The Rise of MOOCs and The Myth of Mass Exodus in Traditional Higher Ed

The Rise of MOOCs and The Myth of Mass Exodus in Traditional Higher Ed

For those who follow the MOOC debate, every day is Armageddon: The Last Professors: The Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities, “The Year of the MOOC,” “Higher Ed in 2018,” “The Major Players in the MOOC Universe,” The One World Schoolhouse: Education Reimagined, “Massive online education: Daphne Koller at TEDGlobal 2012, “Of Machine Guns and MOOCs: 21st Century Engineering Disasters,” “An Open Letter to a Founder of Coursera,” ad infinitum. Because the debate is kairotic, and both parties are deeply committed to their visions, funders, livelihoods, and learning communities, there appears to be no saturation point.

Neither the idea of the traditional university nor the MOOC vision of universal access to education is new. Both promise to create, preserve, and disseminate knowledge in some fashion, and both operate on a hierarchical business model where students are consumers, tiered faculty are human resources, and administrators solicit and redistribute the funds that govern growth and organization. Though they share organizational features, and therefore some of the same top-down management flaws, each presents unique problems and paradigms. The global exponential scale of MOOCs, however, poses a threat to the majority of traditional higher-education institutions unlike what we’ve seen with previous experiments in universal, open education.

But competition drives change, and the MOOCification of higher education, like it or not, stimulates much needed reflection on current practice and policy that could and should provoke institutional reorganization. Sir John Daniel posits: “The competition inherent in the gadarene rush to offer MOOCs will create a sea change by obliging participating institutions to revisit their missions and focus on teaching quality and students as never before. It could also create a welcome deflationary trend in the costs of higher education.” Despite the revolutionary hype, we are in a speculative phase at best.

Though the connectivist origins of cMOOCs can be traced to a cohort of professors at the University of Manitoba in Canada, corporatist xMOOCs became, not too ironically, the domain of elite universities, conceived by a handful of scholars and techies for the masses. Roughly condensed, cMOOCs connect communities of learners to question and create knowledge, such as Hybrid Pedagogy’s MOOC MOOC, whereas xMOOCs disseminate and test knowledge via recorded lectures, automated quizzes, and structured discussion forums. As Audrey Watters discusses in “The Forgotten History of MOOCs”: “While cMOOCs are strongly connectivist and Canadian, xMOOCs, as Mike Caulfield contends, exist ‘at the intersection of Wall Street and Silicon Valley.’”

Currently, keywords such as “innovative,” “universal,” “free,” “open,” “democratic,” and “global” set MOOCs (c and x) apart from fee-charging institutions with admissions criteria and accreditation; however, “open” and “free” may be temporal adjectives designed to hook adopters of xMOOC models (the more corrosive of the two). One prominent MOOC provider, Coursera, “envision[s] a future where everyone has access to a world-class education that has so far been available to a select few. We aim to empower people with education that will improve their lives, the lives of their families, and the communities they live in.” And now many universities, elite and non-elite, itch to participate in MOOCs while others are content to ride it out or fortify the gap: maintain the traditional status quo.

The problem with maintaining the traditional system is that it is fundamentally broken, even if it is not beyond repair. James C. Wetherbe, Professor at Texas Tech, advocates freeing up millions by abolishing tenure: “At no other time in history has the American higher education system been in greater need of radical change. The place to start: abolishing tenure.” What if traditional universities reorganized, converted tenure-track lines to multi-year contracts, and required all instructors to participate in ongoing annual reviews and continuing education? Continuing education is required in the medical industry, why isn’t it so in education? Educators should stand at the forefront of technology and invention as creators, preservers, and disseminators of knowledge, and students need diversifiable 21st-century skills to communicate effectively and compete in the market economy.

