higher ed

A better professional organization

@felixfardo cloudcrew airships

#cloudcrew photo credit: John Harkey (@felixfardo)

I’m going to engage in some blue-sky thinking here. I am not a policy wonk, and this is not a policy document of any kind.

A response to the Modern Language Association (MLA) task force report on graduate education, co-authored by a group of 10 humanities scholars and published this week in Inside Higher Ed, draws attention to the limitations of the existing proposal. Proposals to shorten the time to degree and to welcome new engagements with digital technology are hardly controversial, of course. But the recommendations of the task force, like many of the activities of the MLA, do not a thing to meet on their own ground the gross inequalities of academic labor conditions in the profession.

I am far from the first to observe that the disconnect between the activities of the MLA and the lived realities of the profession has become increasingly stark (this recent blog post by The Good Enough Professor makes the case succinctly and well). The standard institutional response to such complaints is that adjunct hiring and other such issues, while undoubtedly important, do not fall under the control of the MLA and/or do not form a central part of its mandate. On the one hand, the rationale for this view is entirely plain. That the MLA carries out certain functions and not others is certainly unobjectionable. The MLA has no authority over hiring decisions; it cannot re-open tenure lines that have been closed or “restructured” by university administration. It cannot reverse trends in academic hiring that plague the academy as a whole. On the other hand, if a scholarly organization does not take concrete steps to improve the working conditions of those who pay dues and attend annually and at considerable cost its national convention, what exactly does it do? If the support of instructors teaching languages and literature at all professional ranks does not fall within the purview of a scholarly organization purporting to represent these educators, of what use is the organization today?

While the MLA enters into lengthy, disputatious, and ultimately fruitless discussions over whether to issue a resolution censuring Israel’s denial of entry to scholars seeking to work at Palestinian universities, various other organizations, autonomous and mostly leaderless movements unburdened by bureaucratic protocols and the necessity of executive compensation, have sprung up to serve functions that the MLA does not or cannot do. It may simply be the case that the existing organization is insufficient to protect the interests or even to represent accurately the contemporary academic workforce in higher ed literature and language instruction.

Imagine, then, a professional organization that served and supported its constituents directly. Groups like the Adjunct Project and the New Faculty Majority were created to represent and advocate for the overwhelming majority of literature and language instructors today. As more and more adjunct unions enter into collective bargaining agreements with universities, these cross-institutional alliances serve an invaluable purpose in representing the interests of adjunct faculty and facilitating communication with the general public.

The last of the proposals by the IHE authors is “direct action” — “strikes, protests, and other creative forms of organizing and outreach.” The possibilities are many here, of course; I want in closing simply to suggest one kind of organizing and outreach activity that might at minimal cost materially improve the lives of those who teach language and literature. Some time ago, a few colleagues and I — @prof_anne, @readywriting, @occupyMLA, @shanteparadigm, and some others — set to imagining a StrikeDebt-style direct action of some sort for and by adjunct professors and their advocates. One of the most potentially fruitful ideas to come from this discussion was that of a time bank that could be participated in by faculty and staff within a university community, or regionally across institutions, as a work in mutual aid. With sufficient buy-in from a coalition of university employees at all professional levels, a range of professional tasks could be exchanged without money —

  •      substitute teaching to cover for sickness or conference travel
  •      guest lectures or class visits
  •      reading and commenting on work
  •      editing and proofreading
  •      printing and copying, and so forth

— to say nothing of the many nonprofessional tasks for which time exchanges have been used for decades. Time could be “donated,” of course, and one can perhaps imagine a system in which the value of one’s hours were inversely proportional to wages for labor in real life, so that graduate students and adjunct instructors would for a change receive an advantage on this market.

From adjunct unions to other forms of direct action on the part of students, teaching staff, and university employees, we see that organizing and outreach works. If the MLA is not the professional organization we want or need, perhaps we need to invent another (or many others). MLA will continue to produce editorial content, and host, at significant expense to most conference-goers, an annual conference for those with sufficient institutional support to attend. I expect that the functions of representation and advocacy will come increasingly from other organizations: unions, advocacy groups, etc. The MLA may of course assist in the formation of these new collectives, and would I hope be invested in promoting and supporting them too. Otherwise, teachers of language and literature (at all professional levels) should start preparing for a future without the MLA.

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On MOOCs, and telescopic philanthropy

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Every reader of Charles Dickens’s Bleak House will remember the character Mrs. Jellyby, a woman whose “telescopic philanthropy” leaves her domestic life in disarray. Mrs. Jellyby is devoted to the cause of the people from a village in Africa, “Borrioboola-Gha.” With eyes that look as if they “could see nothing nearer than Africa,” Mrs. Jellyby is so preoccupied by this imaginary faraway place that she utterly neglects the world around her. 

Mrs. Jellyby has been on my mind lately in connection to a question about the measure of responsibility that institutions as well as individuals have to serve and support their local communities. The question of what institutions and individuals may owe to their surroundings resurfaced for me when the Community Development Department of Cambridge MA released its report on poverty in the city last month. The results, based on census data for the years 2009-11, are not encouraging. The report shows, among other things, high degrees of poverty among black and Latino/a residents of the city — slightly higher than the national average in both cases. Poverty in Cambridge is densely concentrated too, with a significant percentage of the city’s poor clustered in only six census tracts in the city. North Cambridge, where I live, contains almost a quarter of Cambridge’s poor (see figure). Another significant area of poverty is concentrated on the perimeters of the Kendall Square technology hub near MIT, in Area IV and East Cambridge. Cambridge is sometimes depicted as an enclave of political progressivism even within the left-leaning state of Massachusetts. But the data on poverty in the city effectively dismantles any such illusions about the “Peoples’ Republic of Cambridge,” showing the presence of deep economic and racial inequality within its borders. 

