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What’s the Matter With MOOCs?

One of the most interesting and maddening issues to emerge from the debacle at the University of Virginia over the past month has been the obsession that people far removed from the actual work of teaching college and university students have for MOOCs.

MOOCs is the acronym we use to describe “Massive Open Online Courses,” such as those offered with great fanfare by Stanford University, MIT, Harvard, and others. We saw this obsession expressed in the e-mails that UVa Rector Helen Dragas exchanged with the recently resigned Vice Rector, Mark Kington. The e-mails were released after the UVa student newspaper, The Cavalier Daily, issued a Freedom of Information request for them. It seems that both Kington and Dragas saw these recent moves by America’s elite private universities as something of a missed opportunity for UVa.

President Teresa Sullivan’s scholarly, intelligent response to their interest in MOOCs failed to satisfy these two board members. The mania for MOOCs clearly played a small but important role in her dismissal. The board members’ unwillingness to engage with Sullivan and the faculty before forcing Sullivan to resign played a part in the subsequent reinstatement of Sullivan as president of UVa.

This, of course, puzzled those of us who have been experimenting with various digital and online models for years. That was the subject of my first post about UVa for The Chronicle Innovations blog.

The strangest thing about this MOOC obsession is the idea that something that very wealthy private institutions offer for free, at a loss, as a service to humanity, must somehow represent the magic numbers in the higher-education lottery. It’s new, it’s “innovative,” and it’s big, the thinking goes. So it must be the answer.

Let me pause to say that I enjoy MOOCs. I watch course videos and online instruction like those from the Khan Academy … well, obsessively. I have learned a lot about a lot of things beyond my expertise from them. My life is richer because of them. MOOCs inform me. But they do not educate me. There is a difference.

For the more pedestrian MOOCs, the simple podium lecture captured and released, the difference between a real college course and a MOOC is like the difference between playing golf and watching golf. Both can be exciting and enjoyable. Both can be boring and frustrating. But they are not the same thing.

Of course, Dragas and Kington don’t seem to acknowledge in their correspondence that MOOCs cost a lot of money, do not in any way simulate a classroom experience, and constitute—at best—the efficient yet static delivery of course content. The delivery of course content is not the same as education. And training students to perform technical tasks, such as doing basic equations in calculus, is not the same as education. Teachers get this, of course. So do students.

If we would all just take a breath and map out the distance between current MOOCs and real education, we might be able to chart a path toward some outstanding improvements in pedagogical techniques. But we can’t do that as long as the rich people who run university boards conduct their research by reading David Brooks columns and proceeding to lop off the heads of institutions who don’t seem to be following the mania of the moment.

Now, I can almost excuse a couple of business leaders for thinking this way. Business people are always frenetically looking for the new big thing because their professions demand that they be constantly wary of innovative competition. Most businesses fail after four years, after all. And almost all businesses fail after a century or so. So if your entire life is devoted to desperately preserving a firm, you might not think clearly all time because thought, study, deliberative analysis, and experimentation can seem like luxuries. Scholars, on the other hand, work for institutions designed to last many centuries, and they collaborate more than compete.

But over the past few weeks I have seen items written by people who really should know better, specifically higher-education pundits Kevin Carey, director of the education-policy program at the New America Foundation, and Jeff Selingo, editorial director of The Chronicle of Higher Education. Both recently invoked the concept of MOOCs as having something to do with possible relief for the crippling sticker price of a university degree.

“These are courses that are being taught to hundreds of thousands of students around the world, and they don’t cost anything,” Carey told NPR last week. “There is now no doubt that certain kinds of students can learn a lot online. But people don’t just go to college to learn; they go to college to get a job. That’s the difference between a library and a college.”

And Selingo wrote in The New York Times on the day the Board of Visitors unanimously reinstated Sullivan: “Schools should also offer more online education. In just the past few months, several elite universities, including Stanford and Harvard, have announced multimillion-dollar efforts to provide several of their courses free, online, for everyone. Individual colleges should take advantage of this trend, perhaps ultimately shedding their lowest-quality courses (and their costs) and replacing them with the best courses offered by other institutions through loose federations or formal networks.”

