A Talk at the American Federation of Teachers Meeting | March 2013

This is the script and the slideshow for a presentation I gave at the American Federation of Teachers higher education meeting on March 9, 2013 in San Diego.  

--Steven D. Krause | Professor, Department of English Language and Literature | Eastern Michigan University | Ypsilanti, Michigan
stevendkrause.com | skrause@emich.edu

I thought I’d start by telling you a bit more about myself and why I think I’m here. 

I’m a professor in the Department of English Language and Literature at Eastern Michigan University, which is about 10 miles away from the University of Michigan. We’re an opportunity-granting institution that attracts a wide variety of different types of students mostly from southeast Michigan.  Our faculty union at EMU is associated with the American Association of University Professors, and I think it’s fair to say that the union structure at EMU has been fundamental in setting the rules for work there.  So while I’m far from an expert in academic labor issues, I do have first hand faculty union experience.

My scholarly interests are in rhetoric and writing generally and computers and writing more specifically, and I teach everything from “freshmen comp” to graduate courses about the teaching of writing and the rhetoric of technology. I’ve taught many of these courses online, though only in small classes limited to 20 or 15 and only advanced classes.  I also have been blogging for about 10 years at stevendkrause.com about all sorts of professional and personal things, but for the past year or so, I’ve been mostly been blogging about MOOCs, both my own musings as a scholar but also my experiences as a student in MOOCs and as a professor who tried to use a MOOC in an online class I’m teaching right now.  All of this blogging and MOOCing has lead to my participation in a webinar about MOOCs sponsored by Michigan State, a conference talk next week at the Association of Teachers of Technical Writing, an article coming out in one of the main journals in my field, and this workshop. Evidentially, I’ve become a bit of a MOOC scholar and expert without really intending to do down that path.

I want to start off with two important quotes to help frame my presentation and our discussion. 

The first comes from William Rainey Harper, who helped to organize and then was the first president of the University of Chicago. He was also an early innovator in distance education.  The major teaching technology of Harper’s day was the postal service and Harper predicted in the late nineteenth century that it would turn higher education on its head. Quoting from the 2001 Mother Jones article “Digital Diploma Mills,” Harper said “the day is coming when the work done by correspondence will be greater in amount than that done in the classrooms of our academies and colleges.”

The second comes from what is clearly the best of the “Star Wars” movies, The Empire Strikes Back.  As Yoda reminds the young Luke Skywalker who is about to leave his Jedi training to rescue his friends in Cloud City, “Difficult to see. Always in motion is the future.” 

So as we get into this discussion about MOOCs-- their promises and perils, how they will or won’t change teaching, and so forth-- keep three things in mind.

Number one, we’ve been here before-- that is, MOOCs are not the first to offer distance education to the masses.  Two, it is far too early to predict where we are going with MOOCs or frankly even what MOOCs are or will ultimately be, especially in relation to higher education as we understand it as educators. But three, we need to pay attention and to stay involved in the conversation.

With that in mind, let me tell you how I’m planning to progress this afternoon. I’ll talk for about 45 or so minutes and I’ll start by briefly defining MOOCs and then I’ll take you down a tangent on what education means to me-- hopefully the reasons for that will make sense by the time I’m done talking. Then I’ll describe and “show and tell” about my experiences in the MOOCs “Listening to World Music” and with “E-Learning and Digital Cultures”.  And then I’ll wrap up and offer some predictions to seed our conversation about MOOCs as a “Fad” or the “Future”.


If you are attending this session, you probably have some familiarity with “MOOCs,” but let me run through the basics.  MOOC stands for “Massive Online Open Course.” “Massive” means courses with thousands of students, though the dropout rate is so high that the number of students you see reported for courses is almost meaningless.  “Online” means just that, generally through a learning management system.  “Open” means that anyone anywhere with a reliable Internet connection can participate in the course and for free-- at least that’s the current model. And perhaps the most slippery term is “Course.” That’s probably a metaphor more than anything else because MOOCs aren’t quite “courses” as we usually think of them, but rather, they are more like experiences around a common topic or them that present an opportunity to learn something.