I live in a neighborhood with one of the highest concentrations of poverty in the city and am so not entirely surprised by the information revealed in the report. But the report is sobering and important for making the extent of the problem plainly visible. It seems to me impossible that residents of Cambridge could meet news of a crisis of this extent with complacency. The city council is taking the information seriously, and I hope that other communities in and around Cambridge do the same. The report points to a matter of urgent concern for the city, necessitating concerted action. 

What can Cambridge’s universities do to serve their city and local communities in the midst of a crisis of widespread poverty? What can and does the university in general do to address problems of poverty and vast income equality in its neighborhoods? In posing these questions I am reminded that universities in Massachusetts enjoy tax exemption on grounds that “citizen education [i]s an essential governmental function.” When addressing what universities specifically do to support the communities of which they are a part, university administrations often reply, as does the University of Massachusetts Treasurer’s Office on the website linked above, that institutions of higher learning serve their communities most effectively as hubs for citizen education.  

One form of educational outreach for which Harvard and MIT are now widely known, of course, is their development of online learning initiatives including MOOCs. As edX president Anant Agarwal recently affirmed, “Improving global access to high-quality education has been a key edX goal from day one.” Massively open online courses are often remarked on for their potential in facilitating global outreach (or more pessimistically, cultural colonialism) by elite institutions of higher education. A New York Times story this fall, “The Boy Genius of Ulan Bator,” gave an in-depth anecdotal account of how a Mongolian child who participated in MITx’s electrical engineering MOOCs did so well that he subsequently obtained admission to MIT. The article presented MITx and related endeavors as poised to serve as a global farm system for unrecognized talent from poor communities worldwide. But HarvardX researcher Justin Reich observed in a blog post that the “boy genius” in question had in fact enjoyed the considerable advantages of a supportive network of adult mentors around him, which prepared the ground for his academic success and recognition by MIT. The inspiring story of a Mongolian village boy whose life was changed by MOOCs, plucked from obscurity by one of the world’s leading educational institutions in science and technology, was partly fictional. 

I have been saying for a while now that I would like to see MOOCs do more to include in their outreach efforts those populations nearest to them as well as those farthest away. In a blog post last year, I proposed that MOOCs might be involved in a broader effort to strengthen local and community ties:

[I]n 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?

In thinking about how the energies and educational resources of elite institutions might be brought more fully to bear to one of the most urgent issues facing the city today, I would not be understood to seek an exclusively technological solution to complex problems; nor do I mean to suggest that such a solution exists. It’s not impossible that blended learning environments created with the purpose to engage the local community would be ultimately ineffective in addressing the problem of poverty in the city. Indeed we could find to be truth what some have already suspected, that the MOOC is a fundamentally ineffective medium, the modern equivalent of Mrs. Jellyby’s ceaseless letters on behalf of Borriobhoola-Gha. But simple one-sided philanthropy of this order will clearly not be enough. A mission of outreach and engagement with the local community would obviously require a greater investment than the bequest of iPads to students in chronically underfunded school districts, or the introduction of One Laptop Per Child in impoverished regions of the globe. I remain interested in how the digital medium, so long conceived as enabling a flight from materiality, might play a role in creating learning communities and engaging residents on the streets where we live and work. Poverty is a matter of shared concern, for which collaborative and creative thinking of local communities is urgently needed — “by any medium necessary.”

A new humanities?

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MIT has begun to promote something it calls the “New Humanities,” and to advertise the “Initiatives” associated with this field. To judge on the basis of the projects under this banner, research in the “new humanities” involves the production and use of digital tools, and/or has as its object of analysis some aspects of contemporary digital culture. The campaign is no doubt partly intended for students interested in pursuing careers in computing, of which there are of course many here, and no doubt for the parents of these students (and prospective students) as well. The specific initiatives are all of them valuable; I’m an active contributor to at least one, MIT’s Annotation Studio.

What constitutes “new humanities” work is somewhat scantly defined. There is for instance no compelling reason why the term should not refer to many exciting and innovative kinds of humanistic inquiry being carried out today, including but not limited to digital humanities and new media studies. If the “new humanities” is understood to include the humanities as it is carried out on a computer, moreover, how is this field to be distinguished from every conceivable project in the humanities today? Finally, who is the “new human” that will be served by the “new humanities”? It is true that the sensorium changes over the course of human history — Marx teaches us this; so does Walter Benjamin (both significant producers of knowledge in the humanities). Though they carry more smartphones and tablet computers today, however, students have not notably changed physical form in the years I’ve been teaching.

