On MOOCs, and telescopic philanthropy


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.”


Literary theory class this term

I’m excited to be teaching for the first time 21L.451 Literary Theory, on accounts of feeling and “the feelings” in aesthetics and affect theory (I put a very rudimentary course website here). I knew I wanted to cover a lot of ground, and to break somewhat from the theory survey format. The title of the class, “Feeling in Theory,” is brazenly ripped off from Rei Terada’s great book of that title (which I regret is not on the syllabus itself; I may try to correct that oversight in weeks ahead).

I will ask students (one per class session) to bring to class a cultural object in any medium suggested by the day’s assigned reading — something that can be usefully discussed in relation to the reading, in support of the argument or not. Cultural objects that have been brought into the class discussion are indicated below in brackets. Let’s see how it goes!

M 2/10 Plato, selected dialogues [Joseph Kosuth, One and Three Chairs (1965); Red Bull commercial]

W 2/12 Longinus, On the Sublime [a clip from Transformers 2, illustrating how the artist may be “carried away, as though by drunkenness, into outbursts of emotion which are not relevant to the matter at hand” (103)]

T 2/18 Edmund Burke on the sublime and beautiful [the aural sublime: Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring]

W 2/19 Immanuel Kant, from Critique of Judgment [no cultural object today, as I wisely deemed the hour would be better spent staring at the text in a state of desperate stupefaction]

M 2/24 William Wordsworth, Preface to Lyrical Ballads [scenes of everyday life and labor in 19th-century paintings by Gustave Courbet, Winslow Homer and others]

W 2/26 Karl Marx, from Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844; Theses on Feuerbach [“Of the butchers and floorsmen, the beef-boners and trimmers, and all those who used knives, you could scarcely find a person who had the use of his thumb” — excerpts from The Jungle by Upton Sinclair]

M 3/3 Sigmund Freud, from The Interpretation of Dreams [E.A. Poe, “A Dream within a Dream”; e.e. cummings, “You are tired”]

W 3/5 T.S. Eliot, “The Metaphysical Poets”; W.K. Wimsatt, “The Affective Fallacy”

M 3/10 Walter Benjamin, “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire” [Chaplin as the Tramp in Modern Times; Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation]

W 3/12 Benjamin “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility”

M 3/17 Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception”

W 3/19 Roland Barthes, from The Pleasure of the Text; Susan Sontag, “Against Interpretation” [“What you see is what you see.” –Frank Stella]

M 3/31 Stanley Cavell, “Aesthetic Problems in Modern Philosophy”

W 4/2 Cavell, from The Senses of Walden

M 4/7 Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” [Your gaze hits the side of my face]; Michel Foucault, from Discipline and Punish [in the U.S., ongoing debates about “the humane way” of putting individuals to death]

W 4/9 Foucault, from The Use of Pleasure (The History of Sexuality, vol. 2) [the sins of the flesh; the pleasures and temptations of the flesh]

M 4/14 Deleuze, “Percept, Affect, and Concept,” in What is Philosophy?

W 4/23 Jacques Rancière, “Aesthetics as Politics”

M 4/28 Leo Bersani “Is the Rectum a Grave?”

W 4/30 Eve Sedgwick, “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading”

M 5/5 Lauren Berlant, “Affect in the Present” “Cruel Optimism” [Robert D. Putnam, “Crumbling American Dreams,” The New York Times, 3 August 2013]

W 5/7 Berlant, “Intuitionists: History and the Affective Event” [from Hermann Hesse’s Demian: “How strange that the stream of the world was not to bypass us any more…”]

M 5/12 Sianne Ngai, “Stuplimity”

W 5/14 Ngai, “The Cuteness of the Avant-Garde” [cute politics; “Giga Pudding”]

On MOOCs; and some possible futures for higher ed


[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


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.