More than a MOOC (and probably longer)

The discussion about MOOCs brings in a lot more than just Massively Open Online Courses.  Actually, I would venture to say that MOOCs are NOT the issue.  A MOOC is just a platform, as Caufield so clearly articulated (here) “…the best way to think of a MOOC isn’t really as a class brought to your doorstep — it’s more a textbook with ambitions…”  To think that they are more than that misses what I think is a huge part of education (communication & relationships – more on that below), but MOOCs do force discussion of the problems in higher (and K-12) education today (i.e., cost, access, standardization, and what a college degree “is”) – and offer another option.

First, what would a MOOC decree be worth? – does a degree from Udacity hold the same marketplace value as one from a standard public university?  I doubt it –  a degree from Phoenix does not have the same weight as one from any state school. It isn’t cheaper for students if they have to go back to school to get another degree (or take more courses to get the accredited credit).

On the surface, MOOCs seem like a solution to the financial problems facing higher education.  Show thousands of students a series of recorded lectures, keep the documentation (tests, discussion boards), and that’s a wrap!  Oh, I mean, class!  Cheap will attract some, but only if that degree can get the job.  Otherwise, it will continue to attract people who are “just interested” – and that’s fine!

Secondly, Thomas notes that MOOCs could push the non-elite colleges into precarious positions, but only if a MOOC degree is valued as a public college. Higher education is a “hostage situation” for most people (Shirky’s term); it’s the stamp needed to get the job interview.  I am not arguing for or against this system, but until MOOC degrees are accredited and respected as standard ones, I don’t see the threat.

Colleges realize this and have responded with online courses.  The CUNY Online Bachelor’s is one of many examples of fully online programs – with the flexibility of MOOCs, but with full accreditation, but they are considerably more expensive (per class, Udacity = $150, CUNY = $920, Lansing Community College= $324.  So a bachelors is $6,000 at Udacity, $27,600 at CUNY, and $9,720 at LCC).  It’s not a solution – $27,600 is a lot of money for a student, and CUNY is under emormous financial pressure, but CUNY is a recognized and respected institution.  Which means I’ve said families should have to pay (per adult) for access in to job interviews (until government funding increases, Bustillos puts it perfectly, “Wouldn’t it make more sense to just fund education to the levels we had back when it was working?”).  That’s not something that I want to say, but find myself trapped into it.

There are many ways institutions can cut costs without operating without instructors, but the first step has to be reconciling admin and faculty goals (though this isn’t a post about that), and justifying why we exist at all.  It’s no surprise that high-stakes testing and MOOCs are appearing at the same time – a time when education is being distilled into a final exam…  This is a time when we must start articulating why education is valuable beyond memorizing facts and visiting chat rooms.

Education depends on communication and relationships.  Online courses allow both of these to be present and built – mediated by technology; instructors provide the scaffolding and framework (and redirection) that students need to navigate seemingly endless information. I would guess that the ratio of good teachers to mediocre (or bad) is about the same from face to face vs. online.  But, since student-centered teaching (which I correlate with “good” teaching) requires student-student, student-faculty AND faculty-student interactions, I’m not convinced MOOCs have the capacity to be student-centered.

Likewise, online programs (as opposed to MOOCs) have admissions requirements. Students have to justify why online is a good fit and why they want a degree.   They have to gain membership into a community and have their prior education validated, and show that they the skills necessary to keep up with course work.  Admissions also allows the institution to keep track of its students and validate all of the coursework for the degree.  The no-admissions policies can’t create the same community.  (This is not an endorsement for huge administrative staffs.)

I don’t have any funding solutions for higher education, but I know we can validate our existence by showing that the relationships, direction, and personalized communication make a difference in education, and link this to accreditation, MOOCs will have no more power than a good documentary.

(here are my thoughts on why MOOCs will not bring better education to Africa).

15 thoughts on “More than a MOOC (and probably longer)


    I personally was researching for recommendations for my personal
    blog site and encountered ur blog, “More than a MOOC (and probably longer) | Interactive
    Technology and the University: Core II”, would you care in cases where I really work with a few
    of your own concepts? Thx ,Roslyn

  2. Philip

    After reading Shirky’s pieces I was compelled by his argument that MOOCS might at least be equivalent if not superior to the typical large lecture hall format. But I have since returned to near my original position, which I believe is similar to Michelle’s point, that MOOCS can’t provide the interpersonal connections and experiences that make learning dynamic and exciting.