I go on at length about this rather trivial piece of nomenclature in order to underscore the point – so self-evident as to seem not worth mentioning, were the point not also sometimes contested – that new questions, topics and approaches arise in all sorts of humanities research, all the time. As Natalia Cecire recently pointed out in an excellent and widely-circulated blog post, the humanities are continually producing new objects and modes of knowledge. The humanities do this, Natalia observes, much to the disappointment of those who would like to see the humanities dismissed as a relic, an obsolete pursuit, a merely preservationist field. Myths of its moribundity are just that; they are myths propagated through ignorance or willful blindness to what the humanities actually do – to the work of the humanities inside and outside classroom and university walls. Through a sort of learned ignorance about the humanities, Natalia writes, some describe it as dedicated to producing “old, unchanging narratives about the usual suspects” – those usual suspects being the Great Books, the best that has been thought and said, the dead White men (with maybe a few women and persons of color thrown in). Natalia rightly notes that the truth is entirely different: “at the university level, the humanities, like every other field, is a field in the making. New knowledge is being created all the time.”

Natalia’s post is really great; she builds a better case for the timeliness and urgency of work in the humanities than I can hope to do here. In this post I will do little more than pose a question about the “new humanities,” both as an object of institutional advertising and as a condition for innovation in humanistic research: Is knowledge in the humanities progressive? Does research in the humanities develop incrementally in the way we understand the sciences to do? The question has preoccupied some humanists in the past (I’ll touch on a few of these in a moment), but seems for the most part to have fallen out of fashion. Yet an unexamined assumption that the humanities – branches of them, at least – are not progressive, that theoretical and scholarly movements lead nowhere, has nevertheless survived as an occasional topic of complaint.

Are the humanities progressive? More may still hang on this question, or on tacit answers to this question, than we have suspected.

When in 1814 William Hazlitt asked whether the arts are progressive, the answer was decisively no. The arts are absolutely different from the sciences on this ground, Hazlitt asserted, for the notion of progress “applies to science, not to art.” Hazlitt perceives plainly how the question is stacked against the arts. More than that, though, Hazlitt rejects the premise of the question as a comparison of apples to oranges. To pose the question is to misunderstand the specificity of the objects under consideration. The idea that the arts like the sciences could be progressive is “a common error, which has grown up…from transferring an analogy of one kind to something quite distinct, without thinking of the nature of the things.”

Hazlitt’s inquiry of course concerns the “fine arts” – painting, sculpture, music, poetry, etc. – and not the humanities as that field is typically understood to involve the interpretation of these objects (and more). Indeed we may be surprised to find that Hazlitt places the craft of interpretation in the progressive camp, including biblical criticism alongside chemistry, geometry, and astronomy among those fields of study that have shown progressive improvement over time. In general, though, Hazlitt imagines a impassable border between science (progressive) and the genius of the arts, and seems if anything to identify literary or art criticism with the latter. Hazlitt’s distinction seems too stark today, as does his assertion that “genius” is essentially and absolutely unquantifiable. The arts and humanities do of course regularly make use of “the advantages which time and circumstances have placed within our reach,” though Hazlitt regards these as at best incidental to the perfection of the arts.

Iris Murdoch takes up a discipline-specific version of the question of whether the humanities are progressive in the opening paragraph of her 1964 essay, “The Idea of Perfection.” Like Hazlitt, Murdoch begins by acknowledging the tone of irritation and complaint with which people frequently observe a lack of progress in philosophical work. And like Hazlitt, she concedes the point immediately.

It is sometimes said, either irritably or with a certain satisfaction, that philosophy makes no progress. It is certainly true, and I think this is an abiding and not a regrettable characteristic of the discipline, that philosophy has in a sense to keep trying to return to the beginning: a thing which is not at all easy to do. There is a two-way movement in philosophy, a movement towards the building of elaborate theories, and a move back again towards the consideration of simple and obvious facts. McTaggart says that time is unreal, Moore replies that he has just had his breakfast. Both these aspects of philosophy are necessary to it.

Whereas Hazlitt insists on a stark contrast between the timeless arts and the timeliness of the sciences, Murdoch argues that the discipline of philosophy necessarily moves in two directions at once: its movement is both progressive, generating new concepts and pointing out new directions of thought, and regressive or recursive, continually returning to its source and to the encounter with “simple and obvious facts.” These operations – McTaggart’s skepticism, Moore’s common sense – are inseparable and equally essential to the constitution of knowledge in the discipline.

That the humanities, in addition to being characterized by ceaseless innovation, also involves the recovery or rediscovery of things long known may be one of the most difficult things to explain or “defend” about it. Another way of saying this is that the humanities seems so frequently to require defense because of the complicated and seemingly contradictory course that routes to research discovery can take. Murdoch and Hazlitt both identify in the question of whether the arts and humanities are progressive an undercurrent of resentment, hostility or complacency towards these pursuits. A distinctly negative attitude surrounds things of the past; we are a people who hold our breath as we pass graveyards and cemeteries. One reason for the distaste seems clear enough: the past is a principle of drag on the present, or more precisely on the present’s imagined futurity. I remember that in Wisconsin the roads designated “rustic roads” had signs plastered all over with the slogan “a positive step backward.” The seemingly unnecessary adjective “positive” struck me as an odd, funny-in-a-vaguely-sad-way acknowledgement. The emphasis is there to forestall anticipated objections that to “step backward” is exactly the wrong thing to do.

