year of disruption,” says Anant Agarwal, president of edX, “and the year is not over yet.” The discussion about MOOCs, of course, has gone on for much longer than a year (the first MOOC, ostensibly, was taught in 2007).

But MOOC news has gone mainstream. Because it is a part of the larger discourse, and as part of a project for my day job, I am in the process of gathering all of the news about MOOCs. How I went about doing so says something about why MOOCs exist, why so many people are worried, and why they are the natural product of a number of factors that pull higher education and technology together and apart.

I’ve followed the MOOC debate mostly through news digests from Inside Higher Ed, the Chronicle of Higher Education, and Campus Technology (or as I call them Nerd Breakfast Reading). I receive links about MOOCs from people also interested in online learning and digital technology through email and Facebook, and occasionally, articles will pop up on the WPA-listserv that feeds into my private email account. Because I am working on this project, my supervisor sent me a list of MOOC sources she had compiled, links pasted into a Word Document. So up to this point, news about MOOCs has come to me. I haven’t gone to it.

But this morning, after getting all jazzed up about the NYT article (more on that later), I decided I would go and search for sources on the either disastrous or miraculous (and certainly game-changing, no matter what your stance) Massive Open Online Course (which, as I composed this post, I realized I had been calling the Massively Open Online Course).

If only there was an aggregator that would search for content (like Google) but not have Wikipedia be the inevitable first result (unlike Google). And if only that aggregator would allow me to arrange the sources so that I can then share them and allow comments (like Facebook) and allow access to those sources that wouldn’t require people to also endure endless pictures of my amazingly cute daughter (unlike Facebook).

Ah…yes…there is. I can now gather, curate, and disseminate information (with commentary) quickly and easily, and reach a much wider audience (potentially) who can then use that information to curate, create, disseminate…etc. etc. For nearly free.

My point? My search for information, and the places that I went to get that information, is the first step in understanding how online learning (and particularly MOOCs) change the game in education. Part of that starts in the tools to which almost everyone has access, and the nature of how those tools work in the complex reality of human lives. As I see it, MOOCs are going to revolutionize higher education, for good or bad, because:

1) MOOCs have the potential to use the affordances of technology that already exist for the forces of good…education. 

The NY Times article states that “In September, Google unleashed a MOOC-building online tool, and Stanford unveiled Class2Go with two courses.” Right. But MOOC-building online tools have always existed in bits and pieces on the internet: Google Search, Facebook, blogs, YouTube. Google is just packaging existing concepts into a concept for a specific purpose…open source education. What higher education as a bureaucratic (and revenue-requiring) entity has resisted, for the most part, is the systematic integration of technology into learning and support for that integration.

The most recent Department of Commerce report emphasizes the connections between education, technology, innovation, and a strong economy. The strong economies of the past have fueled higher education, and conversely, our current stagnant education hinders higher education from supporting innovative teaching using technology by overloading and overworking faculty (popular opinion to the contrary). Because of fundings, tradition, or what have you, traditional higher education minimizes the use of the same tools MOOCs embrace, or uses these tools in very limited ways while charging increasingly steep tuition. Add to this print textbooks and other materials that are outrageously expensive (an advisee just told me she was hesitant about changing to a course that would better suit her learning needs because she had already purchased the $200 textbook for a different course), the high cost of living in a dormitory and eating on a meal plan, or the changing nature of the student body, and you have the perfect storm that is allowing MOOCs to come mainstream. MOOCs explore the boundaries of what technology, particularly well-designed and delivered courses based on learning theory and leveraging elements like adaptive release and adaptive learning, can provide for learners at a greatly reduced cost to students (albeit at the price of venture capitalism).

2) College students seek and education to enhance their lives, which often means first and foremost supporting themselves and their families. 

Coming from a background in the liberal arts as a first generation student from a rural area, I can understand the desire for education to be the halcyon days of Alcyone, the beautiful period where the indecencies of life do not interfere with the pursuit of cerebral bliss. Alas, few students coming to the gates of higher education are doing so to find seven days in winter without a storm. Or in some cases, they are. More and more undergrads (and grads) are seeking a path through the grounds of higher education that will lead them to a brighter future. Higher education is a road to travel quickly, not a garden to explore at leisure.

