[This essay first appeared on the blog of the Hannah Arendt Center at Bard. Many thanks to Roger Berkowitz and Emiljana Ulaj.]
Barely more than a year old, MITx and edX now dominate discussion about the future of higher education like nothing else I have seen in my time in Cambridge, MA. I have been teaching at MIT for more than 10 years now, and can’t remember any subject touching directly on university life that came even remotely close to absorbing the attention of higher ed professionals in the region the way that edX has. From initial investments of $30 million each by the founding institutions Harvard and MIT, and each month it seems bringing announcement of new partnerships with the world’s colleges & universities (27 institutions currently belong to the “X” consortium), the levels of hype and institutional buy-in have been nothing short of extraordinary.
Because of their ubiquity in the popular press, higher ed industry periodicals, and blogosphere, Massively Open Online Courses or MOOCs have become that most dangerous topic of discussion: a subject about which everybody needs to have an opinion. Such topics can unfortunately generate more heat than light, as the requirement to have and to express a point of view often means that the strongest and most extravagant opinions will claim attention and command the terms of debate. This is unfortunate if you favor the nuanced opinion or (as I do) feel genuinely ambivalent about MOOCs and the role(s) that they might play in shaping the future of higher education.
So far much of the discourse about MOOCs has tended to settle around two competing claims — one for, one against — that I articulated in a tweet a few months ago. Either MOOC providers are described as delivering free or low-cost quality higher education to those hard-pressed to afford it (and so performing a valuable public service); or MOOCs are understood to be selling a “lite” version of higher education to the poor while consolidating power and prestige with a few wealthy elite schools. In this dystopian view, the democratizing claims made by Udacity, Coursera and edX (the last formed of these outfits, and the only non-profit among them) are revealed instead to be essentially colonialist ones — the colonialists, ed-tech profiteers hell-bent on thoroughly remaking the university as a crypto-corporate enterprise. MOOCs are understood to be an engine in this transformation, and an integral part of an overall design for reshaping higher education as a neoliberal market pursuit.
I can’t doubt that there is truth in both of these sets of claims. It is difficult at the same time to ignore that arguments for and against MOOCs look past each other in crucial respects; and leave precious little ground between them. What both accounts do share is an assumption that MOOCs will transform or “revolutionize” the landscape of higher education (for good or ill). Either MOOCs will be agents for elevating some in the less advantaged and underserved corners of the world; or MOOCs are instruments for extracting bodies from classrooms and tenure-track lines from university departments. The somewhat high-flown claims to educate and elevate underserved populations of the globe, often based on stray anecdote, are offered independently of any more substantive claim about the specific learning communities who benefit (or stand to benefit) from MOOCs. Similarly, claims about the profit motives animating the companies offering MOOCs subordinate all discussion of MOOCs to the ideological positions that they supposedly exist to promote. The designs attributed to MOOCs, and to the instructors who offer MOOCs, are such as foreclose discussion rather than promote it.
While both accounts of MOOCs envision significant future consequences from their implementation, moreover, neither says very much about actually-existing MOOCs. The MOOC has become a repository for utopian and dystopian narratives about the present and future directions of higher ed. As a result, this or that fact about MOOCs is often considered (or not) insofar as it confirms the prevailing theory about them. 150,000 signing up for a class demonstrates a clear hunger on the part of many across the globe for access to a quality education; this fact authorizes enlarged claims for the ability to transform higher education by bringing MOOCs to the masses. Similarly, the replicability of the digital medium — and the fact that course content such as video lectures, once made, do not necessarily need to be re-made each year — is conceived as a key to how MOOCs will force everyone in higher ed to make do (not do more) with less: less student-faculty interaction, fewer tenure-track professors, down the road the prospect of fewer instructors (the majority of them adjuncts already) paid to teach in college classrooms.
In addition to fears that MOOCs will reinforce ongoing trends of budget cuts, adjunctification and layoffs of college teaching staff, another legitimate concern is that MOOCs will in helping some schools with their branding strategies have the effect of consolidating elite privilege with a few schools and the “superprofessors” (themselves overwhelmingly white and male) who teach MOOCs, leaving other lesser-ranked schools struggling to compete against a lower-priced virtual curriculum. The fear is that MOOCs will facilitate the emergence of two tiers in higher ed offerings: the “real” version, available only to the students whose families can afford the exorbitant tuition, or who survive by taking out massive student loan debts); and the second-rate online version. With proposals on the table such as California’s Senate Bill 520, which would grant college credit for certain approved online courses, and Coursera’s recent announcement that they will sell their MOOCs to 10 public universities in the US, these fears are unfortunately very real. I hope to see more MOOCs spring up to contest that sense of inevitable recentering of authority from within the elite universities that host them. However difficult the task may prove to be, we need to disentangle the genuinely democratizing outreach work done by online education from its re-inscription of elite privilege.