The first MOOCs have their roots in the open access education and “edupunk” movements and the term was coined 2008 in Canada during a class where a couple thousand students taking an online class along with a group of paying students.  Then in 2011, Peter Norvig taught a MOOC (I believe for Stanford) that had well over 100,000 students, and that success paved the way for Coursera (and, to a lesser extent, a few other large MOOC providers like Udacity).

To distinguish between these different approaches to MOOCs, George Siemens (who was one of the organizers who coined the term MOOC) have used “cMOOCs” versus “xMOOCs.” This is how Siemens described it on his blog:  “Our MOOC model [the cMOOC] emphasizes creation, creativity, autonomy, and social networked learning. The Coursera model emphasizes a more traditional learning approach through video presentations and short quizzes and testing. Put another way, cMOOCs focus on knowledge creation and generation whereas xMOOCs focus on knowledge duplication. I’ve spoken with learners from different parts of the world who find xMOOCs extremely beneficial as they don’t have access to learning materials of that quality at their institutions. xMOOCs scale, they have prestigious universities supporting them, and they are well-funded. It is quite possible that they will address the “drill and grill” instructional methods that is receiving some criticism.”

I don’t agree with Siemens claim that xMOOCs scale, but the differences between these kinds of MOOCs deserve some attention:  cMOOCs are experiments in community-building in an open-access and not for profit educational environment, while xMOOCs re-inscribe traditional notions of higher education delivered online by corporations and for profit. It’s more complicated than that of course, but I think this sums up the source of the fear and the enthusiasm for MOOCs.  

Before I talk about my own experiences as a MOOC student,  I want to talk briefly about what I think education means. I see words like “education” and “educational” and “learning” and the like tossed around as if they were synonymous and as if what we mean by terms was just obvious.  I don’t know if my colleagues from schools and departments of Education will agree with what I’m about to say here, but this is what “Education means to me.” 

I think there are three basic necessary ingredients for education:  first, there’s Learning, or more accurately, the opportunity to learn.  Universities are pretty good at that, but so are lots of other things– wikipedia, the public library, the food network, a good book, life, etc.  Learning opportunities are readily available everywhere.  All it takes is some kind of desire on the part of a learner-- what we would typically call a student-- and some kind of content.

Second, there’s teaching, which is when a professor (or instructor or adjunct or grad student or parent or whoever) who knows a lot about the content being learned guides students.  Teachers aren’t essential for learning-- we have all taught ourselves to do something-- and there’s nothing I teach that students can’t hypothetically learn on their own.  But the advantage students get from teachers (and for that matter other students) is expertise, interactions with other learners, systematic efficiency (because teaching steers learning in a way that is less likely to be counter-productive), positive (and negative) feedback, and so forth.  Note that teaching is not content: that is, a web site or a textbook is not the same thing as a teacher.

Third, there’s credentialing, which is an evaluation that is recognized by others as having merit.  Practically speaking, this means a “seal of approval” (that is, grades) given by teachers for these discreet learning units we call “courses,” which are systematically taken (a “major” which leads to a “degree”) and which are also validated by institutions (say EMU) which are in turn validated by both official evaluators (say the North Central Association) and unofficial but certainly more powerful evaluators (various “top university” rankings like US News, what employers say, word of mouth, etc., etc.).

I’ll come back to this after I describe my MOOC experience, but two things for now: first, “learning opportunities” are great and can have an inherent value, but it’s not the same as Education. Second, the credentialing that we do as part of the Educational process is critical.  Students come to school because they want learning opportunities and teaching of course, but if there wasn’t a credential that had value outside of school, students wouldn’t show up and they certainly wouldn’t pay for it.

Now, on to the details of my MOOC studies.

Like almost everyone else who has checked out the Coursera web site, I too am a MOOC drop-out, but I did complete two Coursera MOOCs in the last year, Listening to World Music and E-Learning and Digital Culture. I signed up for Listening to World Music last July not so much because I was interested in the content (though I do like “World Music”) but because by this point, I had been reading all the hype and fear and loathing about MOOCs but I hadn’t read anything about someone describing what MOOCs are like based on actual experience.  So more or less in an experiment in “auto-ethnography,” I signed up with the intention of both finishing the MOOC and succeeding as a student and also to write about it on my blog and to study it as a scholar interested in online pedagogy.

(During my presentation, I showed some screen captures from the Coursera course "Listening to World Music" at this point. Since this is online, I'm linking here to the content on the web. You'll have to sign up for the course to see what I'm talking about, but that's free and easy).