This metaphor is particularly true for students taking online courses. The average age of students in online courses, according to a study in the Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, is 24.4 for women and 24.5 for men. Surveys by Noel-Levitz show that 80% of respondents in their online priorities surveys were over 25. To make a sweeping generalization, students in that age range might be looking for a way to begin or support families, move out of their parents’ basements, and otherwise become self-sufficient (and or sufficient for a group of dependents). Because the affective is a powerful motivator (and the root of all long-lasting learning), those students are most likely going to be looking for institutions  programs, courses, and educations that will benefit them and their families and keep them active in those families. As much as those of us who came from a leisurely, government-subsidized and loan-supported liberal education wish, our students are immersed in a stark reality where education = job = better life. MOOCs offer, at least on the surface, a means to an education where students are, in their homes, at the 6-year-old’s soccer match, in Afghanistan.

MOOCs come to students in the places life happens, on a road that might not travel through a traditional brick-and-mortar university. MOOCs can be rewound, fast-forwarded. Concepts can be mastered or reviewed. For free (or for the price of a laptop and Starbucks wireless). And while at this point, only Colorado State University offers to translate MOOCs into college credits, the deal between Coursera and Antioch University indicates that MOOCs might be a path for students to bypass traditional brick-and-mortar. Which might be because…

3) The traditional brick-and-mortar university is not designed for these students. 

Not to say that all universities aren’t. But I would venture to say that most universities are designed for the 18-22 demographic. Welcome Weeks involve trust-building activities, a tour of campus clubs and organizations, information on campus life. But the students above are focused more on their off-campus lives. A majority of traditional courses (again, wildly generalizing here) are also based toward the 18-22 demographic, a population comfortable with (if not satisfied by) the lecture-and-test mentality they are trained to master by the misfortunes of teach-to-the test regulations in K-12. In the STEM fields (where American desperately needs innovation per the Department of Commerce report), the primary method of instruction is still lecture and test (sorry to those who cannot access that article without a subscription). Adult learning theory demonstrates that adult learners are motivated and challenged by a different set of conditions (cognitively and affectively) than the target audience/consumer at the traditional university. Which, not ironically, are the skills that are necessary and lead to the next point, that

4) In the 21st century world, where high-paying jobs are increasingly linked to technology, students will need to effectively use digital tools and technologies to critically consume and rhetorically create and distribute information. 

Clay Shirky brilliantly elaborates on this point in his TED Talks on social media, institutions, and government. His concept of cognitive surplus, the “shared online work we do with our spare brain cycles,” pairs with increased access to technological tools that allow that cognitive surplus to be channeled into causes (both good and LOLCat) and the idea of many to many distribution. Thus, in the digital, crowdsourced, multi-verse reality of the internet, people have the opportunity to both critically consume and rhetorically create (as James Gee and Elizabeth Hayes confirm).

What makes these elements possible are the affordances of technology, some of the same tools that I used to research and create this blog–all for free (or the price of a laptop and the taxes to pay for the public library where I am using free wi-fi access). Higher education (again, speaking in broad generalizations to which there are always exceptions) fights the two primary elements of Shirky’s theory: many-to-many distribution and the use of technological tools by students.

The traditional higher education classroom, in spite of great leaps to transform the “sage from the stage” to “the guide on the side,” still operates primarily on the principle of “the sage” or “the guide” as bearer and creator of the knowledge (measured by his or her production of scholarly text in the form of text-based, print publications that are “peer-reviewed” and studiously guarded). Meanwhile, outside the classroom, students are operating in a completely different reality. Online students, primarily non-traditional students, are mixing, mashing, and maintaining complex lives, all while getting educations mediated (though not always well) in the digital realm.

My online students look more like I do now that what I looked like at 18. As I type this, I am at the public library parenting a four-year-old who needs attention every, oh, 15 to 20 seconds (I will not say where I am standing while I type this sentence). My online adult learners live in this reality. And many of my traditional (and non-traditional students) also live in this technological reality. I have the luxury of creating this MOOC manifesto using the internet, TED, online journals and other open-source and freely-provided resources, and I get to hit “Publish” and have it read. It is published in the same medium as the NY Times piece that spawned my blog.

