MOOCS: A Cautionary Note

By Gregory Jay

[Gregory Jay presented this paper as part of C21’s “What’s the Matter with MOOCs?” even on March 12, 2013]

For many years I have welcomed the growth of digital and internet technologies when it comes to research and teaching. While not the first adopter, I’ve been a fairly early one, and can’t imagine now teaching a course that doesn’t meet in a mediated classroom or one without a web site. It’s expected that when a difficult question comes up in class, I or someone else Googles the topic for clarification and we look for a moment at the screen to see what our research can find. Although the course web site is usually full of pdfs and handouts and YouTube links on day one, it continues to grow as students add things to it that they find, and I add to it as I research each week’s readings and discussions. Every semester I see my students become increasingly adept at mining the internet and our library’s digital databases for materials to enrich their learning, and I encourage them to do so in their presentations and projects. The latter is crucial, as we need to keep our focus on how to move beyond the delivery or acquisition of data and information and towards the arrangement of material into analysis, argument, and theoretical or conceptual breakthroughs. In sum, the digital revolution has put great pressure on us to justify the time students spend in class, since in the age of the internet it makes little sense to require they be there so we can give them the same information they can find through Google. Class time should instead be spent organizing projects, debating issues, doing collaborative group work, and reflecting on service learning or other community engagement assignments.

All of which is to say that my insistence on a skeptical reception of MOOC fever does not stem from a fear of technology or a lack of acquaintance with the virtues of the digital. Instead my concerns are political, pedagogical, economic, and infused with issues of social justice and the critique of neoliberalism. Not to mention the widely-noted intellectual property issues and logistical concerns: no one has a viable business model for MOOCs, even though they are often discussed as some kind of response to the budget crises in higher education. Then there are the sticky matters of plagiarism, identity fraud, peer grading, and a lack of creditable assessment of learning outcomes. Still, moving forward, institutions of higher education must and will continue to find creative and useful ways to incorporate digital technologies and internet resources into every aspect of their work. Governance and oversight of this evolving project, however, must remain primarily the responsibility of the faculty, who in the governance system have the sole authority to design and remake curricula. Curriculum is not the business of tech specialists or consultants or even academic deans, provosts, and chancellors. It belongs to the faculty, who rightly feel threatened when irrational exuberance about MOOCs appears to shift curriculum responsibility away from the faculty.[1] The attempt to outsource undergraduate education to private, for-profit companies is just another turn in the neoliberal wheel that has decimated the public sphere and transferred yet more power to financial, social, and racial elites. (See “Unthinking Technophilia,” Insider Higher Ed, January 14, 2013).  MOOC fever thus belongs to the larger effort to downsize and marginalize the faculty, as was done in the devolution of higher education over the last three decades that saw the proportion of instructional time shift from 65% tenure track across the nation to roughly 30% today. Our large lecture classes and sections staffed by TAs and lecturers are the predecessors of the MOOCs: they are massively oppressive on-campus courses that squeeze the most tuition dollars out of students with the minimal return on investment, and the least respect for just arrangements of academic labor.

We frequently read of MOOCs as “delivery platforms.” If we continue to downsize the research faculty, who will produce the new knowledge that these platforms promise to deliver? Prepackaged courses go stale fast, as do yellowing lecture notes. The purpose of the research university is not simply the transmission of information, but the creation, exploration, investigation, and criticism of new knowledge. How does the MOOC platform assist us in this core responsibility? Doesn’t its very structure work in the opposite direction? At this point, a MOOC is just another blip on the internet horizon, no more than another web site that may offer some of what we need to learn a technique or get information on a topic or strengthen an argument. But these rudimentary, prepackaged arrays might limit, rather than extend, a student’s research and learning: by masquerading as a “college course” they suggest a depth and coverage superior to what can be found elsewhere, which is often highly debatable. In a thoughtful piece, David Theo Goldberg argues that the deployment of network connectedness, social media, and peer collaboration in MOOCs can help grow the “basic skills of analysis and calculation, critical reading and creative writing” aimed at in traditional classrooms (“MOOCmania,” DMLcentral, January 21, 2013).[2] But insofar as buying the MOOC package short-circuits the student’s own exploration of the digital universe to inquire, gather, sort, evaluate, and analyze what is to be learned, they lead us in the wrong direction, away from a diversity of free content and into a restricted territory of for-profit commodities. Moreover, insofar as MOOCs focus on providing highly focused technical or professional skills for aspiring workers here and abroad, they privilege short-sighted vocational training over the comprehensive education in the arts, humanities, and social and natural sciences that provides the real platform for life-long learning.