Let me give you a basic tour of the site in the form of a couple of screen capture movies.  This is what you see when you log in to the site now and what it looked like then-- and by the way, all of these sites are still available on Coursera’s web site.   


As you can see here there’s a “Course Syllabus” outlining requirements like a regular gen ed, lecture class.  The schedule and selected topics were intriguing to me– a week on Paul Simon’s Graceland, one on throat singing,  and so forth. The layout of the site is also similar to the sort of thing you would see in any other learning management system, with the navigation to the left, etc. 

The delivery for the course was straight-up lecture, as you can see here.


Every week had several lectures ranging from about 8 minutes to about 20 minutes, all with the professor for the course, Carol Muller from the University of Pennsylvania, delivering her talks while her slides played on a green screen in the background.  That’s it.


There were discussion forums for the class, but these didn’t count as part of the grade and the thousands of posts made anything resembling a conversation about the material impossible. I think you get a taste for it as the movie scrolls through these.  I tried to keep up with a few threads during the course, but that was about it.

Mueller’s lectures were all recorded well in advance of the course.  In fact, while she occasionally would post in the discussion forums and while there were a few graduate assistants who were more actively engaged in the class as it was happening, there was no “present” teaching.  And the freeze-dried lectures weren’t exactly always engaging either. I don’t want to be too hard on Professor Muller because I think she knows her stuff as a scholar and I am sure in a face to face setting, she is a great teacher.  But the simplicity and the terrible production values of her video lectures were at times so bad as to be laughable. Here’s an example of what I mean.

https://class.coursera.org/worldmusic-2012-001/lecture/27 (I showed the first 20 or so seconds of this lecture on Tuvan throat singing).

Coursera is a multimillion dollar startup that is supposed to fundamentally “revolutionize” higher education, and what we have here is a “sage on the stage” and completely non-interactive lecture that has the production values of a small midwestern town’s public access television station and Muller didn’t even bother to rehearse how to deliver her lecture with a green screen background.  And note that when it comes to the content for the course, Muller points her audience to YouTube: that is, none of the musical content for this “World Music” class was actually within the class site.  This, this is going to (as Thomas Friedman put it in one of his many ill-informed columns on MOOCs) “blow away 99% of classes available at traditional colleges?” Really?

The assessment for “Listening to World Music” replicated what probably happens in the University of Pennsylvania lecture hall version of the class:  there were quizzes, a final, and the element I was most interested in as a writing teacher, short essay responses every week.  These assignments were peer graded using a common grading rubric. 

Here’s a part of that rubric-- three of the five areas for evaluation-- and from my point of view, there are two significant problems here. First, all five questions are scored as either 0, 1, or 2.  But zero generally means “nothing” and not “low score,” so practically speaking, the scale is 1 or 2, okay or good.  This struck me as odd because there’s no reason why they couldn’t have had some kind of likert scale of 1 to 5 or 1 to 10 or what have you.

Second, the criteria on this rubric aren’t clear, or they could at least use a lot more explanation.  For example, one criterion is “Does it (meaning the writing) address the question?”  The possible answers are 0=”No, or barely;” 1=”Sort of;” and 3=”Yes.”   Or consider criterion “strength of the argument:”

0=Unconvincing. The points made do not advance the argument; or the response is a purely subjective opinion.

1=Convincing, but pedestrian. The argument mostly hangs together, but it might be elementary, or perfunctory.

2=Convincing and nuanced. Points are clear, forceful, and– in the best cases– show creative thinking.

Most of my students would not understand the meaning of “convincing,” “pedestrian,” or “nuanced” as it applies to writing without some class discussion and guidance from the teacher.  I’m not sure I understand these terms either.

And for me, the most significant problem here was there was no guidance on how to use this rubric. None.  I wrote about this in an article that is coming out in a journal called College Composition and Communication, so let me share some of what I wrote there.  “There was plenty of discussion in the forums among students about the requirements and grading process for these short writing assignments, and much of the discussion about the assignments was positive.  Many students reported that they liked writing and reading others’ prompts, though I don’t recall reading any discussion about the rubric itself— perfunctory, nuanced, or otherwise.