I find these thoughts about whether the humanities are progressive have led me to ask a very different set of questions about humanities research – not concerning its timelessness exactly, but about its recursivity, its attraction to the past, to the ordinary and obvious. Engaging inquisitively and productively with the world around it, work in the humanities reaches to the past (as does my colleague Peter Donaldson’s Global Shakespeares project or the innovative project Visualizing Cultures), often bringing back with it stuff that nobody thinks of, or hardly, but which everybody somehow already knows. The humanities moves culture – it directs ideas and shapes history, is a reliably progressive endeavor – partly because it moves us to repeated contemplation of (and confrontation with) these “simple and obvious facts.” In this kind of innovative research, the “new humanities” will not be found in contradiction with an “old.”

Romanticism panels at the MLA

I am not going to the MLA convention in Chicago this year. Can’t say that I’m very broken up about the fact, either.

For those who are going to be at MLA, however, and particularly for those with an interest in British and European Romantic studies, I am forwarding (from the NASSR-L) the following note from the distinguished Romanticist Tilottama Rajan, along with a list produced by Mark Canuel of all the Romanticism panels at the convention.  “Vulnerable times” indeed:

Mark Canuel has put together a list of all the Romantics panels at the MLA, including the NASSR panels on “Romantic Systems” and “Wasting Romanticism.” Please try to attend as many panels as you can. The MLA is monitoring attendance at sessions, with a view to eliminating or merging divisions in historical areas, and generally reducing the numbers of panels in these areas. WE have already seen the beginnings of this process in the proposal to merge “Late 18thc British” with “Restoration and Early 18thc”: a proposal on which there has been a great deal of pushback. The idea of merging the Romantics and Victorians was also floated, and the Victorianists were not unhappy about it, though the Romantics Division wrote strongly against it. But we could be next on the chopping block …

ROMANTICISM PANELS AT THE MLA

A little thing

UCR Fund Recipient

So much has been written already about the recent online beef between Rebecca Schuman (@pankisseskafka), the adjunct faculty member, higher ed blogger and journalist, and the historian Claire Potter, aka “Tenured Radical” (@tenuredradical); I am not eager to add one thing more. The occasion of the Schuman-Potter dispute was the revelation on Rebecca’s blog that the English department of the University of California at Riverside would not contact those it intended to interview for its tenure-track position (in American literature before 1900) until January 3, less than a week before the MLA convention in Chicago. Schuman wrote the blog post about this news that went viral; in response, Potter wrote the blog post attempting, somewhat peremptorily, to shut down the controversy as an isolated and irrational instance of academic “rage.”

I objected then, as I do now, to the personal and somewhat condescending terms of Potter’s assessment. I understand anger at a broken system to be more than “merely” personal. In response to this flare-up, Chuck Rybak, Timothy Burke and others have issued sensible calls for solidarity between adjuncts and those on the tenure-track. As these bloggers observe, both populations of university employees are subject to the same forces at the hands of university presidents; both populations too make a small part of a much larger trend toward the casualization of employment in the U.S. and elsewhere.

The dispute between Schuman and Potter has quieted down in the meantime, though a general climate of dis-ease remains in the run-up to the MLA convention. How could it not? The deep inequities of a broken system show more dramatically these days. What faith can we bestow in a “profession” that (as quite a few perceive it) has disappeared in all but name? Why do we ask job-seekers and adjunct faculty to defend institutions that have shown them no favors? What loyalty to the preservation and maintenance of tenure can we expect from those who have been systemically excluded from participation in it?

When I created an Indiegogo campaign to help send to MLA those chosen by UCR for an interview, I wanted a way to contribute to a heated conversation then passing without participating directly in it. I created the campaign to show my support for Rebecca, a writer I greatly respect and admire even where I disagree with some of her opinions. Admittedly, I created the campaign from a sense of anger too, much less at UCR than at Potter’s attempt to rationalize and shut down criticism of its practice. (It took virtually no time to establish an account with Indiegogo and create the campaign — certainly less time than it took Tenured Radical to write a seemingly disinterested follow-up post on the importance of preserving social media etiquette.) Above all, I created the campaign in a gesture of solidarity with graduate students and adjuncts on the academic job market.

To date, 27 people have contributed more than $800 to this hastily-produced campaign. (I chose the fundraising goal more or less arbitrarily; that the campaign is not likely to reach the established goal is I think no indication of its having been a failure.) Contributions came from friends, colleagues, and strangers; from the tenured, junior faculty on the tenure track, adjunct faculty, and graduate students (some of them on the market themselves). Contributions came from academics from fields outside English, and from non-academics as well.

Some may think the gesture misplaced, or mean-spiritedly directed at UCR on account of a technical error. To the latter objection: I am not personally acquainted with anyone in the UCR English department. At the end of the day, moreover, I am glad and grateful that UCR has a tenure line open at all, and that they choose to interview for a specialist in “old” material (being a person who works on such material myself). I wish them the best of luck in their search.

That a fundraising campaign targeted to assist those interviewing at one school does not solve larger problems with the academic job market seems obvious, and somewhat beside the point. I am delighted that the contributions received will help one candidate who has stepped forward at least. But the campaign does not pretend to solve anything so much as its gesture intends, in a small way, to make visible the extent of the problem.

Many thanks are due to the contributors to this campaign — you know who you are — and to those many of you who helped me get the word out about it. I want particularly to acknowledge the assistance of Jonathan Goya (@jkgoya), Lee Skallerup (@readywriting), and the inimitable Rebecca Schuman.

A brief dispatch from Boston’s Adjunct Action Symposium

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Yesterday I attended the Adjunct Action Symposium (the symposium theme, “Higher Education in the New Economy”), held at the Boston Public Library.  This was the second such event in 2013; the first was in April, under the high ceilings of Boston’s JFK Library.  The crowd was somewhat smaller than in Spring, but still big enough at its peak to fill a large conference room in the basement of the Library.