Now, I stated that Selingo and Carey should know better than to associate MOOCs with the price of education. Carey has taught courses about higher education at the Johns Hopkins University. And Selingo has recently completed an online course through Coursera, a consortium of MOOCs offered by Stanford, Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania, and the University of Michigan. Alas, it seems Carey and Selingo are too busy pushing their buzz phrases and quick fixes to consider deeply what MOOCs actually do and do not do. They both exhibit a strange mix of cynicism toward faculty who actually construct and implement new pedagogical experiments and naïve idealism about technology. And, again, they both seem to believe—against all available evidence—that MOOCs offer some financial relief to students or revenue-generating opportunities to universities.

Selingo is careful to qualify his assessment of MOOCs in conversation. He does not see them as a panacea. And Selingo has expressed greater enthusiasm for more appropriate and promising uses of digital course materials, such as the coordination among smaller Southeastern colleges and universities to expand their course offerings and specialties using shared digital resources.

I decided that people need to hear about this issue from someone who really does know what he’s talking about. So I asked history professor Dan Cohen of George Mason University to give me a sense of how he thinks MOOCs perform and are perceived. Cohen is one of the chief digital innovators in the American academy. He heads up the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, where he led the development of the bibliographic service Zotero and the digital exhibition tool Omeka, among other essential digital projects.

“We have been working on synthesizing digital media and technology into the classroom and research for two decades and understand how complex it is, and how you can’t just throw a student into a digital environment,” Cohen wrote to me in an e-mail. “We’re trying to do much more than reproducing lectures and quizzes online; we are trying to use the medium to enable new kinds of interpretation and scholarly interaction. So MOOCs seem like a huge step backward.”

Cohen wrote that he and other innovators are concerned about what he calls the “lowest-common denominator/old-style learning by repetition aspect to them.” Instead, Cohen argues, we should be developing projects that help students explore, lead them toward new insights, and help them build digital projects themselves.

“We believe MOOCs are being graded on a curve right now,” Cohen wrote to me. Enthusiasts love to pump up the enrollment numbers but fail to cite the attrition numbers. (Remembering all that nonsense about how Second Life was going to revolutionize higher education might be appropriate here.) And, as Cohen argues, none of these most recent high-profile experiments offer anything more than the video version of the classic (and uninspiring) correspondence course of the snail-mail age.

There is one more important difference or tension that the MOOC mania invokes. Cohen points out that most of the MOOCs that have been deemed “successful” (based entirely on the subscription rate rather than any indication that anyone benefited from them) tend to be math-and-computation based, and vocational rather than exploratory, idea-based, or laboratory-based. With proper study, we might be able to determine which subjects work best in MOOC format and which do not. But the worst thing we can do is force every area of study into one mode just because some rich folks like Bill Gates think MOOCs are the key to the future.

Real education happens only by failing, changing, challenging, and adjusting. All of those gerunds apply to teachers as well as students. No person is an “educator,” because education is not something one person does to another. Education is an imprecise process, a dance, and a collaborative experience.

Education is the creation of habits of thought and methods of inquiry that yield unpredictable results. We offer diplomas to people upon completion of a rigorous and diverse set of intellectual experiences—not the mere accumulation of a series of facts and techniques. Education is certainly not an injection of information into a passive receptacle.

It’s foolish to think that people who have never sat for hours with a student who has attention-deficit disorder and who needs multiple ways of thinking about a phenomenon to understand it can tell the rest of us how we should be teaching. It’s foolish for those who have never taught first-semester Spanish at 8 a.m. to tell those who have how it should be done. It’s foolish to assume all subjects could and should be taught using the same tools. And, as Elvis reminds us, “fools rush in.”

In his dialogue with Phaedrus, Socrates lamented the rise of writing. He was sure it would “creatively disrupt” his comfortable little seminar and undermine authority. Socrates was as wrong then, as Bill Gates, Kevin Carey, Jeff Selingo, and Helen Dragas are today. It turns out that writing, printing, publishing, transportation, digitization, and networking did nothing to disrupt or undermine those of us who have inherited Socrates’ vocation. All of those tools, like MOOCs now, add to our skill set and extend how we teach. But just as reading and writing eventually expanded Socrates’ influence and made his work more valuable, online tools and platforms, when deployed wisely and carefully, have the potential to enhance the great things the academy offers. Education will always be many things. But it will never be simple.

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