    For example, last semester I graded nearly 100 undergrad papers. Although I did my best to explain each comment, many students still needed to meet with me and discuss specific structural and conceptual comments. Perhaps this can be done online, but somehow track changes came up short. It was only when a student and I sat across from each other and reviewed each comment that I noted a look of understanding that was often reflected by improvements in their next paper.

    In addition, the interpersonal aspects of sharing a space with other learners is valuable. Dr. Dinosaur posted a comment on Shirky’s Awl piece ) that faculty can’t really get to know students from online interactions. Students too might be hard pressed to form real relationships with each other online. I know many of the best conversations I had about academic topics during college occurred in the dining hall after class. And what about the Catfish problem?

    On that note Roslyn I don’t mind if you use some of my ideas posted here, if that’s what you were asking.

    Finally, I think the cost question needs to be addressed, but are MOOCS the only way to do this?

    1. Mikayla Zagoria-Moffet

      As a first-time online instructor this semester, I’m not sure I completely agree with the assertion that face-to-face contact is required for improvements in papers– especially when it comes to writing. MOOCs aside, I’m finding (or perhaps I’m desperate to find/want to find/etc) that the students who would likely be interacting in meaningful ways in a “real” classroom are the ones participating online. My online discussion last week, for example, asked that students post once (or perhaps twice) about a given topic for points, either creating or responding to a thread. My class of around 23 active participants had over 80 discussion board posts (and for some reason, the conversation is still going!).

      In terms of giving feedback, I’m also noticing something that I think is helping students: when I give one student feedback publicly, I can reference that same feedback for another student. (“Bob, if you want examples of what I mean, I wrote about this under Sue’s post and you can check it out there.”) This tactic is saving me time and allowing other students to notice that they are not the only one with a specific question or issue; it’s started creating conversations between students in interesting ways. Perhaps it isn’t quite up to par with the dining hall after class, but I think they are engaging *more* students in these conversations and that, in general, online learning is a way to get more learners, even though there’s still a massive gap between what that education means to employers and the quality of that education in many situations.

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  4. Jennifer Stoops

    I think Michelle is absolutely right that MOOCs are not the real issue. The underlying issue is about eroding public services. Well-funded, quality, public higher education, accessible to all = not part of the neoliberal agenda.

    To me, MOOCs and charter schools potentially share a lot of the same ideologies. Venture capitalists, recognizing real problems, encroach on public institutions to chip away at services once considered public goods. Bady’s piece really cemented the link for me. Charter schools are not like Kaplan or U of Phoenix because charter schools are still “public” (largely lottery-based for admission, but parents are not charged tuition). The tension that MOOCs (and charters) amplify is that, on the one hand, the public expects that education in this stupidly rich country should be free, but on the other hand, the public has permitted public institutions to “rot on the vine.” Public/private hybrids, a little bit like GMOs, are speculative forces with effects that are widely unknown and potentially catastrophic.

    Another issue is the assertion that education alone will fix the economy. The MOOC in Friedman’s depiction is revolutionary because it possesses magical powers. The repetition of the phrase, “nothing has more potential to…,” sells this platform as yet another flattening device for Friedman’s flat world. The MOOC will “lift more people out of poverty,” “unlock a billion more brains to solve the world’s biggest problems,” and “enable us to reimagine higher education.” We’ve seen this claim before. Friedman’s gushing rests on the assumption that education will eradicate poverty while the fundamental inequalities in capitalism are veiled. When the onus of wealth creation is on education, then blame can rest squarely with teachers, parents, students, even institutions or governments when riches fail to fall from the sky. Capital is unscathed. I think that’s why so many people are invested in devaluing public education.

  5. Philip

    Jennifer I think you make some important points in your post.

    I’ve been struggling with the following questions and I think they relate to what you are saying but not necessarily in a linear way.

    Perhaps the conversation regarding MOOCS and typical 4 year colleges must be framed in terms of learning. The question then being what is learning? And how do these two types of educational structures foster learning? Finally, what are the goals for someone who enrolls in a MOOC and someone who enrolls in a 4 year college? I suppose these questions could have been posed at the beginning of my MOOC posts. However, as so often happens I didn’t even think in these terms when I started writing on MOOCS. Only after having read and written and read again did I come to these questions, which, may help frame my future inquiry on the question of MOOCS.