The atmosphere at this event felt somewhat different to me from the last time. If in April the room was suffused with the exciting sense of possibility, with new connections made and plans being hatched, yesterday’s meeting was quieter and more focused. Begun in the wake of the April meeting, union organization is now well underway at several Boston-area campuses. At Tufts, adjuncts won a recent resolution to organize by a nearly 2-to-1 margin. Bentley, a four-year business college in Waltham, also recently voted on a resolution, though the outcome there was less promising:  the resolution to unionize on campus lost by 2 votes (98 for vs. 100 against).  With some 1400 adjuncts, Northeastern University was described by someone as “the jewel in the crown” of adjunct organizing in the Boston area – which probably also explains why Northeastern administration has hired the union-busting law firm Jackson Lewis to prevent a union from being formed on its campus.

One hears a litany of all-too-familiar concerns at these events: about the economic burdens of adjunct life: the exorbitant cost of living in the Boston area; the skyrocketing cost of health insurance; the challenge to keep groceries in the fridge and bills paid. The pressure of student debt is a persistent topic of concern (as it obviously is too for the vast majority of the students that adjuncts encounter in the classroom). Adjuncts want, most immediately, more pay – a livable wage. They want space on campus in which to work. They want benefits, of health insurance especially, and a budget for essential work-related expenses (such as computers and support for their maintenance and repair). They want job security: renewable contracts guaranteeing long-term or consistently longer-term employment; advance notice for teaching appointments. They wish, most broadly, for equality: a role in faculty governance; a stake in the curricular or operational decisions of the department; the respect and support of their tenured peers. 

As pressing as are the bread-and-butter issues of economic survival as an adjunct, one hears more at these events about the considerable emotional burdens of life as a contingent faculty member: the exhaustion of the “road scholar” who has to divide his or her time between two, three, or more different schools; fear and anxiety associated with the precariousness of the economic situation, of employment at will; feelings of shame, the persistent sense of not having succeeded at what is essentially a lottery, not primarily a system that rewards merit; uncertainty about how to deal with the material conditions of one’s own employment – whether (for instance) to speak frankly to the students about the contingent status of one’s employment; feelings of invisibility – to administration, to tenured faculty and to each other. “Adjuncts are spectral figures,” Doug Kierdorf, a historian at Tufts said, often disconnected from the life of the university. These are symptoms hardly unique to contingent employees of the university, of course, but they are felt as acutely by this group as by other members of a growing contingent, casualized, just-in-time labor force in America and elsewhere in the world.  

On MOOCs; and some possible futures for higher ed

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[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.

On the rate of attrition in MOOCs

On the rate of attrition in MOOCs

classroom-of-empty-chairs1

The Massively Open Online Class, or MOOC, has its high-profile journalistic celebrants,we know, Clay Shirky and Tom Friedman among them. Those more skeptical about the online learning revolution are not as well known, perhaps, but legion: professors, pundits, and higher ed journalists less unequivocally enthusiastic about the process and probable consequences of MOOCification, and whose opinions, as one might expect, run the gamut from mild skepticism to the demonstrably MOOCpocalyptic. Mostly from among this large latter camp, there has been a lot discussion in recent weeks about the attrition rate in most MOOCs that have been offered so far through the current “big three” MOOC providers: Coursera, Udacity, and edX. Commentators regularly observe that on average fewer than 10% of the students who register for a MOOC actually complete the requirements for the class. (For the most comprehensive current data on MOOC completion rates, see Katy Jordan’s website.) The disappointments (beyond a meager average 9% completion rate) have been notable too, including a completion rate of 3% at Duke University’s first MOOC with Coursera on bioelectricity, recently exhaustively anayzed by Yvonne Belanger at the Duke Center for Instructional Technology. In another recent case, a Coursera class at Georgia Tech was canceled to a severe round of criticism in the higher ed press and blogosphere. These failures have been publicized in the new year amidst the the latest round of heavily publicized rollouts of new university participants in one of the three platforms. Nor is the MOOC attrition rate confined as a topic of discussion to a few disgruntled voices in the blogosphere. In a recent editorial the New York Times acknowledged that low completion rates “appear to be a problem even in small-scale online courses when compared with traditional face-to-face classes” (“The Trouble with Online College” ). The low rate of completion has become a sticking point in contemporary debates about the present and future of MOOCs in higher education.

Different causes are offered for possible non-completion, some of the most frequently invoked of which we can enumerate here:

1) The registrant found the course too difficult.

2) The “soft” commitments of the internet may result in people enrolling without any serious intention to take the class. (At a recent presentation at MIT, Daphne Koller observed that 25% of the dropouts generally occur between registration and the first course posting – i.e., a full quarter leave of the class before the class even begins. Sue Gee reports a similar story for 6.002x Circuits and Electronics, an MITx/edX offering:

3) A simple shortage of time forces a drop out.

And other possibilities readily present themselves too as causes of attrition, including one somewhat less likely to be invoked but I think no less likely to be a cause of non-completion, which is that the course simply fails to hold the interest of student who signs up.

