A cat naps on pavement, precariously tucked under a tire.
15
May
2014

The MOOC Problem

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Written by
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Reviewed by Sean Michael Morris and Alex Fink
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Be Careful…” by Thomas Leuthard; CC BY 2.0

The purpose of education is in large part linked to its standing as a social science. Philosophers dating back to Socrates have linked education to a purpose beyond the individual, one where accrual of facts and training in skills is not the outcome or objective for the individual nor society; rather, a deeper relationship with thought and reason is necessary for the development of each person and in turn their community. This is at the heart of much great philosophy:  luminaries such as Locke, Milton, Rousseau, Hume and others saw education as a continuation of society through means greater than memory recall and skilled competencies. The education discipline is built upon this theory and is at the heart of its mission: through pedagogy and methodology education can foster the growth of our culture through each person.

This is not the methodology from which most outside interests view education. Rather than endeavoring to improve the practice, their stated goal is to solve education, noting that education is in crisis and its survival requires tautological changes to the status quo. This is the rallying cry most recently seen around the movement of massive open online courses (MOOCs), where a cavalcade of venture capitalists, politicians, computer scientists and media pundits have chosen to define education through analytics and instrumentation, the MOOC representing an opportunity to democratize education on a global level while at the same time undercutting the cost behemoth of a contemporary higher education. This argument reads like a win-win, but in reality the MOOC as a learning system has underperformed traditional models and shows no large-scale cost benefit to education providers. At this point, the MOOC as an instrument is a failure.  However, the MOOC as a landscape-altering educational phenomenon is a fascinating success, in large part due to shifting the definition of education away from its historical roots to a skills-based, instrumentally-defined exercise.

The MOOC in popular discussion is a learning model drowned in tropes and hyperbole where words ignore their historical meanings and commentary is only designed for short-term efficacy. Sebastian Thrun heralded the arrival of MOOC 2.0 in January of 2013, a little over a year after his catalytic MOOC, CS 271. Three months later a slightly modified version of his thoughts once again identified the phenomenon at a stage of MOOC 2.0. Cathy Sandeen of the American Council of Education, the accreditation committee charged with determining whether a handful of MOOCs could be offered for course credit, noted in July 2013 that we had reached MOOC 3.0, a space where hype was replaced with nuanced promise. According to a March 2014 broadcast of American Public Media’s radio show Marketplace, however, we only recently reached MOOC 2.0, and the nuanced promise Sandeen referenced in July is replaced with the worn hyperbole of democratization and disruption. And Marketplace is not the only media outlet to recently reference MOOC 2.0; the term has been dropped in recent months by NPR, CNBC affiliate MoneyControl.com, and MindShift.

These narratives share the same plot points: MOOCs exploded onto the scene with praise and promise, experienced growing pains through design and criticism, but now a change to the narrative signifies the rise of the model and a continuation of promises and platitudes. This dominant narrative is why the MOOC, a learning model whose empirical effect on learning has been negligible at best, remains one of the most significant happenings in recent higher education: it is an expansive sociocultural phenomenon indicative of the trials and tribulations facing higher education in our national and global society.

Viewing the MOOC not as a learning instrument but rather a sociocultural phenomenon should be clear to education scholars and practitioners, as well as individuals versed in educational psychology and anyone who recognizes the longstanding social and cultural relationships inherent in the development of the education institution. So why have educators fully adopted the language of instrumentation? The 2.0 metaphor is not beholden to entrepreneurs and media outlets; it has also been applied in mainstream use by the Association for Computing Machinery, Educators Technology, and Middlesex Community College Director of Professional & Instructional Development Peter Shea. This is a reappropriation of the 2.0 motif; because MOOC platforms remain largely LMS-protected content hubs, this movement is a far cry from the social media revolution 2.0 visionaries such as Leonard Waks advocated for. Adopting this and other language of MOOC developers and commercial advocates implies that educational technology can solve the education crisis through a series of patches and updates.

One of these patches, according to the ACM article, is the opportunity for guidance or expert assistance in the learning journey. By engaging in the language of instrumentation, educators are tacitly endorsing this narrative, a narrative where the patch provided by MOOC developers is to practice one of the most foundational and fundamental elements of education: the novice-expert relationship. The MOOC visionaries’ great update to the solutionism learning model is to present the most basic of learning theory as a novel discovery.  It does not stop with solutionism; remaining focused on technological instruments has allowed the education discussion to be framed by revisionist education history (education has not changed in over 1,000 years), theory (memory recall is the key to learning), and society. These novel discoveries are supported every time educators adopt sales and marketing language to describe education.

In and of itself, the manner in which educators endorse the rhetoric of entrepreneurs and politicians is not enough to question the future of education as a social science. But as educators accept and freely engage with terms such as freemium, disruptive and personalization in shaping the future of higher education, they have failed to present the cultural and societal arguments and terminology for education, those established in America by Thomas Jefferson and borne of Enlightenment philosophers like John Locke and David Hume. It was Jefferson, who long advocated for education to occur blind to class distinction, who said “I look to the diffusion of light and education as the resource to be relied on for ameliorating the condition, promoting the virtue, and advancing the happiness of man.”

Such a vision of education spurred the likes of John Dewey to view learning as environmental and civic, forging what many consider the Golden Age of education in America.  Today, these elements of the institution are lost in its discourse and practice, and the Golden Age is presented as an historical outlier rather than a societal standard, creating an environment where communal bonds are broken in order that the university can better tap non-local funding sources. If we continue to shape the future of education through the parlance of hyperbole the result will not be reasoned discussion but further celebration of the erosion of a broken system. The result is not only a lost opportunity to authentically engage with and criticize the obstacles facing MOOCs and education in general, but a concession of education from its historical place as a societal structure to a libertarian private good.

