A Balanced Approach to MOOCs


Noel B. Jackson, a professor of literature at MIT, has a thoughtful and balanced take on MOOCS over at “Sustained Inattentions”–he has the advantage of proximity, since he is essentially at one of the two ground-zero’s of the MOOC movement (Silicon Valley and Cambridge).  He testifies that, in his time at MIT, no issue has arrested the attention of folks in higher ed as much as the MOOC.  His view on the place of MOOCs in current discourse about higher ed is insightful:

“The MOOC has become a repository for utopian and dystopian narratives about the present and future directions of higher ed.”

The rhetoric of crisis and disruption can inhibit us from thinking clearly and carefully about how best to surf this strange new wave.  The utopian and dystopian narratives are, as Noel points out, the views that MOOCs are either democratizing or corporatizing:  that they are either making the highest quality education available to the world’s poor, or they are merely the latest step in the corporatization of the university that has been underway for decades.

Confessing his ambivalence about MOOCs, he points to a possible benefit of MOOCs that I hadn’t heard of before:

“My interest in MOOCs extends to how the format can be imagined to provide access to a university curriculum to populations that may not have had this kind of access, as this is the population that stands to gain most from them. But in addition to the flat, global learning community ritually invoked as the audience for MOOCs, we could benefit from thinking locally too. How can the online course format make possible new relationships not only with the most far-flung remote corners of the earth but with the neighborhoods and communities nearest to campus? Can we make MOOCs that foster meaningful links with the community or create learning communities that cut across both the university and the online platform?”

This is certainly a pressing need at the university I teach at.  Fordham University’s main campus is an oasic bubble plopped in the middle of one of the poorest counties in the country, and few of the students venture past the perimeter of security-saturated environs.  Anything that could facilitate a deeper engagement–heck, any engagement–with the world beyond the walls would be a very good thing; and perhaps MOOCs and other online approaches might facilitate that, though I’m not sure how.

(image courtesy of www.apartmenttherapy.com)

7 Replies to “A Balanced Approach to MOOCs”

  1. One example you might consider is the MathMOOC at University of Wisconsin – La Crosse, which we profiled on our site. It started out like other MOOCs, open to the whole wide world, and what they discovered is that a big share of their participants where from high schools in Wisconsin that feed into the UW system, including that campus. High school teachers heard about it and signed up their whole classes to use for test prep and college readiness purposes. That lead to more communication between those high school teachers and the university many students would ultimately end up at. It’s early still, but in theory, La Crosse will benefit from an incoming class that is more college ready and with stronger initial ties to the campus, and they are doing a service to the rest of the system.

    That’s not precisely the same environment you’re describing at Fordham, but you can easily imagine how the lesson could be translated. A MOOC can itself be a service, but it’s also an opportunity to build relationships in the community. What I think is interesting about the La Crosse example is that it happened serendipitously and not with that agenda. They built a math class they thought would be generally and authentically useful and the local community responded. If they’d built a gift to the community like a charity case, I doubt it would have worked.

    Robert McGuire
    Editor, MOOC news and Reviews

    1. Robert, thanks for informing me of this–that’s a great story, and that side-effect of MOOCs targets a serious problem that so many college teachers face: “how did these kids get in here?” This often happens with writing skills. The college teacher faces a dilemma: should I teach them the content, or teach them how to write? If you just teach the content, then a) they aren’t likely to grasp it as roundly, since you can’t cleanly separate the ability to write clearly and the ability to think clearly, and b) you shirk your responsibility as the “last line of defense” before the students get out into the real world bereft of solid writing skills. If you teach them how to write, you’re not teaching the content. And if you try to split the difference, well, as Lao Tzu says, “if you chase two rabbits, both get away.”

      Better coordination between high school and college teachers and administrators could help close the “preparation gap” that frustrates so many teachers and short-changes many students.

  2. I think the introduction of MOOCs is going to be great for the community, however, I see them as a supplement to higher education – not a replacement. The open courses (although run by some Ivy League and world class institutions) are not reproduction of the universities original course and do not offer academic credit or recognisable qualification. I think they will be around in the long-term future, but see their primary function being as a means of self-development.

    1. Jenna,

      Thanks for your comment. I agree that they will probably play a supplemental role at brick and mortar schools, and that they cannot replace the full college/classroom experience. However, I do think that when the dust settles after the Ivies, EdTech startups, and venture capitalists are done throwing money and brainpower at the MOOC model, a cavalcade of supreme MOOCs will emerge: studies will be compiled documenting that score x in course y empirically demonstrates that student z has skills a,b, and c, which will reassure employer d that said student can do job e. And once that happens–once we get accreditation and competence-based learning that begins to SIGNAL to employers–then much higher education can go “in house” at corporations and companies, and the “middle man” of universtities will be obsolete, at least to some extent, and perhaps a large enough extent to make many middling colleges and universities go extinct.

      But as you point out, MOOCs and their ilk will likely be adopted by many people for recreational and self-development purposes.

      Thanks again!

      1. That’s a great point of view, I never considered the idea of bringing higher education in house. Although it does make complete sense, so many students end up doing a tediously long 4 or 5 year degree, only to end up in a completely different career path. While I believe its the journey that counts, for those who do not use their degree in the slightest it becomes a very expensive purchase – not to mention the stress and worry associated with working and studying. It would also be great to bring in more ‘on-the-job’ training as opposed to theory theory theory!

        But in saying all of that I am looking at starting a course in a few weeks on coursera! Thanks for the reply David!

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