MOOCs Are Usefully Middlebrow - The Chronicle Review - The Chronicle of Higher Education
"I was having lunch with a brilliant, hip colleague in the digital humanities when the question of MOOCs came up. 'MOOCs are over,' she said. 'Administrators haven't figured it out yet, but everyone else knows.' My tech-savviest administrator friend agreed. Having taken two or three online courses to check them out, he admitted it: 'MOOCs are a sideshow.' The problems endemic to MOOCs are well known: the high dropout rate, the variable quality of the offerings, evaluation methods that make educators roll their eyes, stale lectures, and tests that make you remember why high school was such a bad idea. And with their failures, the way in which they've been sold by credulous columnists like Thomas Friedman and the self-serving entrepreneurs whose arguments he parrots—that is, as a replacement for traditional brick-and-mortar universities—is looking increasingly tenuous. Always one step ahead of the curve, the godfather of the massive open online course, Sebastian Thrun (who notoriously proclaimed that in 50 years, there might be only 10 universities left in the world) has thrown in the towel. He's announced that, following a disastrous trial run at San Jose State University and plagued by ridiculously low completion rates, his start-up, Udacity, would henceforth focus on vocational training. It is true that MOOCs are useful for learning certain delimited subjects—my administrator friend enjoyed his MOOC on statistics in everyday life, for example—or for brushing up on the latest information in a specific area. MOOCs also satisfy a vast and deserving market: the millions, if not billions, of people in the global South whose access to educational institutions is severely limited. But the dream of a MOOC U. fades with each empirical study showing their ineffectiveness, despite—or perhaps because of—a constant inflow of dollars from governments and universities. Perhaps the greatest testimony to the aspirations and flaws of the MOOC U. movement is a comment by Bill Gates. In an interview, Gates was asked if, as a Harvard dropout, he'd consider returning to college: 'I don't know. I take a lot of college courses. The online free stuff has gotten very good in these new MOOCs, where Harvard is doing edX and there's Coursera, Udacity, the Learning Company DVDs. ... Meteorology, biology, geology—I highly recommend. I just took oceanography last month. ... It's kind of ironic that I'm a dropout. I love college courses probably as much as anyone around.' Gates's shallowness is impressive: Hey! I took oceanography last month. Next week I'll master phenomenology! But his words also suggest why MOOCs, for all their many and obvious failings, are with us to stay. They speak to the deeply ingrained American concept of learning as practical, manageable, bite-size (hence byte-size). Knowledge becomes a commodity you can buy rather than a product of a process that takes time, effort, and patience to master. Gates's words speak to a view of cultural attainments that we call middlebrow ... MOOCs are just the latest incarnation of bringing watered-down versions of culture, knowledge, and learning to a mass audience. What we see as the courses' flaws may well be their strengths, and they have the potential to carry those strengths to a broader audience than ever before. Problems arise only when we think of MOOCs as university courses rather than as learning for the masses. Yes, the vulgarians who run Coursera and Udacity deserve to be swept into the dustbin of history, and the fact that they seem not to have figured out how to profit from their enterprises suggests that they'll soon be hoist by their own capitalist petard. When they are, the real action can begin. As the history professor Jonathan Rees puts it, the fast-approaching post-corporate-MOOC world 'will almost certainly be a period of real pedagogical innovation conducted by people who are more interested in actual education than they are in becoming famous or just making a quick buck.' That pedagogical innovation might well happen within the academy. Cathy Davidson, at Duke University, is conducting a meta-MOOC, designed to use the format to interrogate the past, present, and future of the academy. But hers is intended for mature audiences only—it's not for college students, but about them ..."