I am not so much interested in speculating on the causes of non-completion. Instead, I want to make a simple observation about why the completion rate for MOOCs has become a topic of great and growing concern in discussions of online learning in higher ed. It has emerged as a hot-button topic, I believe, because the completion rate for MOOCs makes particularly visible some stark differences between educators in “traditional” classrooms and the ed-tech entrepreneurs who have been the biggest boosters of MOOCs thus far. If you are in this latter group, a developer of or an investor in a tool for online learning, then the ability to reach many thousands of learners at a single time is going to seem self-evidently as the great advantage of online learning over the traditional classroom format. To an educator, however, one who thinks of their teaching primarily in terms of work with a group of students in a class, the idea of teaching a class that fewer than 5% of registrants complete will almost invariably seem like an unattractive option.

The difference between these populations may be most readily intelligible in terms of a difference between the kind of tool that these groups imagine the MOOC to be. To the ed-tech entrepreneur, the MOOC is a tool aimed to reach and appeal to the largest number of consumers. Viewed in these terms, the ability of the MOOC to reach large numbers of learners will seem as the standard by which success in MOOCs will be measured. (Members of this group do regularly point to the impressive numbers among those who do complete the requirements for a MOOC, still dwarfing the numbers possible in all but the largest lectures among the traditional forms of class instruction.) Approached as educators, however, the MOOC looks rather less like a tool for market and more like one developed specifically for use by the members of a group (the class), which begins on one date, ends on another, and is indeed the only ostensible reason for having a MOOC in the first place (as opposed to posting video lectures online). To this population, the increase by whatever factor of class size and/or of the number of students who complete the class will hardly compensate for the rather precipitous drop-off in student participation.

Among defenders of the MOOC, one frequent response to statistics on course completion is to call into question the value of completion rates as an assessment metric in the first place. While high dropout rates are problematic in traditional learning environments, the argument goes, the same phenomenon has no significant adverse effects on the digital learning environment of the MOOC. Keith Devlin, Professor of Mathematics at Stanford, and a repeat instructor of a MOOC with Coursera, puts the matter in these terms: “applying the traditional metrics of higher education to MOOCs is entirely misleading. MOOCs are a very different kind of educational package, and they need different metrics — metrics that we do not yet know how to construct.”

I take seriously Devlin’s proposition that there are metrics for assessing MOOCs that have yet to be devised, and which may provide measures for determining success more relevant than retention rates alone. Nor do I believe that it’s either productive or necessary to assume that the MOOC will simulate everything about the format of the traditional classroom, or that we should have to consider their successes on the basis of the same merits.

By the same token, however, I think there are compelling reasons to be concerned with existing rates of attrition in MOOCs, and to regard the dropout rate as a serious problem that the institutions responsible for online learning will need to address sooner or later. (One proposal for improving MOOC retention rates is by charging for these classes. The numbers of registrants would almost certainly go down in the event; beyond the obvious attractiveness of such a plan to MOOC providers and their financial backers, the argument in favor is that those who do pay to sign up will have a financial stake in completing the requirements for the class, and may therefore be more likely to do so.) Devlin asks: “is an 85 percent attrition rate really a problem? In fact, is it significantly different from traditional higher education?” The answer to the latter question is categorically yes. The class that 95% of students registered never attend, drop out, or fail in a “traditional learning environment” would be considered an abject failure in almost every scenario imaginable. Surely it is the case that if I taught a class that 95% or more of my students failed to complete, I would need to answer to those in positions of authority at my institution — and to be fair, I suspect, to many students who fell by the way as well.

To Devlin’s first question, then, of whether the MOOC attrition rate is “really a problem”: the answer will depend, as I have suggested, on whether you approach the MOOC from the perspective of an educator or of an ed-tech entrepreneur. Devlin asserts that the MOOC is in fact “a different kind of educational package” from the traditional university course, and so needs different metrics for determining success. The MOOC is indeed unlike most traditional classroom environments in that it is so far free; and 2) it has no admissions requirements, so that anyone can sign up. But as often observed, online learning is not itself a new practice; precedents include the Open University and MIT’s OpenCourseWare, among other past and present ventures.)

A columnist for Inside Higher Ed writes: “Although one interesting aspect of MOOCs is how many people drop out of them, it seems more worthwhile to focus on the hundreds who complete them and what their data teaches us about how people learn.”
But if you think of these questions — of the precipitous drop-out rate and about “how people learn” online — to be intimately connected, then you will reject the false choice presented here. Indeed it is a worrying sign that one could find thousands of course drop-outs entirely unrelated to the learning results that might be derived from those who complete the class. When Sebastian Thrun drew 150,000 registrants for his first Artificial Intelligence course, the experiment from which Udacity emerged, he did so to great acclaim and astonishment. This impressive figure is often cited, along with a similar figure for 6.002x, the first course offered through MITx. The numbers (if not rates) of those who complete requirements for a MOOC are often cited too. No doubt these are exciting and powerful developments, which may well in time revolutionize learning and teaching in higher ed. Between the tens of thousands who sign up for a MOOC and the considerable but nevertheless much smaller number that complete with a course certificate, however, one could probably find thousands of untold stories; this vast and so far mostly silent population may yet have a great deal to teach us about what works and doesn’t in online learning. We should know more than we do at present about the populations that do not complete MOOCs as well as about those who do.

