Duneier Should Reconsider Dropping His MOOC - Letters - The Chronicle of Higher Education
"I am writing this appeal in response to 'A MOOC Star Defects—at Least for Now' (The Chronicle, September 3) regarding Professor Mitch Duneier’s decision to cease teaching his 'Introduction to Sociology' on MOOC site Coursera. While I understand and fully respect Professor Duneier’s motives and his decision, I believe that he has not focused on the really important issues and that he should reconsider. In putting this case, I wanted to make several points about his concerns. Before I do that though, you may ask why this is important and why Mr. Duneier, in particular, shouldn’t give up at this point. I was one of the 40,000 students who took his sociology course when it first ran and I have to say, the experience for me was transformative. Not only did I get a sense of the true potential of MOOCs, but the course inspired and fed a longstanding desire to engage with the subject of sociology. That I did, and the too brief (for me) interaction left me wanting to know more. The course worked because of Mr. Duneier’s approach and skills as both an educator and an expert in the field. Undoubtedly, this would not have been the same experience if it had been anyone else other than Mr. Duneier presenting the course. Because of this course, I embarked on a journey not only to bring MOOCs to my own university, but also to explore this area from an educational and sociological research perspective. Let me turn to the first point that was raised in the article: the concern that state legislatures will cut funding to state universities by using MOOCs as a cheap alternative to face-to-face courses taught by faculty members. I am currently running a course for my students at the University of Western Australia using a MOOC from Stanford University called 'Introduction to Databases.' My students and I see this as an opportunity to cover material in an engaging way from an acknowledged expert in the field—Jennifer Widom, a professor of computer science. Like Mr. Duneier, she has offered her course on Coursera and subsequently also on Stanford’s own MOOC platform, Class2Go. I am using Professor Widom’s material in the same way as I would use a textbook written by an acknowledged expert in the field: Her recorded lectures contribute to the class curriculum, to which I add tutorial and laboratory work to reinforce the learning experience of the students. Professor Widom’s decision to allow this to happen, stems I believe, from a core belief that the 'open' in 'massive open online course' means that this content is available for anyone to benefit from, without restriction. And that is the central point, I believe, of MOOCs. By using this course, University of Western Australia students get the advantage of content provided by a world expert. Yes, I could do something similar, but this way I can focus my efforts on tuning her content to local issues of relevance to our students. Another point Mr. Duneier makes is his concern that the use of his course in other situations would not necessarily be 'pedagogically effective.' Well, we and many others are conducting research to answer that question and while we can’t prejudge the outcomes, there is no inherent reason to believe that the use of MOOCs in this way will not be effective. Our early results back that assertion. Mr. Duneier’s worry that MOOCs will serve as a justification for cutting universities’ funding has to be balanced by concern over the unsustainable position that universities worldwide find themselves in. Escalating costs have been passed on to students, who are burdened with ever-increasing amounts of debt. While I am an ardent advocate for increased public funding to address these issues, I believe that providing alternative avenues to students from any walk of life, unimpeded by their ability to pay, is an extremely important goal. There exists in this world a pool of 'stranded talent,' hidden from opportunity by circumstances of money, gender, and society generally. MOOCs offer a real opportunity to find and bring that talent to the surface. The questions of principle when it comes to doing a MOOC really should rest on the questions of making educational opportunity truly open, providing opportunity for all people of the world by removing any barriers, and by celebrating and engaging with the true classroom without borders that Mr. Duneier’s class epitomized. For all these reasons, I believe Professor Duneier should reconsider his decision not to rerun 'Introduction to Sociology.' I would be among the first to sign up."