Deleted section of “On Democracy, Economy, and the Rise and Fall of the MOOC.” Needs a new title and expansion, along the lines of the interesting comments from the editors–which I would like to insert here.
The news just a few months ago was that MOOCs were the new paradigm for higher education. Costs would fall, quality would soar, and access would be greatly expanded. But soon, the discussion shifted. Now, MOOCS could provide education to the masses, greatly reducing the need for tenured and tenure-track lines and full-time faculty with benefits. Elite, or “deserving” students would still enjoy the benefits of traditional institutions. The next thing we knew, MOOCs were no longer to replace traditional university education, but would provide opportunities for certificates and enrichment to students lacking other forms of access to class. Finally, some MOOC providers changed course, scaling down goals to become mere contenders for a market share as providers of platforms for online courses.
The advent of the MOOC, then, has brought few changes. But the discussion of them has moved a great part of our energy from the actually serious issues which confront us to defending ourselves against our description as outdated pedagogues, unengaged in research and lecturing from yellowed notes. This characterization is not only inaccurate, but is motivated by commercial concerns. As a wake-up call, this debacle may have its uses, since the MOOC discussion has thrown the contours of the neoliberal assault on our institutions into high relief.
Is higher education “broken,” as we keep hearing? Defunding has had deleterious effects on programs. Students now graduate with a debt burden that severely limits their horizons. Many faculty are part-timers without access to a living wage, let alone resources for teaching or professional development. Administrators no longer consider the higher education community primary stakeholders in the university, and are tasked with repurposing our institutions to more commercial ends.
Yet, we are still teaching and conducting research. Indeed, one of the most distressing features of the MOOC craze is its enthusiasts’ ignorance of the relevance of research to university teaching. Popular wisdom tells us that research, or the creation of new knowledge, is irrelevant to teaching and learning, and that teaching is not “collaborative” enough. But research is the most essential form of collaborative learning. It is key in university teaching not only because course content should be current, but because research as pedagogical model and as practice means dialogue, group work, and collective discovery.
What can we do, if defunding and corporatization, and not “poor teaching,” are our real problems? What if these problems are more difficult to solve than it is to retrain and reinspire a tired teacher or reframe a weak course?
We should articulate the relationship between learning and teaching in our terms, rather than react defensively to the mischaracterizations of our endeavor that appear daily in the popular press. American academics do not have the custom of writing opinion or other journalistic pieces that is common for faculty in other countries; we would do well to adopt it. We, and not the Gates or the Lumina Foundation, should be framing the public discussion of pedagogy and research.
We should also take active roles in restoration and expansion of our eroded infrastructure. Many of those who have focused on their own careers, sometimes out of necessity, as the erosion of the past three decades has proceeded, now say “I am retiring, let the next generation discover a new educational paradigm.” We have been failing, not by lecturing from yellowed notes but by ignoring the contexts in which we work.
At the very least, we should make an inventory of our needs for teaching and research–for learning–and make these clear in every departmental, college, and university meeting. Against endless discussion of ways to “flip” classrooms, we should emphasize critical needs, for example, the continued need for current reference works.
We should point out that there is good discussion of pedagogy in many disciplinary journals, that are more up to date and more relevant than anything a commercial educational consultant can offer. We should remind administrators, legislatures, and the public that research is not just industry-funded R&D or abstruse theorizing, but rather is the learning that goes into every course. This learning is updated daily and brought to class new. Teaching is not the delivery of content but a collaborative practice.
[The focus on MOOCs as a way of extending the resources of our most privileged institutions to those living far from any institution helps to justify the work put into the creation of these courses, but also to drive out of sight the hundreds of thousands of students who have enrolled in college only to find that their institutions are being defunded and dismantled at a furious pace.]