At UWM, Chancellor Lovell writes, on the cover of his most recent plenary address, that MOOCs “are revolutionizing education as thousands enroll in classes that are primarily free.” As a research scholar, the Chancellor might choose his words more carefully, and not simply echo the embarrassing hyperbole of Thomas Friedman’s January 17th New York Times op-ed titled “Revolution Hits the Universities.” (Of the many responses to Friedman, see Richard Wolff’s in Truthout, 28 January 2013.) There is no reliable data to prove the assertion that MOOCs are revolutionizing anything; such rhetoric, moreover, gives a progressive and agreeable tinge to what may be a harmful, exploitative, and short-lived bubble of entrepreneurial capitalism. Something like 5-10% of the people who enroll in these so-called “classes” complete them, and almost none receive academic credit. And what does “primarily free” mean? MOOCs are only available to people with excellent broadband internet access and fast computers, which excludes about half the population and leans heavily towards the already privileged, and white, sectors—unless they live in rural areas, where such access is largely absent. Internet provider data caps and fee-based download plans are already raising questions about the cost or feasibility of taking such courses. As a so-called “access” campus, we have to be concerned about the effect of online instruction on success rates for underprepared students, especially students of color, whom studies have shown benefit the least from online instruction and flourish most when engaged on campus through residential housing, mentorships, and involvement in student organizations and community service.

“Ironically,” writes Greg Graham, “although the move toward online education is being advanced by some of the nation’s most elite universities, in the end it will be the lower half of the student population that will be forced out of the traditional classroom, widening the gap between the haves and the have-nots” (Chronicle of Higher Education, October 1, 2012). I would argue that UWM should put its money on educational opportunities that connect students to our campus, rather than on those that increase the distance. As Scott Carlson argues, the inhabitation of place still counts enormously in higher education outcomes (Chronicle of Higher Education, Feb. 4, 2013)[3]. If students can get a good deal of information online from other universities, they will, unless we offer them a campus experience that they can’t get on the internet—including the conversations in the dorm and coffee shop, meetings at the student union, chance encounters at the gym, as well as in class or in the professor’s office, and with a diverse range of human beings whose three-dimensional humanity requires our intellectual and ethical attention. Our enrollments increased throughout the 1990s and 2000s when word got out that UWM was a fine school that had a terrific location in an exciting, multicultural urban area where extracurricular learning and work opportunities enriched course and curriculum offerings. We can’t compete with Stanford’s MOOCs, but Stanford’s MOOCs can’t compete with what our setting provides to our on-campus students.

No doubt online courses, including MOOCs, will be one item on the future menu of higher education. But they won’t be the main course. Our Provost is excited about a campus initiative on Digital Futures, but for faculty who haven’t seen a pay-raise in almost five years this looks more like a digital sweatshop or internet factory speed-up, with the usual effect of increasing productivity while driving down wages and diminishing employment possibilities—or just outsourcing our work to online platforms administered by yet more adjuncts. It is not my impression that these initiatives are coming to us because of dramatic increases of interest among the faculty, or because faculty see the digital future as the number one priority in revolutionizing higher education. Many of us would rather start that revolution by moving away from a reliance on exploited contingent labor, reducing student debt, creating collaborations between campus and community neighborhoods and nonprofits, focusing on education for democratic citizenship, and addressing inequities of race and gender and nationality that still characterize the makeup of our faculty, staff, and student body.

[1] On the day after this talk was delivered, the New York Times reported on a bill in the California legislature, likely to pass, that will force state colleges and universities to give credit to online courses that meet requirements students cannot fulfill because their own campuses cannot afford to offer more sections. Of course this is the same legislature that cut the budgets of these same campuses. The result: outsourcing of a public good to private corporations.

[2] “The early evidence is that MOOCs can deliver the numbers. In the end, they will not be judged simply on this quantitative mandate. Rather, they will be assessed, like any learning modalities, by their ability to draw on the best of social media and peer-to-peer engagement to cultivate these virtues of theory and practice, to comprehend and to create, to expand the reach of access, insight, and validated knowledge.”

[3] “Just as with libraries, campuses that are dismal, disconnected, and underutilized as places will suffer, while the ones that are vital will have a shot at succeeding. Colleges will need to find ways—preferably creative and inexpensive—to make their places relevant: Link to local communities. Use those communities as places where students can apply their education to fix problems or enhance strengths. Find the unique characteristics of the local geography, and incorporate them into lessons. Provide spaces where students can connect both intellectually and physically with one another, and with their college work.”

[Gregory Jay is a Professor of English and the Senior Director of the Cultures and Communities Program at UWM]

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