Dear Superprofessors: The experiment is over.

Dear Superprofessors,

I know it has been a long time since I addressed you all directly, but there’s been an important development in MOOCville that I wanted to be sure that you all saw.  Perhaps you noticed that edX and Arizona State were starting their own all-MOOC Freshman year.  That’s not actually the development I’m referring to here.

I’m talking about this clause of the edX/ASU contract, first spotlighted by the great Tressie McMillan Cottom, as quoted by John Warner:

Non-InstitutionX MOOCs. Institution will evaluate other MOOCs offered on the edX Site and, subject to appropriate review and approval, consider offering Institution credit for a fee to edX learners who earn, or have earned, verified certificates of achievement for such non-InstitutionX MOOCs.

As Warner explains it:

This particular clause makes it clear that ASU has the potential to expand their laundry service to the entire edX universe. In other words, they may do what the founding partner institutions of edX – MIT and Harvard – would likely never consider, give full institutional credit for a course taken as a MOOC outside their own institution.

I actually think things are even worse than that.  Some of this has to do with Matt Reed’s observation about charging a fee for accepting transfer credit being novel, but what I’m really talking about is that it will now become open season for accepting credit from every MOOC out there.

This was always a possibility.  Indeed, we were discussing this in the comments of my old blog way back in 2012.  Here’s Princeton History professor (and my old superprofessor) Jeremy Adelman:

Maybe I am thick or something, but I don’t follow your logic. I know exactly how my course is being used. We/I have explicitly forbidden anyone from using our course for any credit.

And here’s David Mazel of Adams State University in Colorado (now retired), explaining the problem with that assumption:

Jeremy, I understand and respect the spirit in which your MOOC is being offered. But I’m wondering exactly how the credit exclusion (“We/I have explicitly forbidden anyone from using our course for any credit”) can be enforced. I’m trying to think how that would play out on the ground.

If my own humble institution were to start offering credit for MOOCs, it would doubtless do so under our Credit for Prior Learning policy. Let’s say a participant in “A History of the World since 1300″ winds up learning enough to qualify for credit under our CPL policy. Are we supposed to tell this student, “Sorry, kid, no credit for you, because even though you clearly know the material, you learned it from a MOOC with a credit exclusion”?

That seems neither sensible nor fair. Furthermore, how would the person charged with evaluating the CPL application even know whether there was such an exclusion in the first place? We certainly can’t rely on the student to tell us. It wouldn’t be in the student’s best interest to tell us, and anyway how many students would even read, much less remember, that kind of fine print? So, should Adams State University be keeping a list of which MOOCs can be used for credit and which cannot? I suppose we could do that, though it might prove difficult. (It would certainly be easier if it were the MOOC-provider’s responsibility to notify colleges about credit exclusions, rather than the responsibility of colleges to research the question themselves.)

Now that it’s in Arizona State’s financial interest to accept as much MOOC credit as possible, all prior restraint will disappear.  Indeed, now that the cat is out of the bag, look for more schools to become predator universities any day now.

What this means for you superprofessors is that your time to “experiment” is now over.  Whether you like it or not, people will soon be giving credit for your MOOCs to the exclusion of courses taught by living, breathing faculty all around the world.  I think this gives you two options:

a) Explain exactly why your video lectures and computer algorithms are pedagogically superior to actual human beings with PhDs. Or

b) Get out of the MOOC business altogether.

Faced with trying to do a), Jeremy essentially chose b).  As long as you choose neither, you are part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

With Respect and Love,


Jonathan Rees

Professor of History, Colorado State University - Pueblo.

This Post Has 5 Comments

  1. Historiann

    To use a cowgirl metaphor, Jonathan: I’d stay instead that the horse has left the barn!

    Does anyone else remember when nearly 20 years ago someone posted nekkid pictures of Dr. Laura Schlesinger on the internets? (Don’t Google it if you don’t.) The point is that the traditional means of controlling the spread of information or photos are useless once it’s posted on the world wide timewasting web. You can’t issue court orders or injunctions to anyone and everyone around the world who knows how to right-click a mouse.

    The notion that MOOC content providers can control the uses to which their content is put is kind of like Dr. Laura’s fantasy that she could somehow seize and destroy every digital copy of her nekkid pictures. That’s not how the internets work.

    You’re welcome.

  2. anonymous

    FWIW, Jeremy Adelman did quit Coursera, but he didn’t get out of the MOOC business at all. He offered another adapted of the course in 2 parts on NovoEd as a MOOC in the fall (“Global History Lab”).

    1. Jonathan Rees

      The xMOOC business. That’s why I wrote “essentially.”

Leave a Reply