I’m participating on a roundtable on MOOCs at the 4Cs conference in a couple weeks. It’s one of those experiences that shows the temporal disconnect between the churn of technological innovation and the stately pace of academic discourse. We proposed this roundtable nearly a year ago, and I think the things we would have wanted to say then probably are less applicable now. Or at least that’s the case for me.
Here’s what I’m thinking now (and I imagine I’ll say something along these lines). A year ago some folks were gleefully pronouncing the end of higher education and proclaiming that MOOCs would revolution learning on a global scale. Today that revolution seems very far away. While MOOCs might remind us that education is intertwined with technologies, they might also show us that technologies cannot solve the challenges education presents. Millions of people are not going to log onto a website, interact with some material, and teach each other in any sustained, programmatic way. Perhaps we can imagine some near future AI that will teach us things or even that we could download knowledge into our brains like the Matrix. But those fantasies, like the fantasy of the MOOC seem to misunderstand how learning, pedagogy, and education work. These fantasies are not so different from the one that imagines that we could just read books and learn that way.
To me, the most interesting thing about the MOOC was watching how institutions, disciplines, and faculty responded with a mixture of entrepreneurial opportunism and trade protectionism. This is particularly the case for composition. The basic argument against the composition MOOC is that instructor feedback is crucial to writing pedagogy and cannot scale to the level of a MOOC. It begs the question of whether one can learn to write without instructor feedback. I’d say the answer is yes. I mean I did, unless you count a couple check marks and “very good, B+” as feedback. But that’s not really the point. It is a more systemic, networked issue. If the goal is to be able to write for academic classroom environments with a single primary reader/professor (and then later to write for professional environments with a single primary reader/boss), then the traditional classroom fits into that system/network. If, on the other hand, one needs to learn how to communicate in a distributed, non-hierarchical digital environment with 1000s of members, then a MOOC isn’t a bad place to start writing. However neither of those are good models for understanding how communication works today for the average professional, college educated citizen in the US.
The other side of the MOOC equation is not about pedagogy but about the economics of composition instruction. Sure, it’s pretty cheap in terms of adjunct pay. So maybe there’s this fantasy of even cheaper, automated instruction. There certainly is from the student perspective trying to get out of paying for those composition credits. And as a discipline we have an interesting reaction to that. No one is in favor of the exploitative practice of hiring adjuncts, but no one wants to fire their adjuncts either. As such, compositionists find themselves defending adjunctification and the status quo against moocification. In the continuum between status quo and abolishing fyc, where does the composition mooc stand? Is it better than nothing? Worse than nothing? Do we really prefer adjunctification? Or are we insisting on some idealistic model of well-paid instructor-mentors who will deliver a curriculum that is ultimately anachronistic anyway?
The rapid rise and decline of MOOCs is a familiar tech start-up story. However, the obvious shortcomings of MOOCs have not reaffirmed the continuing value of traditional methods as much as they have shed light on challenges that remain unmet.