There is much interesting data to be gathered (including and probably beyond that which is being gathered already) about MOOCs and on effective modes of online learning more generally. And there are important questions, well beyond the scope of my inquiry here, to be asked about what ultimately motivates people to stay in a MOOC, and what can be done to improve the rate of completion. In the meantime, pretending that the attrition rate does not present a problem at all for the future of online learning hardly seems an acceptable or a creditable position. It is for instance not clear to me why, if it is possible (even only in rarest situations) to see MOOCs with completion rates of around 20%, one would remain satisfied with completion rates of only 6 or 7%. But one reason why a chronically low completion rate may remain untroubling for ed-tech entrepreneurs and other MOOC boosters is that the “classroom” function of the MOOC has been superseded altogether. What emerges in its place is a system that rewards the individual achievement of high scorers while excluding from consideration the individual needs of learners or of specific learning communities that make up a class.

It seems to me that there are obvious dangers to pretending that teaching a MOOC is not at all like leading a class — for if it is not, what is it exactly that we are doing? MOOC supporters point to genuinely impressive statistics about global participation in online education thus far, and claim on this basis that online education stands to educate and elevate not an elite few but the entire world, regardless of country of residence or socioeconomic background, in a shared learning endeavor. But if MOOC providers do not attend seriously to problems of attrition, then they also have to abandon these high-flown and so far untested claims. If the corporations and institutions that claim for themselves the capacity to revolutionize higher education cannot be bothered to care about how and how many people are reached by their revolution, then what we are witnessing is not a learning revolution at all, but a commercial one.

March 2013

References / links

Katy Jordan, MOOC Completion Rates – the Data
*My thanks to Maryam Yoon for responding to an initial query and referring me to Katy Jordan’s website.

The highest posted completion rate among MOOCs offered by the current big three providers (19.2%), a two-month class on the programming language Scala, conducted at the Ecole Polytechnique fFédérale de Lausanne, with Coursera

Review of Duke University’s first MOOC, Bioelectricity:

Scott Jaschik, “MOOC Mess” (on the canceled MOOC at GA Tech)

Sue Gee, “MITx – the Fallout Rate”

Keith Devlin, “MOOCs and the Myth of Dropout Rate and Certification”

Dayna Catropa,“Big (MOOC) Data”

New York Times “The Trouble with Online College”

“MOOCs and the Emerging Digital Classroom,” Audio recording of MIT Communications Forum for March 21, 2013, with presentations by Daphne Koller, Anant Agarwal, and Alison Byerly; moderated by David Thorburn.

MOOCspace and meatspace (at MIT and beyond)

I was fortunate to attend this past semester a presentation at MIT by Tomás Seraceno, the Argentinian-born artist, in residence on campus as the inaugural Visiting Artist at MIT’s new Center for Art, Science & Technology.  Trained as an architect, Seraceno works largely though not exclusively in forms that defy traditional architectonic logics of mass and order.  A good example of Seraceno’s innovative approach to architectural form is his installation Cloud City, which appeared for a time on the roof of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 2012:

   

Where architectural forms have traditionally suggested mass and durability — “the gilded monuments / Of Princes”, “the work of masonry” — Seraceno’s forms are relatively immaterial, light, multi-dimensional, and ephemeral.  His is the architecture of the spider, his métier the creation of forms that are at once there and not there – or such as we cannot say that they are not there.  As Leonard Cohen sings of democracy in the song,  “It ain’t exactly real; or it’s real but it ain’t exactly there.”

Seraceno’s art does not assert the immateriality of material spaces or the materiality of the immaterial so much as it explores and traverses the tenuous borders between these.  His work inhabits spaces where distinctions between material and immaterial cease to exist, and where it ceases to matter greatly whether such distinctions exist or no.

Perhaps it is inevitable to think about these ephemeral entities and imaginary spaces brought into provisional reality on this closing day of 2012, a year which — if in America it is remembered for more than Hurricane Sandy and a litany of senseless gun violence — may well be remembered as The Year of the MOOC.  For if there is anything in higher ed today of which it could be said (as Leonard Cohen says of democracy) that “it’s real but it ain’t exactly there,” the MOOC is surely it.  2012 has seen an terrific amount of attention given to online education, disproportionate beyond all measure to its real impact thus far.  Not surprisingly, the advent of the MOOC and its meteoric rise has been accompanied by considerable hype and hand-wringing.  (For the hype, see for example Clay Shirky’s blog post of November 2012; for the hand-wringing, see for instance this piece in The Guardian, which forecasts a dire future in which MOOCs destroy humanities higher education.)

In an excellent essay casting a skeptical eye on the role that edX and online learning more generally have to play in humanities education, my colleague Ruth Perry wondered whether MOOCs represent for humanists “a solution for which we are asked to develop a problem.” If the “problem” is taken to be the higher and higher cost of higher ed (along with mounting levels of student loan debt), some do see MOOCs as a solution, though I doubt that many who are or have been affiliated with universities will much relish the idea of getting rid of residential education altogether, or of confining it to a privileged few.  I recognize the legitimacy of concerns that MOOCs will offer informational content delivery-as-usual in a diminished, impersonal form; the fear, not baseless, that MOOC will become a commodity sold for profit by Coursera, Udacity, edX, and other providers no doubt still to emerge, to those who can’t afford a residential education; that the instrument of the MOOC will be employed to further reduce the (small, and shrinking) number of full-time faculty members on the tenure track.  These and other fears place (in my mind, at least) a severe curb on any utopianism and sense of unbounded possibility latent in the format.  

