Invasion of the MOOCs: Is higher ed's most disruptive force simply a fad?

MOOCs. Seemingly overnight, these free, massive online courses took higher ed by storm. While some saw, and continue to see, MOOCs as the key to delivering cost-effective lecture hall and remedial courses, larger concerns loomed over whether the seemingly revolutionary tech would disrupt higher education, effectively replacing instructors with computers or eliminating physical campuses.

While the latter was likely never going to happen and experiments with the former have infamously produced mixed results, questions remain about the place of MOOCs in higher ed. Two Michigan writing professors, Eastern Michigan University's Steven Krause and Grand Valley State University's Charlie Lowe, set out to further that discourse with a new essay anthology, Invasion of the MOOCs: The Promise and Perils of Massive Open Online Courses, chronicling the prominent online learning fad.

We caught up with the two editors to talk about the rise of the MOOC and exactly what kind of invasion this has been.

What prompted Invasion of the MOOCs?

STEVEN KRAUSE: Last year about this time, Charlie and I were at the big conference in our field, which is the Conference for College Composition and Communication. At that time, there was a lot of concern among people at that conference — and this is for people who are teaching classes like first year writing and stuff like that. The phenomenon of massive open online courses was moving so quickly that there was a real palpable anxiety about what this might mean for the way that we tend to teach writing, in small group classroom settings. You remember freshman comp, right?

Yeah.

KRAUSE: That sort of thing. I had been working on a variety of different projects. I’d had an article come out in one of the journals in the field, and I had been blogging about it a lot because I’d been in a number of MOOCs and I’d given some talks and things like that. And we talked about how the time seemed to be right to try to put together a collection of relatively short essays by people who were teaching in MOOCs, and academics who had been students in MOOCs, and other academics who’d been critiquing MOOCs — not necessarily being negative, but analyzing MOOCs critically, because we hadn’t seen a lot of that in the mainstream media. What we’d seen was a lot of hype by the likes of Thomas Freedman and those kinds of characters, who don’t really know anything about education at all. A lot of it was kind of, for lack of a better way of putting it, wishful thinking from academic presidents and administrators and education entrepreneurs and those types. So that’s what kind of prompted us to put it together.

I read that the collection was put together on kind of an expedited schedule, just because of the way that MOOCs have progressed and how it wouldn’t have made sense to have the collection come out two years from now as opposed to getting it out there as quickly as possible. What was that process like?

KRAUSE: First off, that’s absolutely right. And it’s interesting, because as we were getting ready to go to press with this, putting the finishing touches on it, in December or so. Shortly before that is when you had Sebastian Thrun come out in Fast Company talking about how he thought that Udacity had a terrible product and all that kind of business. The timing of that was pretty interesting because there’s a number of chapters in the book that are very critical of the kind of relationship that Thrun had with San Jose State [University].

But anyway, the thinking was, from the beginning, was that this was gonna have to be something that moved at a pace that's much quicker than is typical of academic publishing. ... The two things that I think we did up front to really expedite things quite a bit was we didn’t have so much a call for chapters as we had a list of people we contacted and said, “We’d like you to contribute.” And then I described the review process in Google Docs, which I think was innovative and also helped move things along.

MOOCs as a trend, as a phenomenon, was — and still is, really — moving so quickly that we were afraid that if we took a more traditional route, it would be too late. Just way, way too late.

CHARLIE LOWE: Yeah, because No. 1, it could be out of date by then, and No. 2, there just seemed to be a need for more critical reflection from faculty to be a part of the discourse. It just felt like there was a lot of talk about what MOOCs could do and not a lot of faculty voices there, so we felt like something needs to be published fairly quickly to contribute to that.

What have you found most surprising about the changing state of MOOCs? They were originally painted as a revolution, but do you feel like they’ve kind of fallen into stagnation, or are they still a revolutionary force?

KRAUSE: I guess there’s two things that, to me, are just striking about the trends. The first thing is that I cannot think of anything in terms of instructional technology, or any other trend in higher education, that has had this quick of a rocket-rise of prominence and just a plummeting through the floor of negative reaction. I mean, MOOCs aren’t going to go away or anything like that, exactly, but again, it is not an exaggeration to say that when we were first talking about putting this together in Las Vegas, there were college professors who were seriously concerned about what this meant for their future — for what this meant for the future of things we believe in, as far as education goes.

The second thing is that even with the whole sort of meteoric rise and then the plummeting into the trough of despair, as I believe one of these marketing people calls it, if you ask people who develop MOOCs and things like that, point-blank, “What do you think MOOCs are for?” it’s still not entirely clear. The answer that you get from educational entrepreneurs and people who stand to make money from this is different from the kind of answer that you get from people who develop or who have actually taught in these MOOCs. In our collection, what’s kind of interesting is there are people writing more or less in favor of the MOOC experience, and there are people writing more or less against the MOOC experience. There are people who are writing from the vantage point of being students in MOOCs, and there are people writing from the vantage point of being teachers in MOOCs. None of these people — no matter which side of the, to be polarizing, “MOOCs are good/MOOCs are bad” kind of divide that you want to set up, at least in our collection — thinks that this is a good idea for college credit. But that seems to be at odds with the kind of goal that companies like Coursera and Udacity and edX seem to be up to.

LOWE: I think it’d be fair to say that it’s been hyped as revolutionary, but if you look in the historical context of how much money has been out there funding ways to find cheap ways to do education, for example, the federal government put out millions and millions of dollars in grants in previous years to try to find ways to do online courses for more technical or skills-oriented types of careers. The Gates Foundation’s been funding a lot of different programs to try to find a way to put forth alternative educational approaches. MOOCs just happen to be the choice of the moment, I think is the way to describe it. As Steve was saying, you start to hear from people who are actually working with them and you find that maybe it’s not quite so glamorous as it was made out to be.