Openly recognizing and reversing unfair labor practices and adopting existing just models is a start. There is an army of adaptive adjuncts desperate for change: I am one of them. And there are tenured professors, hopefuls, staff and administrators just as eager to hold on to their positions with benefits. I see more envy, contempt, and dissent on the traditional end of higher education than I do in the MOOC universe, and foundations and venture capitalists are keen to gift mass amounts of funds to MOOC startups. The pressure for reorganization on multiple levels is hard to ignore, and arguably welcome.

Even the public funds and private gifts that traditional public institutions depend on are increasingly limited and/or earmarked for projects with a particular agenda. For example, Arlene Schnitzer recently made a $2.3 million gift to Portland State University’s College of the Arts to help build a glass tower in memory of her late husband, Harold. It is her hope that “this iconic tower will serve as inspiration for a continuing vision of a great and creative education within the halls of this building.” While investing in iconic infrastructure may seem excessive in our cash-strapped economy, who can argue with Schnitzer’s tribute to inspiration and vision? The tower may stand as a metaphor for a bygone era of education or a shift from the opaque and elitist ivory towers of the past toward a transparent future.

Yet it is no wonder why this stressed environment pits tradition against innovation, administration against faculty, and tenure-track against non-tenure track faculty. Those who do go against the grain are few, and others who would are fearful of retribution or do so anonymously. There is little questioning among the tenured lot when it comes to lifeboat ethics. Perhaps we need a glass tower after all to rekindle passion and transparency within the halls. Ideally, the symbolic tower should promote authentic institutional change, including a revamped rather than continued vision of the modern academy.

But with the rise of MOOCs, will anything really change? Harvard will attract future elites and HarvardX will attract the masses, no surprise: their bases are covered. The hierarchical structure and class of education depends on ideologies, and while it is true that changes in institutions and ideologies can affect the mode of production (tools and technology), their influence is secondary. When students and free agents of academe (the base) embrace technology and challenge the superstructure, change will surely follow. MOOCs and Ivy Leagues don’t have as much to worry about as the second and third tier universities do, as their once steady stream of public funds, endowments, students, and adjunct labor bleed out; in a system so fractured, something has to give.

Though I do not side with the reactionaries or the visionaries of MOOC models in higher education, a disruption of traditional higher education that embraces technology and emphasizes the need for radical paradigm shifts is overdue. My frustration with traditional HE sparked my interest in MOOCs, and recent dips into various MOOC pools (Coursera, edX, and Udacity) proved enlightening. I have enrolled in five courses, and faded out of one due to lack of time and interest (Philosophy with a self-help leaning), one is yet to begin: Globalizing Higher Education and Research for the “Knowledge Economy,” one I follow along with, but do not complete any quizzes, assignments, or level-up coursework (The Ancient Greek Hero), another I struggle to keep up with because it poses a challenge (Web Development), and, lastly, I enrolled in Writing II: Rhetorical Composing for curiosity’s sake and Professor Cynthia Selfe’s ethos. This particular course is dynamic not because the material or approach is new to me, though I know it is for others, but because of the networks I am building among fellow Courserians.

The transformative power of MOOCs lies within the personal connections more than the course design or delivery. The diversity I encounter every time I log on fascinates me and keeps me coming back. I communicate with a retired professor from Patagonia who shares a love of literature and Malbec, an Italian art critic whose appreciation of Italo Calvino is infectious and authentic, a fellow educator and web programmer who invited me to participate as a beta tester for MOOCAdvisor, and too many others to mention. And for the critics who hold that MOOCs are fully automated and lack instructor presence: not true in this case. Professor Selfe, et al., are present in the discussion boards, and though comparatively sparse given the overall volume, their comments are thoughtful and uniform.

The course is not flawless, however. With approximately 29,000 enrollees, issues inevitably arise. In general, varying levels of aptitude (technical, disciplinary, language, and personal), and learning styles present some confusion. This is to be expected, and this is not unique to MOOCs, as instructors of traditional face-to-face, hybrid, and online courses well know. And you also have the occasional Internet “Troll” who willfully neglects Netiquette, is red flagged and redirected, or reported and banned. Personal safety, though a real concern in any open environment, online or in person, is no more a risk in this massive course as it is in a lecture hall of 200 or a poetry workshop of ten; in fact, the odds decrease (1 in 29,000 versus 1 in 10).