“As a result [of this process with no accountability or guidance], I zipped through my peers’ writing responses with only my ratings and a few quick comments. From what I recall from my own reading, my peers’ writing was generally earnest and competent, but since I didn’t read very carefully, that’s all I recall. After all, I knew we weren’t being graded in any way for our reviews and I had no idea who these other people were; why should I care in any way about what they had to say? It was a strange feeling: even though the class consisted of thousands of students from all over the world, this review process was oddly lonely, even more anonymous than the discussion forums.”

After three weeks of the course, I was starting to get kind of bored and if it weren’t for the fact that I was determined to finish no matter what, I probably would have dropped out.  So I tried a little peer review experiment.  In response to a prompt about traditional “Pygmy” music and free culture, I wrote a short essay that began with some connections between Pygmy music (which has been sampled by a a few pop recording artists) to my own understandings of “open source” scholarship. Then I moved into a tangent about Disney in free culture-- sort of connected, but not really-- and then I cut and pasted from my blog: that is, sentences out of nowhere and plagiarized, albeit self-plagiarized. And then I had a conclusion that circled back to the beginning. My grade was an 8.5 out of 10, and I think the comments I received from my peers speaks volumes to the “diversity” of other folks in the class and again the lack of any clear framework for conducting these peer assessments. 

“The first response was almost 300 words long and it had the voice of an experienced first year writing teacher. This peer complimented me on my opening paragraph, but then noted my “second paragraph was, however, highly problematic: it seemed like you’re missing some citations here.” The peer went on: “Because of this disjointed incoherence, I did a quick google search of those sentences that didn’t seem appropriate,” and this reviewer included a link to my blog post that had been the source of my self plagiarism.  The peer critiqued my third paragraph for making “two huge claims… without any support for either of them,” and then concluded “I still gave you a pretty high score, only marking off for ‘relevant to larger course themes,’ but I thought you could have taken this essay further than you did.”

In contrast, the second peer’s entire response read:  “Good work. Some chill out music for you http://youtu.be/ccqY-R_M2nY.” The link is to a song titled “Bug Powder Dust” by a techno/dance/remix one person band called “Bomb the Bass.” This song goes on for over seven minutes, so I’ll spare you for now. (I played about 20 seconds for my talk).

Obviously, there are several problems here. The first student was far too engaged in the process and the second student was hardly engaged at all, though for all I know, my second peer reviewer thought they were doing an excellent job. Perhaps sharing some “chill music” was something my second reviewer thought was key to the process. Without any meaningful intervention or interaction from an instructor, who is to say? And even the first student, who put a lot of work in discussing the problems of my response, still ended up giving me a good grade.

So the writing assignments in “Listening to World Music” left me with a feeling I fear some of my own students might share: it didn’t really matter what I wrote because no one (including myself) cared and I was destined to get the same grade no matter what I did.

At the end of the class, Coursera sent the students an email with some of the stats on the course. Here are two sets I found interesting. First, the total number of “users” or students who signed up for the course was 36,295; by the last week of the class, just over 10 percent of those students had made it to the end.  Second, the number of students who participated in the peer assessment process:  fewer than 3,000 (that is “unique users”) participated in the peer assessment process at all and not all of them actually did evaluations, either.  

So again, this is another example of how the huge number of students enrolling in MOOCs is nearly meaningless.  What clearly is happening is 36,000 (or so) people signed up for the class the same way that people sign up for lots of internet services, just to check it out.  It’s not just that they dropped out; they never intended to actually enroll.

Second, I am baffled as to why there hasn’t been more attention to these dropout rates.   EMU graduates about 30-40% of the students within five years of starting their degree and this low graduation rate is considered a major part of the crisis in higher education; 90% of students who started World Music dropped out (and there is no reason to believe that these are atypical results) and Coursera is being trotted out as the solution to the higher education crisis. It just makes no sense.

But I did get a certificate.

