digital humanities Higher Education

What about massive open online scholarship?

There's so much ongoing conversation about this MOOC business that I couldn't possibly point to even a fraction of it, but it's all over the Chronicle, Inside Higher Ed, and many academic blogs. The bottom line defense of the MOOC seems to be the following:

  1. Yes a MOOC could be a terrible learning experience, delivered cynically for profit or PR, but it doesn't have to be. There are good MOOC pedagogies and we can continue to develop in that direction.
  2. Everyone knows that higher education needs to change its industrial paradigm.

While I suppose both of these remarks are valid, they aren't all that convincing. All they tell us is that we don't know what a MOOC is or should be and that we need to change in some fashion. I don't really have a solution for how things should be but I do believe that current conversations (at least the ones I've seen) are missing the crucial link that exists between faculty scholarly practices and pedagogy/curriculum. As we know, in our model of higher education (borrowed from the Germans in the 19th century), curriculum extends from faculty research. Students come to learn what faculty glean from their research. Students acquire some level of expertise (depending on the degrees they attain) in those fields. Later on we decided that secondary education wasn't sufficient, so we started implementing general education courses. But it has always been a matter of modelling what it means to be educated with faculty as the standard. As higher ed became more about professionalization, we added more schools (and faculty) in those professions. The basic model remains the same. 

Changing the paradigm of higher education means changing this paradigm. What I don't see happening any time soon is a shift away from the research focus. If anything the demands for research have only increased during my time in the profession, and this is true across the campus. Faculty will continue to be asked to devote a large segment of their time to research (I would think anywhere from 30-50% depending on the college or university, community colleges excepted). And they will continue to expect (and be expected) to teach in their speciality as a significant part of their teaching load. The MOOC doesn't change this. In fact, the MOOC (at least the "bad" MOOC) intensifies this trend by focusing on lectures given by academic stars at top universities. 

However good MOOC practices do not focus on lecture videos, automated tests, and long pages of nested discussions. Instead they hold out the promise of engaged communities of learners. From what I can see it is a significantly different way of inhabiting the world (or at least the "classroom"). The question is how do we get there? I must confess that over the years my enthusiasm for online classes has declined. At first, I think it was a novel experience for students to be engaging with one another (and me) in this way. Now students have so many social media experiences (and obligations) that the class is just one of many. My sense is that many students want to log in intermittently, discover what they need to do, do it, and get out. In this way the "bad" MOOC gives them just what they want. And you can learn something that way, just like you can learn something from watching the History Channel. There's no doubt that truly motivated students can have great experiences in a MOOC. The problem is that most students aren't that motivated, especially when it comes to general education courses. 

As far as that goes it might also be difficult to motivate faculty to inhabit this online environment. After all, for the most part, it isn't their world. As such, the MOOC activity does break with the research focus of the university because the unacknowledged part of that focus is that it is not just the knowledge that gets shared but the practice of knowing. For example, in English, as scholars we read; we go to conferences where we present and discuss in small groups with others in our field; and we write, usually on our own. We replciate this experience for students with a lot of independant reading, lectures paired with seminar discussion, and essay assignments. True, there are giant lectures (at least at some universities) but we know those are not good pedagogy so we don't want to be working on replicating them. That said, it isn't so easy to replicate the lecture/discussion model either. And ultimately I think that would be an error as well as it misunderstands the mediating role of technology as an actor.

Instead, I think that a massive open online pedagogy requires a massive open online scholarly practice. Let's say, hypothetically that as a humanities professor I spend a 40-hour week in the following way:

  • 10 hours meeting with students, doing cmte work, and other service
  • 6 hours in the classroom teaching (if you are on a 2/2 load at a research university)
  • 10 hours preparing, evaluating, and grading for classes
  • 15 hours doing research which mostly means reading and writing independently

That means that 2/3 – 3/4 of your work is done in a solitary fashion. And that's the way most faculty like it. So what would humanities research look like if it were a networked practice integrated with the always-on, real time interactivity of social media? What would it look like if the 1000s of faculty and advanced grad students in my field were interacting all the time and that interaction was the basis for our research (rather than reading for months and then writing an article)?

I'm not sure, but whatever it is would be the basis for what a MOOC should be like. Perhaps we can start to see a hint of what such a thing might be in the digital humanities community, which is clearly very involved in social media. But even there much of the "real" research remains traditional. Not only would we have a long way to go to move in this direction, but right now I'm not even sure "we" want to move. It's one thing to say that "we" all know the university needs to change, but what is it that we are actually willing to change about our own work? Perhaps even more importantly, in what ways will students be willing to change?



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.