MOOCs: Making the unacceptable acceptable since 2012.

I seem to find myself writing more and more about MOOCs again.  Some of this is due to the fact that I’m finishing a book chapter on them right now.  Some of this is due to the fact that they’ve been back in the news again (think edX/ASU).  But some of this is also due to the fact that a certain category of higher education VIPs have been saying the same old very stupid things about MOOCs in public again, and there’s no better way to piss off an historian than to forget the past.

Do you have a high tolerance for nonsense?  If so you might want to read this example of an MIT professor taking the red pill in public right there in the “pages” of the Huffington Post.  Since making fun of numbering MOOC iterations is way too easy for me, I’ll just quote his definitions of “MOOC 1.0” through “MOOC 4.0:”

MOOC 1.0 – One-to-Many: Professor lecturing to a global audience
MOOC 2.0 – One-to-One: Lecture plus individual or small-group exercises
MOOC 3.0 – Many-to-Many: Massive decentralized peer-to-peer teaching.
MOOC 4.0 – Many-to-One: Deep listening among learners as a vehicle for sensing one’s highest future possibility through the eyes of others.

What’s “MOOC 5.0” going to be, you ask? My guess is Oprah’s Book Club.

As you probably know already, my schtick is to discuss the implications of MOOCs in whatever iteration they happen to be at any given moment for the academic labor system. Therefore, I can’t help but notice that the higher MOOC numbers go (at least in this version), the less important professors become.

Now a lot of you, including a fair number of you who were making fun of the author of this piece on Twitter yesterday, really do believe in your heart of hearts that this a good thing. Indeed, if I’m reading the back and forth right, this was actually the root of the Siemens/Downes argument that surfaced earlier this week. George thinks that universities are a good thing for education, including high-tech education. Stephen would rather encourage people to learn for themselves.

Well, count me on Team Siemens for this one. I’ve been teaching history for fifteen years now and shockingly enough I actually think that my services are valuable. Without me, plenty of students I’ve taught over the years would never write an essay or visit a library or even pick up a non-textbook because I was the first professor who made them do so. Not only that, I’ve seen with my own eyes students who hate history leave my class loving the subject. I’m not saying this is a common occurrence, but it is the most desired outcome of all my classes.

More importantly, I simply don’t understand how any superprofessor could ever achieve the same result. Indeed, part of what makes the red pill so appealing is that all of a superprofessor’s MOOC students actually want to be there, otherwise they wouldn’t have signed up for the class in the first place or they would have dropped out before the first taped lecture.

If there’s a message that the ASU/edX deal should send any ordinary non-superprofessor, it’s that your university can get along without you. After all, most college dropouts leave during their freshmen years. Rather than actually help those freshmen stay, ASU wants to expand their numbers into the hundreds of thousands so that they can keep the wheat and let the chaff continue to fall where it may.  That’s why if we all un-center ourselves entirely from the learning process and we’re all going to find a lot of unemployed professors before too long – just not the ones who already work for MIT.

If you want to read somebody take on this whole MOOC 4.0 thing more directly than me, then read Rolin Moe here.  However, the epiphany that Rolin’s post led me to came not from his take down of that MIT professor who’s been tripping to hard on that red pill, but from this passage:

The only reason we can have MOOC 3.0 before MOOC 2.0 (not to mention huge announcements from Coursera and edX at the same time as educational media tell us MOOC hype is over) is because MOOC has little practically defined meaning. It is immaterial, hype, folderol.

That’s what makes MOOCs so frustrating for those of us who haven’t been popping pills. We recognize them as nothing more than a way to make the unacceptable acceptable. [“You have to educate yourself, Buster. Oh, by the way, where’s your tuition check?”]  Eventually the MOOC hype will wear off and all we’ll have left is a MOOC hangover.

Unfortunately, being right about MOOCs will not be a sufficient substitute for collecting a regular salary.

Jonathan Rees

Professor of History, Colorado State University - Pueblo.

This Post Has One Comment

  1. David Mazel

    Wow. Just read Scharmer’s “MOOC 4.0” over on HuffPo, and I have to say I’ve never seen such a densely packed mass of woo.

    It’s not just another MOOC. Oh, no.

    It’s “the next revolution.”

    It “pushes the MOOC design envelope by blending a globally transformative platform with an eco-system of deep personal, locally grounded learning communities.”

    It “puts the learner into the driver’s seat of profound social change.”

    It “empowers change makers to co-sense and co-shape the future.”

    We’ve barely gotten out of the first paragraph, and already it’s the fucking Age of Aquarius.

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