My most recent complete MOOC experience was in the five week long E-Learning and Digital Cultures, which just finished. This class figured into my own teaching because I required students in my graduate course “Computers and Writing, Theory and Practice,” which is itself an online class, to sign up for it. I was interested in E-Learning and Digital Cultures both because its title and description fit well with the discussion and goals of my graduate course, and also because

It was being taught by faculty at The University of Edinburgh’s Digital Education program, which I learned about via this provocative manifesto for teaching online. A few example phrases: “Distance is a positive principle, not a deficit. Online can be the privileged mode;” “Text is being toppled as the only mode that matters in academic writing;” “New forms of writing make assessors work harder: they remind us that assessment is an act of interpretation;” and “Online teaching should not be downgraded into ‘facilitation’.” These folks were promising a more progressive and radical pedagogy more fitting of cMOOC-- creating knowledge, community, building connections, experimentation, etc-- rather than the lecture hall and “banking model” of education I experienced in the more xMOOC-like “Listening to World Music.”

The course did offer some interesting readings and fueled some good discussions in my class, but I ultimately, I didn’t find “E-Learning and Digital Cultures” any more successful than “Listening to World Music” for three basic reasons. First, the title and description of the course were misleading in that it didn’t discuss in any detail the implications of “the way in which we conduct education online” and it did not live up to is promise of viewing “online educational practices through a particular lens.” Rather, the focus here was on “digital culture” and its implications in terms of utopias and dystopias, what it means to be “human,” and so forth-- provocative topics, but not what was promised in the description.  That might not have been a problem for most of the other students in the class, but considering the fact that I was assigning involvement in this MOOC because of the “E-Learning” component, it was a big problem for me and my students.

Second, there was an absence of teaching and leadership.  Now, this was intentional on the part of the team teaching this course, clearly: they did not want to have a series of “talking head”/”sage on the stage” lectures because, as their manifesto makes clear, they are trying to question that idea of education as just being delivered content from an expert to students.  I get that.  But student centered pedagogy works best (perhaps only) in small groups-- certainly in groups smaller than tens of thousands-- and it still requires a teacher to be a facilitator, guide, and mediator.  The teaching team members did participate in the discussion forums, and they did hold some synchronous meetings on Google Hangouts where the teaching team spoke and listeners posted questions on Twitter.  But that for me and my students was not enough.  And as was the case with “Listening to World Music,” the discussion forums were white noise cacophony of tangents, repetitions, and irrelevant observations, with an occasional thoughtful comment thrown into the mix.

Interestingly, the relative absence of teachers meant that “E-Learning and Digital Cultures” was less a “course” than it was a “collection” of readings and media on the topic, and a problematically diverse collection at that. Each week’s content included several short videos that perfectly appropriate for generating discussion in a freshmen level class, but there were also several complex essays and video lectures on technological determinism and trans/post-humanism that stumped my graduate students. That mix of accessibility of texts is interesting as an anthology but not for a course much in the same way that we tend not to have college courses that include both freshmen and graduate students.

The final and only assessment for the course was “a digital artefact which expresses, for you [students], something important about one or more of the themes we have covered during the course. This artefact should be published somewhere on the web which is publicly accessible.”  They pointed us to some ideas for topics-- interestingly enough, only two of the nine suggestions had anything to do with “E-Learning”-- they gave us instructions to keep them small, and they asked peers to keep nine criteria about the themes of the course in mind.  The rubric was even more problematic than “Listening to World Music” in that there the “scoring” was either a 0 (does not achieve this), 1 (achieves this in part), and 2 (achieves this fully or almost fully).

Here’s mine-- it’s a Wordle made up of the text my students generated on our class web site in discussing the MOOC.  By the way, I received a 1.5.

(During my talk, I showed some examples from some of my graduate students and from one of the peers I reviewed, but I thought that reproducing them here was not necessarily a "fair use" of their materials).

Clearly, the bar for success on these projects is very low. I suppose that's fine and intentional on the teachers’ parts, I assume to emphasize the MOOC as an individual learning experience that has value beyond the more arbitrary credit for a class. But given that this was the only work that was assessed at all, I think they set the bar too low.  And can you imagine actually getting credit for a college course at-- even a 1 credit course-- based only on this assignment? If I was teaching sixth grade I would ask more from my students in five weeks.

So, let me circle back to my tangent from the beginning about what education means to me and try to apply my criteria to these two classes.  First, was there learning?  Yes, there was learning in both of these classes and I found different elements of the content interesting and informative.  I learned things. 

But so what?  We can learn stuff from almost any content-- books, radio shows, movies, internet discussion groups, and college classes.  “Learning opportunities” are the low-hanging fruit part of education as far as I’m concerned.