The other part of that, too, is there are people in the open educational community who are always looking for, “What’s the great thing we can do with online education to help our global society get a better education?” You tend to see a lot of the people in that area running with the ball, saying, “MOOCs! MOOCs! This will be the solution to that!” So, as Steve’s pointing out, now you’re seeing a lot of people going, “OK. Now that we’re past the ‘this sounds great in theory’ and we’re actually working with it, there are some benefits in this," but it’s not what all of these people were looking for.

It's interesting, the difference in where the people behind edX and Udacity and Coursera see MOOCs going now, as well. Sebastian Thrun, at the end of last year, was talking about how he sees them becoming more of a tool for vocational learning and monetizing it that way, which to me sounds sort of along the lines of a lot of the online for-profits that exist right now. And with edX, at CES in January, Anant Agarwal in his presentation said that he sees them as more of a tool for facilitating classroom learning in a blended model.

LOWE: But they’re looking for where to market. That doesn’t necessarily mean that’s where MOOCs need to go. I’m distrustful of what directions they want us to head because that’s where they feel like they can make some money. It’s not about, necessarily, where the real benefit to education is.

KRAUSE: I think that’s absolutely right. I think there’s, at this stage, a lot of a throwing stuff against the wall to see what’s gonna stick. Remember, the other thing is that, before, Coursera, as an example, and also Udacity were really working hard to partner with institutions to develop credit.

Now, this is way back when. One of the visions that they were kind of floating was the idea of MOOCs circumventing higher education generally. That is, never mind the credit — you would just collect badges or time served or what have you, and that would be a way to sort of gain access to higher education without having to deal with this sort of nagging university structure. That didn’t catch on very quickly, so they went to the credit sort of thing.

I always go back to the example of the personal computer. When it was first developed, with the people who were first making them and talking about them being in the home, one of the big uses that was always touted and hypothesized by the manufacturers – because way back when, people would say, “Well, what would you do with one of these computers in your house?” – is recipes. In other words, the main reason you’d have a personal computer at home is to keep track of the recipes that you had so that you could cook different kinds of food. Well, obviously, that didn’t come to pass, right? [Laughs]

That’s one of the things that’s sort of curious about MOOCs. I understand the reasons why Coursera and Udacity and edX and whatever other large, corporate entrepreneurs want to project a use, because they’re trying to get some money for it. But the problem is how institutions and people actually end up using these things might be entirely different.

And it might not be sustainable, either.

LOWE: We do know one area that the MOOCs might work, and that’s replacing core, large lecture courses where students have hardly any interaction with the instructor — where they’re basically just absorbing the lecture information and taking tests. Certainly, MOOCs could work in that particular instance, although what we really need to do is fix those courses so they don’t work that way.

KRAUSE: Yeah. And I think that an important point that Charlie’s raising here is that whether or not you’re gonna have a chemistry MOOC replacing Chemistry 101 on most college campuses — I don’t know about that — but it does make very visible the way that education works differently in different settings. I mean, we’ve kind of always known that, right? There’s a reason why there’s not really a lot of examples of lecture hall first-year writing classes, or lecture-hall fine arts production classes or whatever. There are some courses where some things we’re trying to teach in education where the small group, small interaction, is valued. But one of the things that a technology like MOOCs raises, again, is why that’s the case – why that big lecture hall might be an acceptable solution in some situations and not acceptable in others.

The title of the collection paints MOOCs as sort of an invading alien force. What led to that sort of allusion?

KRAUSE: It’s funny because one of the contributors to the book did not initially like the suggestion of invasion, because “invasion” sort of has, I guess, a negative connotation. But I was also thinking, and I think Charlie would agree with this, in terms of, like the British invasion – the invasion of the Beatles in the ‘60s, if you will, where all of a sudden you’re just besieged with mop-top music acts and stuff like that. [Laughs] Charlie was the one who designed the cover for the book, and I think he has a really good point in terms of how it was set up. It’s a friendly alien on the cover. It’s not like the alien from the “Alien” movie. It’s kind of happy-go-lucky. The alien on the cover of our book looks like it might be kind of fun. [Laughs]

LOWE: Right. And I think the tone of the collection is not as tough or maybe derogatory as the title might suggest. It is, to a certain extent, embracing of MOOCs. It’s just not embracing of MOOCs for college credit. [Laughs]

So it’s definitely not a “War of the Worlds” type of invasion where we’re all just waiting for the common cold to take out the MOOCs?

KRAUSE: No. I guess I’d go back to the Beatles thing. Or just any kind of fad, if you will, where you wake up one day and, all of a sudden, everyone’s talking about this. Because that’s kind of the way MOOCs at least felt to me when they first came on the scene. Again, if you look at the collection, I think it’s a fairly evenly toned collection of essays. There’s a few essays in there that are pretty specifically anti-MOOC and speak of MOOCs in pretty not-even-remotely-positive terms. There’s a couple of essays in there that are, I think, frankly, are really romantic about MOOCs — talking about them in terms of building these communities and making friendships forever and stuff like that. But, again, the thing that’s interesting is we’re talking about people who are actually experiencing being in MOOCs — either as instructors, as teachers, as critics — and really trying to, in fairly short and accessible essays, dig into what this phenomenon is about in a way that is a lot less surface-y than most of the stuff that I think has shown up in the mainstream media.

 


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Top Image Credit: Parlor Press/Charlie Lowe