Another flaw is the concept of mass produced courses, for credit or no, and the learning management systems that, despite best online practices, depersonalize learning. It may be the future, but just like eating mass-produced or genetically modified food, it is not ideal. But for those who cannot afford an ideal education, anything is better than nothing; however, I worry about the homogenization of higher education. My impression of Writing II: Rhetorical Composing may be unique because of my prior, formal, learning experience and interested disinterest, but I have seen fellow enrollees struggle with the content, the LMS, automated screening, and peer interactions. Clearly, MOOCs do not fill every gap.

Nonetheless, with millions of global learners interested in MOOCs, and numerous personal testimonials that confirm the quality of the experience, the threat to traditional higher education persists. What if completion certificates are not a placebo, but authentic qualifications that future employers will recognize? What if more lectures stream from MOOCs into traditional classrooms? And Aaron Bady reminds us, “what could be more hierarchical than a high prestige university like Harvard lecturing to a less prestigious institution like SJSU?” Surely, outsourcing scholarship is not a good thing when the source becomes the standard; we need diversity of opinion and style. But as more universities team with MOOC providers to offer discounted programs or individual courses for credit, we must consider the pros and cons of such a blended solution. Technology driven MOOCs can supplement traditional face-to-face, hybrid, or fully online courses without usurping the need for personal interaction and online presence. In this sense, the MOOC as resource (MOOR) is a plus.

But if universal access to education really is the future, does this spell mass exodus from traditional higher education? I don’t think so. A portion of society still values brick-and-mortar institutions, college football, live professors, live lectures, print textbooks, iconic glass towers, and ceremonies. And for those who don’t value or cannot afford traditional higher education, MOOCs, in their present form, offer the choice and chance of education; and this is empowering.

But MOOCs will likely morph again, and what now appears to be a movement toward democracy and deinstitutionalization could impose more regulation on academic freedom, as we know it. It isn’t hard to imagine that MOOCs could replace general education courses that present canned content and lack dimension, and this would displace more contingent faculty than the present traditional HE system already does by increasing class caps and hiring more disposable workers to avoid paying benefits or setting reemployment precedents that may be actionable with union protection and collective bargaining rights. However, I do not see MOOCs filling the role of progressive community colleges or general education programs because new and returning students in particular thrive in settings where peer and instructor feedback is dynamic and uniform, and you just cannot get that from automated screening or analytics.

All things considered, I am for the modernisation of traditional higher education, and this includes financial transparency, equality and diversity, innovative practices, and accountability to our students and profession. Traditional higher education should tap into the connectivist approach of cMOOCs and value xMOOCs as resources, not replacements, in order to attract learners and create knowledge that serves a wide population. I have already addressed the significance of community in and beyond MOOC settings, and this is evident in organized Meetups, Google+ Hangouts, and Facebook Groups. But the subculture is more rhizomatic than a/synchronous virtual or in-person networks; for some, MOOCs are addictive similar to the well-documented addiction to MMOGs, the acronym for Massively Multiplayer Online Games that Massive Open Online Courses appear to model their acronym on. I am not surprised that learners are flocking to MOOC models instead of outmoded institutional norms, and this more than anything signposts and necessitates change.

[Photo by C.P.Storm]

About the Author

Tiffany Kraft

Tiffany Kraft (@TiffanySKraft) teaches English Composition and Literature at Clark College. Her research interests include 19th-century British Literature, creative writing, Rhetoric and Composition practice and pedagogy, and adjunct advocacy. "I teach in a way that leads to an awareness and appreciation of the craft of writing." You can find more at tiffanykraft.me.

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