  6. Julie Fuller (she/her)

    Thanks for the motivation Michelle! I have an initial comment regarding what you write at the end of your post:

    “I know we can validate our existence by showing that the relationships, direction, and personalized communication make a difference in education, and link this to accreditation, MOOCs will have no more power than a good documentary.”

    A pitfall of the argument that those who value face-to-face learning (I include myself here) make against the impersonality of MOOCs is exactly what you point to here–that what really makes a pedagogical difference isn’t linked to accreditation. There is so much we do that isn’t ‘valued’ (in terms of accreditation) within the institutional system: all of the time we spend meeting with our students outside of the classroom (I completely agree with Phil that this is essential and students who meet with me about their papers invariably end up being better writers for taking advantage of face-to-face explanation of commentary–which generally means my extending office hours and/or meeting by special appointment) as well as all of the rich learning experiences that happen from class to class, all of the days we facilitate and help our students to generate great discussion–though I
    suppose that one day of the semester our teaching is being officially observed does impact our accreditation. But if all of this isn’t valued within the academy, how are we ever to
    convince those outside of it of the fundamental value of what we do as hands-on
    instructors? How do we use value of face-to-face learning in institutions to counter the
    MOOC effect when those institutions don’t demonstrably value it?

  7. Greg Narr

    Anyone want to join this class offered by Coursera with me. it sounds cool.

    Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World
    by Eric S. Rabkin, Professor of English Language and Literature

    I just posted this on the discussion board to meet up with my fellow classmates :

    greg narr (Student) · 1 second ago
    Tea lounge, I’m down!

    Umm, I’m also in about thirty book clubs, most of which I’ve only attended once at best and one that I organize but have yet to finish an entire book. Which is to say that I will probably not finish this class.

    The reasons why I won’t finish this class, or read the book for the book club I organize, for that matter, are structural — I will not receive credit which presumably would help me land a job. The way in which credit is tied to the ability to pay in today’s contemporary education structure is ludicrous and farcical to the extreme. I know everyone in this class will not take issue with this statement. perhaps most of you will take issue with the following. I think that MOOCs do have the potential to, if not revolutionize this farcical translation of economic to cultural (education) to economic capital, at least alter it. As long as a certain elite education is available to a select few this meritocratic pageant will continue whereby exceptional students seem to be found and honed by exceptional institutions. I think that MOOCs could belie the idea of a meritocracy in education because I think that, given the opportunity, most people with a desire to learn are able to and that the MOOC could potentially provide a good learning environment.

    Most of the arguments against MOOCs when we leave out the structural question and focus on learning seem to be that the education could not be personalized or interactive. But I think that, as many of the blog posts for this week made clear, this personalized and interactive model that many would like to defend doesn’t really exist for the majority of those who go to university. Even for the lucky ones that go to classes of 30 students, personal attention from the teacher would be reduced to 2 minutes per hour class, enough time to state a question and get a pithy response from the teacher, if things were distributed evenly. The current model is for 5 or 6 outstanding students to monopolize most of the class at best and the teacher to lecture for most of the class at worst. Where is the interaction there? Online, the interaction that is fostered by the class can be open ended and there is no reason to limit class sizes via ludicrous vetting practices, e.g. an apple is to an orange as a Banobo is to ____.

    Even the threat to teachers is misplaced I think. With open enrollment there will be a need for more instructors to facilitate discussions and even smaller groups that form to meet in person. These groups are already forming. Take the meetup at the tea lounge that is forming for the class I just found. I actually went to a few free classes in Minneapolis as well that did not have the online component. Is the online component essential? perhaps, not. But anything that can compete with the current model of education, which is so tied to class in this country and has been for so long, seems to me to be worth a shot. should we also advocate for an adequately funded public education system or, even better, free and open enrollment without the tier or elite system? That goes without saying.