But those who proclaim a MOOCpocalypse, like those who envision a MOOCtopia, have it wrong, I think, insofar as the format has not proven itself to be much of anything as yet.  With so many colleges and universities now jumping on the bandwagon, with many more to come, we can forget perhaps that the MOOC is a thing still largely imagined and imaginary.  Excepting a few experimental trials, the utility of the MOOC has yet to be established.  We can speculate on the perils and possibilities of the format, but neither of these are yet adequately known.  The skepticism and even cynicism that some have shown towards online education is surely directed towards its assumed business models, but also I think represents a form of aggression against that which is as yet unproven and unknown in the format.  

I don’t intend to defend the MOOC so much as I wish to hold open some alternative futures for it.  Some have been asking why universities are currently investing so much time, energy, and (yes) massive amounts of capital into thinking these imaginary or semi-imaginary spaces.  Quite apart from the potential for monetizing MOOCS, the answer seems to me obvious.  For the imagination, as Percy Shelley observed long ago, is an effective instrument for feeling out and bringing into provisional reality “the before unapprehended relations of things” (SPP 512); it opens out onto spaces and things not previously existing, or to things that only exist at the farthest reaches of intelligibility.  For better or for worse, the MOOC is largely that imaginary thing in the higher ed right now, and is attractive to me chiefly on this account.  

There is a sham version of MOOC potentiality, and a true one.  Clay Shirky describes the disruptive innovation of the MOOC, like that of the MP3 format before it, as “a new story rearranging people’s sense of the possible.”  As Aaron Bady rightly observes in his cogent response to Shirky’s essay, however, Shirky has already imagined the future direction of this “possible.” For Shirky, the MOOC will disrupt the ordinary way of doing things in the academy; spread education to the many, releasing it from the hands of the privileged few; will eventually revolutionize if not altogether replace residential education.  In place of Shirky’s ethos of disruption as a predetermined, self-fulfilling end in itself, I would think instead about the MOOC as a technology whose potential consists precisely in its open-endedness and capacity to mark what Shelley calls “the before unapprehended relations of things.”  Sean Michael Morris and Jesse Stommel are I think exactly right to describe the MOOC as a technology for enabling sites of “learning without being told when and where it’s going to happen” — or even, as the authors add, without knowing in advance what learning is, or in what learning may consist.

This, then, is the sense in which I believe in MOOCs — a sense limited, fugitive, and fraught, perhaps, though undeniably real — :  as an instrument for the production of strange and beautiful spaces of learning and encounter in higher ed:

Consider Saraceno’s exhibit sketches for the installation On Space Time Foam (2012), currently on exhibition in Milan.  On Space Time Foam is a transparent, floating structure comprised of three levels across and between which participants (not “spectators”) can move — walk, or rather crawl — , fall, get lost, sink and rise, in concert with others.  The movement of one person within the work of art will affect the movement and relative position of others; another person’s movement within the installation will affect your movement, and even change the nature of the space around you:

     

The curators of this exhibition describe Seraceno’s work of art as “an experiment that nevertheless requires the willingness to interact, individual and collective sense of responsibility and special behavioral conditions.” I want to see a MOOC capable of executing a similar experiment with similar demands on the learning communities that it reaches.  There is a worry, understandably enough, about impersonality in the delivery of online education.  When Al Filreis (English, U Pennsylvania) visited MIT this semester to talk about his experience teaching the Coursera MOOC “Modern & Contemporary American Poetry,” he posed a vital question:  how to generate intimacy in an online format that is famous (infamous) for its impersonality?  The course that Filreis taught set to meet this challenge by modeling in the video clips produced for the class a small interpretive community (of 8 people around a seminar table;  the clips themselves were recorded in one take, with no editing.)  This modeling of spontaneous, intelligent discussion by a living community may have had its desired effect, at least among a number of the 36,000 people who took ModPo, some of whom reportedly met in person on a regular basis to discuss the class and the readings in progress.  

I applaud these initiatives in creating humane spaces for humanistic learning online, and wish if anything to see them go further.  There is to my mind no good reason why the MOOC should not, in coordinating a networked, multi-modal, online space, also foster relations of mutual dependency and mutual responsibility as well as of mutual learning.  Some months ago I tweeted the half-serious proposal of a MOOC on “The Theory and Practice of the Wretch” — a course that would have among its course objectives King Lear’s counsel to “Expose thyself to feel as wretches feel” (III.4.33). Though offered half in jest, the idea captures fairly enough my hopes for how the polymorphous space of the MOOC could foster a sense of mutuality, empathy, and care among those who know each other as well as among those who don’t.  I have since learned about a new edX MOOC for Spring 2013, taught by MIT economists Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee, on “The Challenges of Global Poverty.” Among the questions to be posed by the class is the following:  “What is economic life like when living under a dollar per day?”  Perhaps some of the empathic, imaginative work I envision and wish to see created for a humanities MOOC will be done here.  In any event, it is the first MOOC I registered for; I am excited to learn and to experience more.  

Imagine, then, an online education that roves promiscuously between MOOCspace and meatspace; fosters engagement beyond the keyboard and monitor to facilitate various kinds of “real world” encounter; makes possible new forms of involvement with one’s own local community, as well as with tens of thousands of learners worldwide.  

A MOOC to believe in — whether it presently exists or not.  

 

All images from Tomás Seraceno’s website.