In the academic world, I would write this article, submit it to a publisher, and wait…oh, sometimes years…to have a few people possibly read my work. Few of our students will ever exist in that reality.

Is the blog more exciting? You bet! Am I being any less “academic” or “scholarly” standing here in the library and blogging? Maybe. Would my sources be taken more seriously had I photocopied them from print books at a library? Perhaps.

But I digress. Shirky’s points relate to the MOOCs because the nature of how humans access, organize, process, manipulate, and communicate knowledge in the digital realm. Reality isn’t changing. It HAS already changed. Not for all, but for many.

Faculty and administrators in higher education have tough choices to make in deciding whether they are going to adjust to and position themselves within this reality, which can be uncomfortable for those of us who grew up and experienced the “sage on the stage” 19th century Germanic model of education and thrived (read: most college professors). MOOCs have the resources and the vision to suggest something different, albeit on an unsustainable scale (most of the eager MOOC registrants do not actually complete the courses and earn the “certificates” for their labors). They are, at least in their public statements, putting teaching ahead of research, a distinctly anti-19th century Germanic model of education. From the NYT article: “In a poke at its university-based competition, Dr. Stavens [Udacity] says they pick instructors not because of their academic research, as universities do, but because of how they teach. “We reject about 98 percent of faculty who want to teach with us,” he says. “Just because a person is the world’s most famous economist doesn’t mean they are the best person to teach the subject.”

Not to say that research is not an important part of innovation. But for years, universities have been putting researchers in the classroom with little to no pedagogical training or desire to teach. Or, in order to reserve upper-division or graduate courses for experienced educators who have clawed and scratched their way through the tenure process and want their just desserts, graduate assistants (who also, conveniently, provide enrollments for those graduate classes) cut their teaching teeth on in those undergrad classrooms with students who most need the experience and skills of those faculty teaching higher-level courses. Once those graduates graduate, many will find themselves in contingent lines, teaching the same courses year after year, as the tenure-track lines they dreamed of dry up (why this is happening is a separate argument).  MOOCs might offer a different vision and model of undergraduate education.

Some of my on-campus students came to my class a few days ago carrying the Norton Guides to Literature (which they were assigned for a different course) that I so painfully remember from my undergraduate English degree. These 10,000 page volumes (and there are always multiple volumes) with translucent pages and 10-point font were the bane of my undergraduate existence in the early ’90s. My traditionally aged, very diligent students discussed the material in these volumes before my class began. They were engaged, challenged. In my class, we watched the Presidential Debates on YouTube and analyzed a cartoon from the Daily Kos and an article from the Atlantic online about political responses to Hurricane Sandy. Students were engaged, challenged.

My point is that there is room for traditional, liberal arts education (even the sentence diagramming I so loved in 6th grade), the leisurely garden of knowledge and technological advancement and change. Because human affairs exist solely in the realm of the probable and not the certain, and because my crystal ball is on the fritz (poor wireless connection), I am not sure what that combination will look like in ten months or ten years. And because, for the most part, higher education has not believed this combination can be so, MOOCs are moving in and testing the margins, the only place Clay Shirky claims revolution in education, government, institutions, is possible.

With economic, political, and social uncertainty, we now, more than ever, need students who have access to a challenging, motivating, and quality education. If higher education wants to provide this education, then faculty and administrators need to seriously consider what that education looks like and how we can provide a quality, engaging education to a broad spectrum of students, where those students are, in spite of how WE learned or what the academy has “always done.” Just as I leverage technology to make MOOC news reach me, so can education leverage technology so that teaching and learning can effectively reach 21st century students.

Bottom line: this educational revolution will not be televised. It will be tweeted, Facebook, streamed, remixed, and mashed up. The research I did for this blog, the ways I gathered, processed, re-combined, and distributed information gives us insight to the possibilities for our students, for the educational future of post-empire America. Where we as faculty stand in the revolution will depend on our doing exactly what we ask from our students: making informed, educated decisions that might challenge our values and beliefs about education and why we embrace (or dismiss) technological change.

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