  8. Ashley Williard

    The non-MOOC issue the discussion about MOOCs highlights for me is the question of “accessibility” that seems to be tossed around as a benefit all over the place (see Friedman’s piece for the most obvious example). I’m thinking now about Jennifer’s analogy to charter schools as well as a comment she (I believe) made in the fall about how charter schools do not include many special needs students despite their claims to open, public accessibility. As my semesters of teaching accumulate, making materials accessible in a variety of mediums to students with a variety of skills and needs has become crucial for me. The office hours and face-time Julie and Phil talk about respond to those concerns, but so also is a connection to the people on campus who convert documents for students, who arrange tutoring and note-taking relationships among students. These resources are already limited, but pushing some students into isolation rather than recognizing their right to be part of the academic community is no solution. In response to Friedman’s NYT piece, William G. Thomas puts it well, writing:
    “The frightening and retrograde idea that people with special needs can be set apart (to be special somewhere else) should be seen for what it is–exclusionary. The trade offs are vastly unequal: instead of school, here is an online link; instead of a professor, here is a video, instead of a place at the table, another table is set. Will the MOOCs mean less diversity in our institutions of higher learning? Perhaps. Does Coursera or any current MOOC provider seek to serve students with special needs in any real or meaningful way? Probably not–so why does Friedman bring it up? Why does Coursera offer this particular story to him? It makes those who do not confront the daily challenges of navigating the world with disabilities feel good about something they otherwise might find vaguely threatening–a revolution in higher education. It desensitizes us, however perversely, to the very issue we should be more alert to in this drama: access and equal opportunity.”

  9. Jennifer Stoops

    Phil: I echo you on the “what is learning?” & “how do these structures foster learning?” questions. I would also add two-year community colleges and associate degrees to the mix.

    Greg: I’m not sure how MOOCs might alter the translation of “economic to cultural (education) to economic capital.” How would MOOCs disrupt/belie meritocracy? On the other hand, I don’t think the current system is any better, and I agree with your assertion that it’s tied to class. If MOOCs continue to be platforms used primarily in higher education (as opposed to K-12), then the students who might benefit from them have already weathered the meritocratic pageant of schooling in some form or another. I still think the deeper issue is we have foundered in our means of providing exceptional public education to all.

    Ashley: I wish Kylah was taking this course with us this term because she could state this more authoritatively than I can, but students with disabilities are routinely excluded. Laws are consistently broken by the DOE with respect to individual education plans/programs (IEPs) on a number of levels. I doubt that any venture capitalist MOOC would be held accountable for serving students with special needs. In the comments on Luke’s piece, Philip Pecorino, in the context of distance education, wished that all students eventually would have IEPs. In this sense, I understand how distance learning is effective as a mode of instruction for some people some of the time. But as a widespread phenomenon that would supplant more inclusionary modes, MOOCs cannot provide the level of differentiated student services that equal opportunity institutions could.

  10. Benjamin Haber

    When I think about fully online universities, I instinctively want to compare it to online dating. Both are massive industries that attempt to replicate long standing social structures online. And both, it would seem to me, generally fail to replicate what keeps bars and brick and mortar universities open: learning (and dating) are affective experiences. Attraction and engagement/learning are complicated products of environment, social context, lighting, sound and other non-conscious or vaguely-conscious factors that admittedly many universities don’t do a particularly good job attending to (bars are much more successful). Thus many find that the sophisticated algorithms, personal essays and headshots of okcupid fail to accurately predict a connection that would quickly be evident (or not) in physical proximity. And many find the online “environments” of Udacity rather flat (like Maria Bustillos of The Awl)- nobody really gets excited to take an online course the way that many do for a great in person one, do they? Of course, despite this online dating is a billion dollar industry and the University of Phoenix is the largest university by enrollment in the US. Affect and its circulations certainly exists online. And it is clear that the potential is there for innovative platforms to create new resonances that can make online connections and learning more compelling. And affect too may be changing as we spend more time in front of computers and phones- perhaps rather than stimulating, many 18 year olds find “real life” dating and physical universities distracting, anxiety producing or somehow not resonant with the ways they have come to encounter the world.

    The labor/capital/employment issues with the not so open MOOGs are another issue. As others have mentioned, the rise of MOOGs are not simply happening to make higher education more accessible (despite the stated goals of Khan Academy), though certainly this one of the best things we can say about them. MOOG like things are sprouting up in tandem with the accelerating defunding of public universities across the country- there is really no way to get around that.

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