Was there teaching? I don’t think so.  I will give the team in “E-Learning and Digital Culture” credit in that they were trying to “be there” and facilitate the class, but it didn’t work well because one of the things that I think is abundantly clear with MOOCs is that teaching does not scale, and it really doesn’t scale in courses predicated on discussion and interaction, courses like “E-Learning and Digital Culture.” We’ve known this for a long long time; this is why first year writing is taught in sections of about 25 or so students and not in lecture halls, this despite the fact that almost every college student takes this course.  Content scales well; this is why we have textbooks, and it is why a lot of first year writing programs require all instructors to use the same textbook, so there is some degree of consistency across different smaller sections of the same course.  But obviously a textbook is not the same as a teacher, and if it were the same, then all of us would have been out of business hundreds if not thousands of years ago. 

Teaching, as opposed to content, requires a give and take exchange with an expert who has enough experience with that content to guide the student interaction and make some judgement of student success.  Teachers are not the same as content, though I will agree that some content can teach some things-- cookbooks immediately come to mind.  There is real value in peers teaching and even assessing each other, but that’s not a replacement for a teacher and it didn’t work well in either of these MOOCs because the discussion forums were almost useless.  Even when teaching is among peers, it does not scale.

And just to head this off at the pass:  yes, it is possible for one to “teach one’s self” how to do something just from the content, but as my fellow blogger Aaron Barlow has written about, few of us are “true autodidacts,” self-motivated or self-disciplined enough to do this effectively.  Most people who begin something as “self-taught” eventually seek the help of some teacher or other expert and there is a logical limit to what one can teach themselves:.  Learning something procedural like HTML coding or juggling (I taught myself to juggle when I was in middle school) lends itself to self-instruction more than learning about abstract concepts like ”Digital Culture” or “World Music,” or learning something procedural but with a high degree of complexity, like surgery.

“Listening to World Music” was analogous to a lecture hall, but even if we assume that this is an effective teaching method in some circumstances, lecture halls have their limits, usually in the hundreds of students.  Plus the fact that Muller was largely absent from the experience raises the question of just what exactly do we mean by “teaching”?  

One of the observations I made on my blog while taking the “Listening to World Music” last summer was engaging in the MOOC felt a lot like watching a cooking show, and I meant that as a compliment of sorts. I’m a pretty good cook and just about everything I’ve learned about cooking comes from shows and scenes like this one where Mario Batalli is explaining how to know when your pasta is done.  

(I showed about 30 seconds from this classic episode of Malto Mario:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mt6Xvp0hx00)

I learn a lot from shows like this, but that’s different from Mario actually teaching me– answering my questions about measurements, checking on my work, offering me pointers, etc.  And by the way, I think this is true with even this segment of the show, where Mario actually does something closer to teaching than what happened in Listening to World Music because he interacts with people who are there while he’s cooking.  But he’s teaching them, not me.

Content scales easily and teaching doesn’t, which is why education is still expensive.

How about credentialing? Not yet and not with these courses, but clearly that’s the fear that folks have with MOOCs from Coursera.  Granting/selling credit that is transferrable to colleges is probably not the only way that they are hoping to make money, but it is certainly one of the main ways.

A group called the American Council on Education recently announced that they approved four Coursera courses for college credit, including one I dropped out of and blogged about, “Introduction to Genetics and Evolution” taught by Duke professor Mohamed Noor.  I was too busy with my own teaching to keep up with it, but I thought it was about as well-done as one could expect for a MOOC, but I also didn’t think it was so much a class as it was a textbook.

The problem is just which institutions are willing to count these credits and for what.  One of the things that seems sketchy to me is that the universities sponsoring these ACE approved MOOCs will not accept these credits at their own institutions. In other words, Noor’s MOOC course won’t count for credit at Duke.  As Inside Higher Ed reported:   ”[Duke Provost Peter] Lange said Duke offers its students ‘an entirely different kind of educational experience’ than the one it is making available through its massive open courses, involving ‘substantial interactions between students and the faculty member.’” I think that’s just academic snobbery and I’ve never heard of another situation where a university offers students a course for credit but then does not accept that course for credit at that university.