I recently finished a doctoral dissertation on expert attitudes toward Massive Open Online Courses; my methodology was a Delphi study where 20 well-known and respected MOOC voices discussed issues and obstacles identified in the MOOC phenomenon, the conversation occurring through a confidential & controlled feedback loop. Some of the questions were instrumental, others structural (in terms of institutions), others pedagogical, and others yet social or political. While experts were willing to engage how the MOOC affected education, pedagogy and economics, experts were reticent to discuss the MOOC in sociocultural or even political terms. Panelists largely avoided a number of non-instrumental or paradigmatic topics: the role of elite schools in spearheading a movement identifying itself as open, the role of the MOOC as a potential bypass of education-as-civic for education-as-individual-transaction, and the meaning of the MOOC in redefining personal from a psychological perspective and replacing with personal in machine learning parlance. Many found these questions too complex and believed they were inappropriate for the study, despite all questions and talking points being pulled directly from existing MOOC literature (and paraphrased only to protect identities). Those who did engage these topics were split: a few wrestled with the facets of the debate topic, while others returned to the idea of MOOC-as-instrumental.

One panelist, in regards to a question about the MOOC as a potential arm of elite schools to produce global intellectual authority, said, “Anyone can engage and create their own MOOCs. Imperialism is a lazy argument.” While this statement of creation is factually accurate, the answer negates the civic and cultural idea of education as a web of power and social structures. When Clay Shirky talks about MOOCs, he wonders about the future of non-elite schools and not the future of Stanford. When Thomas Friedman discusses MOOCs or online learning, he heralds professors at Yale rather than those at regional universities or community colleges, spaces where online education has a much larger footprint and history. When California Governor Jerry Brown sought out an online solution for the budget problems at universities in the California State University system, he contacted Udacity’s Sebastian Thrun, who has spoken fondly of his lack of pedagogical understanding, rather than someone like Lumen Learning’s David Wiley, who has a dedicated and decorated career in open education resources and online learning. These statements come at a time when elite schools are enjoying record numbers of applications and record low admissions percentages. The force of education disruption in America is happening through the oldest and most entrenched institutions in the field. Imperialism is not a lazy argument; perhaps if the subject were argued it would be proven incorrect, but the only laziness in the situation comes from educators who dismiss the consideration.

The dominant narrative of the MOOC phenomenon will continue to revolve around elite schools disrupting the institution of education while democratizing education on a global level. The limited oppositional MOOC rhetoric is largely based on prior writings and articles which do challenge the solutionism narrative, a reaction to the dominant narrative rather than an authentic and progressive alternative. Thus, while the mission of the MOOC movement is full of contradiction and fallacy, it continues unobstructed because educators largely accept the parameters of debate rather than challenge them. We have succeeded in asking questions of educational efficacy on a credential level…these are important questions, and so far MOOCs have been unable to adequately answer except to say, It’s still early. But if credentialing remains the only question we offer, the MOOC’s failure to adequately answer will not result in the defeat of the MOOC and a return to the ordinary world, but a landscape change where disruption is necessary to solve the education crisis, a landscape where we the privileged people must further endeavor to provide quality education to the world, and a landscape where the purpose of this whole education mess really comes down to getting a job.

If we as educators want to be a part of the higher education discussion around topics such as MOOCs, we must not only combat assertions from zealous new stakeholders but define our own terms and contentions clearly and concisely, most notably the purpose of a higher education. MOOCs have been sold not only as an agent to democratize education, but also as a necessity because the real crisis is about employment and not learning. In the face of economic struggles and a growing voice for competencies to replace classrooms, a unified voice on the purpose and importance of higher education is the first step in gaining a foothold in the discussion of the future of higher education, providing the voice that history has forged but mechanical instruments have forgotten.

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8 Responses

  1. Hey Rolin, I’d be interested to know your views beyond the MOOC hyperbole discourse, versus the nuances that can occur in individual MOOCs. The media discourse tends to gloss over details and ideology… But the actual realities of the MOOC phenomenon is composed also of individual MOOCs, some (many?) of which do not conform to that hype. I think the reality of MOOCs is completely different for learners and instructors than any of that discourse suggests… What do you think? I’ll be checking out your blog, too 🙂

  2. Hi Maha,

    I write this without yet having read your article in JOLT, but I agree with your statement while being somewhat hesitant. Certainly there are great MOOCs, both within and outside of the dominant providers. But the reality of MOOC outside of an EdTech or Distance/Online Learning background is highly defined by the media, VC, computer science and public policy. MOOC was a term for 3.5 years before Tamar Lewin put it in the NYTimes, associating it to Sebastian Thrun while drawing a line back to George Siemens. The term exploded and became part of a narrative of solutionism and AI to solve education that adopted a catchy acronym while ignoring the history of MOOC and what it represented (Jim Groom arguing that MOOC via CCK08 et al is the first time online learning has escaped the traditional classroom paradigm). Stephen Downes was on Twitter yesterday saying he was not going to let the term go without a fight, but it was lost years ago…and my article here makes the claim that educators are largely to blame in this regard (my MOOC blog and my dissertation go into greater detail on that). I think every person has a unique reality in a MOOC, and those within the existing EdTech/EduPunk culture have a very different experience than the average MOOC user. And there isn’t an average MOOC user. But the vast majority of MOOC users are influenced by Clay Shirky, Thomas Friedman and Jerry Brown, and not by Dave Cormier, George Siemens or Stephen Downes. And that is a shame.

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