These are important and pressing concerns. By the same token, they hardly exhaust all that can be said about MOOCs today. A host of important questions about the creation and implementation of MOOCs — about course content, mode of learning, assessment, and so on — should not be lost amidst conversations about the larger tendency (whether benevolist and democratizing, or insidious and corporatizing) to which MOOCs properly belong. The movement of classroom tasks and functions online learning presents opportunities as well as risks; we should understand both. In an essay written late last year I tried to look without blinders at MOOCs, and to reflect both on the risks associated with their format and implementation as well as on their potential as instruments of learning and encounter. I wrote at the time that it wasn’t my intention “to defend the MOOC so much as…to hold open some alternative futures for it.” For these alternative futures to emerge there needs to be vision, will, and coordinated effort on the part of many in higher ed. I am still willing at least to entertain the possibility that MOOCs may turn out to be an enabling, positive invention, while I acknowledge indicators that point in the direction of their being a lamentably misguided one. But the rush to condemn and dismiss online courses may be as fundamentally misguided as the rush to anoint them the future of higher education.
Blended learning modes present opportunities for both pedagogical experimentation and outreach; neither opportunity should I think be dismissed lightly. I have heard many instructors of MOOCs (in both STEM and humanities subjects) remark that the experience of teaching online has transformed their thinking and their approach to teaching familiar material in the traditional classroom, whether in pace and timing, course content, evaluation, assessment, etc. My interest in MOOCs extends to how the format can be imagined to provide access to a university curriculum to populations that may not have had this kind of access, as this is the population that stands to gain most from them. But in addition to the flat, global learning community ritually invoked as the audience for MOOCs, we could benefit from thinking locally too. How can the online course format make possible new relationships not only with the most far-flung remote corners of the earth but with the neighborhoods and communities nearest to campus? Can we make MOOCs that foster meaningful links with the community or create learning communities that cut across both the university and the online platform?
Among other alternative futures for MOOCs, I imagine more opportunities to collaborate with colleagues at other institutions. The single-delivery, “sage on stage” MOOC is no more the only online model available than is the large lecture class at a brick-and-mortar school. While MOOCs are still for the most part free and non credit-bearing, we should try out (and generate metrics to assess) as many different teaching arrangements as possible. I hasten to add that this exploration should include the intellectual freedom along with the technological affordances to create a MOOC of any kind, at any time, with anybody. With instructors and modules selected in advance, some infrastructural support in each site, and a set of shared principles for continuity of curriculum and presentation, anybody could create a MOOC. Universities like Penn have already begun asking faculty to sign non-compete agreements, presumably to curb these kind of collaborations. For as long as such arrangements are permissible, however, I would urge researchers to collaborate on MOOCs themselves. This may be a tall order; but not I think impossible.
From various quarters we have heard recent calls for a slow-down of the MOOC bandwagon. An open letter from Harvard faculty to the Dean of Faculty of Arts & Sciences calls for more oversight and reflective engagement with the question of how MOOCs offered through edX will affect “the higher education system as a whole.” I support these calls as consistent with the seriousness of the proposals to transform higher ed that are currently before us. From my modest position within the ranks of MIT administration I have been glad to see great care on the part of faculty to ensure that a spirit of experimentation and exploration with regard to MOOCs remains compatible with the core principles of the university and with a residential education. Cathy Davidson at Duke will in January 2014 teach a MOOC with Coursera simultaneously combined with a brick-and-mortar course on “The History and Future of Higher Ed,” with participation from classes at other schools and universities as well. These and other movements are to me reassuring signs, indicators of collaborative engagement in consideration of a topic of great importance. They indicate a willingness too to eschew rehearsing polarized opinions for or against MOOCs in order to attend to their innovative construction as well as their effective and responsible implementation. The challenge is to remind ourselves periodically to think small (locally, incrementally) at the same time that we heed calls to think big.