As for the “for what” issue:  At EMU, this stuff only kind of counts. I will often see transcripts for students who were in the military who have all of these credits for doing “military things” and training, but that credit inevitably counts as electives and doesn’t do them a whole lot of good toward completing their degrees.

So let me wrap this up and return to where we started with the question of “fad” or the “future.”  

It’s pretty easy to take that quote from William Rainey Harper about courses by mail and substitute the word “MOOCs” for “correspondence.”  He wasn’t completely wrong in that there were different kinds of courses offered through the mail, both through emerging extension and distance education programs from traditional universities

along with correspondence school courses that tilted more toward the “fly by night” category.  Correspondence courses didn’t replace college courses, but they were an option for some students in some circumstances. I think EMU still offers a handful of classes by mail and I took one as an undergraduate back in the 1980s at the University of Iowa.  The same can be said about the previous generation of online courses: that quote from Harper appears in 2001 article in Mother Jones magazine which was about the the concerns then about online teaching replacing college classroom instruction.  Online classes have proven to be more successful than correspondence courses in that a significant percentage of college students take at least some courses online.  But still, online courses have not replaced face to face classroom instruction; rather, they are an option fitting for some students in some circumstances.

So my sense is MOOCs are not a fad because the technologies that lead to MOOCs-- online teaching and social media, for example-- are not fads but rather evolutions in how we imagine teaching and interacting with each other online. But even as MOOCs evolve, I’m comfortable predicting that they aren’t the future. Just as correspondence schools and online teaching and other alternative methods of delivery didn’t force universities to close their doors, I don’t think the day is coming when the credits earned by students taking MOOCs will be greater than the amount earned by students taking courses in existing colleges and universities.

I don’t want to suggest that we should just breathe a big sigh of relief and ignore MOOCs.  Far from it. George Ferenstein had a post on the blog TechCrunch with the overly provocative headline “How California’s Online Education Pilot Will End College As We Know It” where he raises alarms about a pilot program to use a Udacity MOOC in some remedial algebra classes at San Jose State.  Inside Higher Ed  published a scathing critique of MOOCs by a group of community college faculty members here in San Diego where they argue (among many other things) “If the unthinking technophilia and new Taylorism which MOOCs represent ends up killing face-to-face education as we know it, it won’t be because the technology offers a superior form of education. It will be because our visionless political and educational leaders have almost entirely abandoned educational values for market values.” 

One of my concerns has always been how MOOCs might further rarify the status of elite universities versus the rest of us.  As I mentioned, EMU is less than 10 miles away from the University of Michigan, so the disparity between the elite and not elite in higher education is something I see on a day to day basis.  As it is, U of M doesn’t necessarily accept the same courses for transfer that a place like EMU accepts.  If they continue to not accept their MOOCs for credit but EMU (or other area colleges and community colleges) do accept that credit, then it seems to me that just increases the gaps between these different types of institutions.  And all of these problems ultimately are a disservice to students. 

The problem for me though is I don’t think it makes sense to sound the alarms and smash the machines before we even know what we’re dealing with here really is a threat.  I think all of us as educators would be better served to be engaged in the conversation instead of summarily rejecting MOOCs (or any other instructional technology).

So I’m not afraid of the big bad MOOC. 

First off, I don’t think MOOCs have proven themselves worthy of fear, at least not yet.  I wasn’t terribly impressed with MOOCs as a student-- that is, they were interesting to me as a scholar but as a student, my reaction is “meh.”   Or to put it another way: there is a significant disconnect between the hype surrounding MOOCs and the actual experience of MOOCs.  Perhaps that’s just obvious.

Right now, the extent to which we should fear MOOCs depends on what we mean by MOOCs-- the open education, community-building cMOOC that functions with higher education or the corporate and profit-motivated xMOOC that competes with higher education.  For the most part, the main audience being attracted to MOOCs are adult students who are interested in a “life-learning” experience, and while that is not necessarily going to make Coursera a lot of money, it is good “PR” for the institutions participating in these MOOCs while simultaneously building a community of learners while not threatening higher education and civilization as we know it.

