MOOCs in the Machine, Part I

December 29th, 2012, by § 4 Comments

Digital technologies are transforming communication practices in many settings, and higher education is no exception. In particular, “massive open online classes” (MOOCs) have been garnering attention and provoking questions about the future of college education, in the U.S. and elsewhere. MOOCs could potentially “disrupt” current models of education, according to some like Clay Shirky, but their growing popularity owes much to the current state of the economy (in the U.S. and more globally) and the neoliberalization of the academy, as some critics contend. The conversation about MOOCs needs to take place in the context of broader structural changes in academia, to recognize both their promise and their limitations.

In his recent blog piece, Shirky avers that MOOCs will disrupt education just as MP3s and other digital content disrupted established “old media” industries like the recording industry, by changing the “story” of what’s possible:

Once you see this pattern—a new story rearranging people’s sense of the possible, with the incumbents the last to know—you see it everywhere. First, the people running the old system don’t notice the change. When they do, they assume it’s minor. Then that it’s a niche. Then a fad. And by the time they understand that the world has actually changed, they’ve squandered most of the time they had to adapt.

Shirky advocates MOOCs not as a replacement for elite institutions but as a better way to educate everybody else – non-elite students at flagging public institutions or exploitative for-profit programs: “The possibility MOOCs hold out is that the educational parts of education can be unbundled. MOOCs expand the audience for education to people ill-served or completely shut out from the current system.”

Despite the numerous and worthwhile critiques of Shirky’s technological optimism, one point stands out to me as meriting further discussion. He suggests that large introductory lectures are largely about saving money, rather than offering the best instruction, and that relying on grad student TAs “let[s] a college lower the cost of teaching the sections while continuing to produce lectures as an artisanal product, from scratch, on site, real time.” There are many reasons for faculty to develop original lectures, of course, especially in the humanities and humanistic social sciences like anthropology. Shirky’s understanding of education also appears instrumentalist in some ways, presuming that professors at elite institutions offers the best quality lectures and that non-elite students would benefit from hearing these lectures instead: “Sometimes you’re at a place where the best lecture your professor can give is the best in the world. But mostly not. And the only thing that kept this system from seeming strange was that we’ve never had a good way of publishing lectures.” This strikes me as a reductive approach to what constitutes lecturing. At the same time, I’ve often wondered why it makes sense to create introductory courses from scratch when teaching them for the first time, rather than building on the work of others (as we do in many other contexts). How might online or digital resources make it easier to share course materials among faculty, without replacing the value faculty bring to each class they teach?

Over at Inside Higher Ed, Aaron Bady takes up some of these issues to level an in-depth critique of the assumptions informing Shirky’s views. According to Bady, Shirky’s assessment reflects a technological optimism in which digital technologies will inevitably transform teaching and education. Academe (faculty and administrators) will be the last bastion of resistance because they are inherently (and tautologically) self-serving—they must justify their own existence. Yet, as Bady points out, Shirky nowhere provides evidence for the effectiveness of MOOCs. Bady construes this as resulting from the speculative bent of venture capital:

While Shirky can see the future revolutionizing in front of us, he is thinking like a venture capitalist when he does, betting on optimism because he can afford to lose. He doesn’t know that he’s right; he just knows that he might not be wrong. And so, like all such educational futurologists, Shirky’s case for MOOCs is all essentially defensive: he argues against the arguments against MOOCs, taking shelter in the possibility of what isn’t, yet, but which may someday be.

On the contrary, Bady reminds us to ask why desire for education has outstripped its availability and affordability, and suggests that Shirky’s emphasis on “non-elites” reinforces the distinction between elite students and institutions and everybody else. MOOC providers like Udacity, a for-profit service described by Shirky, can justify offering mediocre courses because they are free. In Bady’s view, we should instead focus on how defunding public education is eroding the mass higher ed system that provided accessible college educations to middle-class (and aspiring middle-class) Americans for many decades.

While I don’t find Shirky’s arguments without merit, Bady is right to bring the focus back to why higher education has changed as it has. The larger conversation about “disrupting” college education often lacks this dimension – it’s well and good to ask whether it makes sense for many young people to take on thousands of dollars in debt when they still may not get a job, but the reality is that this situation is the product of growing economic inequality and vastly reduced state budgets. The concentration of wealth among elites is part of the same process that has led to high unemployment and reduced tax revenues, despite soaring corporate profits.

The debate over MOOCs, then, needs to take place in the context of the increasing flexibilization and neoliberalization of the university. There are certainly legitimate critiques of higher ed and elite institutions that MOOCs might potentially address. As an anthropologist of digital and online media, I’m also intrigued by the possibilities of online education. It would be useful to think through what it is teachers actually provide, which is much more than simply transmitting information. But I also want to link these issues to larger problems in graduate education and the changing structure of the academy. For example, the job market is still in shambles, at least from my perspective as a new Ph.D. Clearly, this situation is unlikely to improve if universities continue replacing tenure lines with temporary positions—or MOOCs. Fewer tenure-track positions also mean fewer opportunities for conducting research, and neither Bady nor Shirky address the importance to teaching of staying current with recent research. How can we challenge these shifts in academia while taking advantages of the possible benefits and advantages of online education, especially massive and open courses?

In Part II, I take up these questions further and consider how we might rethink some aspects of graduate training in relation to broader changes in the structure of academia.

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