And despite Coursera’s and other providers’ efforts and despite the experiments that are running with MOOCs right now, I have a difficult time seeing how MOOCs can be a systematic substitute for college credit.  I don’t think I’m alone in this, and we’re starting to see more pieces in both the main stream media and the higher education press that suggests this as well-- articles about the melt-down of a couple of recent Coursera MOOCs, op-ed pieces in the  New York Times doubling back on its columnist’s enthusiasm, etc..  Here’s an interesting quote from an Inside Higher Ed article about their annual survey of college and university presidents:

“Presidents remain unpersuaded by, if not skeptical of, MOOC mania. Only 14 percent of presidents strongly agree, and another 28 percent agree, that massive open online courses have “great potential to make a positive impact” on higher education; 31 percent disagree or strongly disagree, and the rest are neutral. But another higher ed innovation seems to have captured their attention: a full 60 percent of presidents agree or strongly agree that awarding academic credit based on students’ competency rather than seat time holds “great potential” for higher education.”

Another passage from a Wall Street Journal article with the deceptive headline “Big MOOC Coursera Moves Closer to Academic Acceptance.”  “A handful of institutions already grant students credit for completing certain MOOCs, generally with additional coursework or assessments. Last month, San Jose State University teamed up with Udacity to award credit, for a fee, to students enrolled in three Udacity classes whether or not they were registered students at the California university.

But the idea of students cobbling together an entire degree from free Web courses, a prospect touted by some online-education evangelists, remains "kind of a silly nightmare," said Edward Rock, director of open course initiatives at University of Pennsylvania.” 

So, perhaps MOOCs will continue to be useful not for transferable credit per se but for access overseas, MOOCs bundled with other learning experiences like AP high school classes, and also for the current audience of people interested in learning for learning’s sake.  In that sense, the open education goals of cMOOCs might ultimately win the day.  Perhaps MOOCs might also have some role in credits based on “competency” or even “life-learning” experiences.  And maybe that’s something overdue. We have students in our MA program in the Teaching of Writing who have been in classrooms for over 20 years and those students get no “credit” for that. Maybe they should, and maybe there could be some kind of MOOC connection.

As HASTAC founder Cathy Davidson has pointed out, the interest in MOOCs is good evidence that lots of people want access to higher education, and not just for classes in computer programming.   To quote her blog, “Has anyone else noticed that the tone of the conversation has now shifted from “is college worth it?” to “how can we make necessary, important, invaluable learning available to the widest number of people for the lowest cost”?   I certainly have. Those who hate MOOCs and reduce them solely and only to a device by the neoliberal rich to diminish the role of the tenured professor should at least be using the vast popularity of online courses to argue the value of a college education.   It’s demonstrable.  It’s massive.” 

Perhaps MOOCs might prove to be a good alternative to current online learning platforms and to textbooks.  I’m not suggesting that MOOCs will be used to sell textbooks; I mean they might be textbooks.  After all, what is a textbook, anyway? It’s content, just like MOOCs. Second, textbooks represent ethos and expertise, particularly for classes like first year composition, classes where most of the folks teaching aren’t necessarily comfortable with their own ethos or expertise in the subject matter.  In both of these roles– as content and as ethos– textbooks help frame a course and provide a common ground between students and instructors.  In this sense, textbooks are a tool for community building, and they often teach both students and teachers, though in different ways.  The interactivity and international reach of MOOCs might make the community building between different institutions-- between teachers and students-- all that more compelling.

The most important thing we can do as educators is to stay involved and to pay attention.

 One of the key voices in my field, Cynthia Selfe, has a book on the topic, which grew out of a chair’s address she gave at the Conference for College Composition and Communication fifteen years ago.  Her message-- call to arms, really-- was for teachers to pay attention and to engage in the discussion about computers in classrooms in the late 1990s.  This seems relevant to me as we contemplate the role of MOOCs in education as well:  “As composition teachers, deciding whether or not to use technology in our classes is simply not the point-- we have to pay attention to technology.  When we fail to do so, we share in the responsibility for sustaining and reproducing an unfair system that... enacts social violence and ensures continuing illiteracy under the aegis of education” (415).  Selfe asks us to do pay attention and take part in the discussion happening in curriculum committees, assessment programs, professional organizations, in scholarship and research, in training teachers, and in our own classrooms. To quote Selfe again, “as Bruno Latour notes, real-life stories always lack richness and accuracy when they are told from a single  perspective We require multiple perspectives if we hope to construct a robust and accurate understanding of the ways in which technology functions in our culture” (434).