MOOC’s are largely uncharted territory, great for some subjects/teachers/students, terrible for some, and so-so for the rest. There are hundreds of issues and complications which make it a difficult pedagogical forum, and most everyone who engages in this debate acknowledges that. In fact, I think you would be hard pressed to find an intelligently written article which ignored the issues with MOOC’s and instead encouraged the eventual demise of traditional academia. To participate intelligently in the debate over the future direction of education, specifically of post-secondary education, necessarily means that we assess the strengths and weaknesses of the “tried-and-true” University system. Unless you wear rose-colored glasses to class every day, it’s clear that traditional higher education is rife with issues: tenure politics, low-quality graduate TA’s, “professors” who are really researchers, student income disparity, racial and religious inequity and underrepresentation, exorbitant student loan debt, inadequate course availability, sub-par retention and completion rates, unaddressed social tensions and tragedies, artificial admissions criteria, subjective coursework quotas, a complete lack of inter-institutional standardization, student laziness and partying, name-school vs. state-school recognition, inadequate job preparation and career placement – these are just a few of the issues that existed at my small, private, midwestern alma mater.  I would be surprised if other universities could honestly claim that they don’t share these deficiencies.

This post is a response to the blog pose “Some Preliminary Theses on MOOC’s”, by Gerry Canavan. In summary, Mr. Canavan argues that Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC’s) are a detriment to the academic profession because they seek to unilaterally dismiss the historical significance of the university and abolish a model which we have depended upon for so long. He argues that MOOC’s are an unsustainable and  format for education and that we have resigned ourselves to their existence because we lack faith in our economy.

So, Mr. Canavan… the tone for most of the essay was condescending, hyperbolic, and under-researched – only in the last, paragraph did you deign to acknowledge one or two attributes to MOOC’s, presenting a more balanced picture of the issue with reasonable examples. The combination of the dismissive tone and the evidence you do not offer presents you, the author, as an academic elitist bitterly feeling the mortality of your profession. But if you take a walk outside of your academic bubble, you will see that this “mortality” is in form only. As our social consciousness changes and our social dialogue begins to assume and take for granted a communal desire for global egalitarianism across all sectors, industries, people, and nations, “academia” will become perceived as an industry rather than some kind of Platonic Form; education will begin to participate in the general economy in a more practical, accessible, and well-funded way, which is good for professors as well as students. All of which is to say:

Gerry Canavan – the MOOC’s are not out for your job.

First and absolute foremost, I reject your premise that the economic conditions will “reset”. That’s not an economically sound statement because economies don’t “reset” – we can’t press a button and start from scratch. We live on a continuum and that’s a complicated place to live. The world experiences recessions, makes adjustments accordingly, which then bring the world out of the recession. Depending on the flavor of the particular recession and the social climate, our specific adjustments are different – sometimes heavy-handed governments (Obama), sometimes not (Van Buren). But to suggest that we should make no adjustments and the economy will somehow “reset” itself is not only absurd, but its ignorant of how economics fundamentally function. Though I will not say continue to address this point later, I consistently reject your economic analysis of the MOOC situation because all of your arguments in this vein stem from this logic. The underlying argument is hyperbolic and uninformed and does not have a place in an academic discussion.

Your first main point is that MOOC’s use “computers, and the Internet? What could be more future-oriented than that?” Shockingly, this comment is satire and an effort to condemn the “futuristic” educational ideal of a MOOC. But it’s true – by their nature, MOOC’s are primarily forward-looking. However, your comment implies that the future-oriented focus results only from the technology on which MOOC’s are based. This assumption overlooks the more intangible, but far more relevant focus of MOOC’s – cosmopolitanism and the global conversation. MOOC’s are forward-looking and “future-oriented” primarily because they seek to break down cultural and economic barriers to information and education. Furthermore, while you are mistaken to treat “future-oriented” as a synonym to “end-of-history fantasy”, in fact MOOC’s do seek to end certain parts of history. Through educational accessibility and the expansion of literacy, MOOC’s and other global education projects seek to end the parts of human history where learning is censored, education is an aristocratic endeavor, and knowledge is a luxury. This kind of forward movement depends on historical issues – it seeks to identify and correct the inadequacies in that history. When you suggest that the MOOC pedagogical method is delinquent because it doesn’t focus on the past, you are not only completely missing the point of MOOC’s and an incredible opportunity as an academic, but you’re also working against your own purported principles – that “the entire point of the academy is discovery and dialogue”. You cannot shut down the dialogue about modifying higher education with derisive and sarcastic remarks and simultaneously claim to be a champion of dialogue and discovery.

The MOOC mission, as it is stated by MOOC giant Coursera is:

  We want to empower people with education that will improve their lives, the lives of their families, and the communities they live in

As far as I can tell, this does not speak to technology or future-orientation at the expense of our tried-and-true lessons. It speaks to an new ideal for education and a new forum through which to attain it.

You proceed to make the argument that MOOC’s depend on a non-existent “surety and fixidity of our current academic knowledge, but the point of the academy is discovery and dialogue.”
First, whatever the academy’s “point” is (and since academia is as old as the written word, don’t you think it’s a little arrogant to assume you know the whole “point” of the field, even if you went to Duke?) it’s hard to argue that there are fixed aspects to any curriculum, industry, or discipline, and it would be pretentious to claim otherwise. In fact, in all courses up to and including undergraduate studies, most courses are largely fixed in their content. If that weren’t the case, we wouldn’t have standardized tests, graduation requirements, GED’s, or majors and minors.  We mandate those things because we believe there are certain fixed aspects of each discipline that students should learn in order to be proficient in the field.  For quantitative disciplines it’s a little more straightforward than the humanities and arts, but the rule holds across the board. For example, there is some general assent about what constitutes a Shakespeare class because every English major in the world has to take at least one. Clearly academics depend on some surety and it’s hyperbolic and self-defeating to say that they don’t.
Second, I would argue that, for many people seeking affordable higher education, “discovery and dialogue” are no longer the purposes of higher education. Perhaps it’s the purpose of academia in theory and in history – but we live in a world based on practice and economics. We live in a world where people learn insofar as they need to complete certain tasks or else insofar as the subject interests them. For some, the task at hand is simply “to learn” – and those are the scholars and the professors, the researchers and the academics. That contingency of people is not going to magically disappear, and neither will the professions they engage in – namely teaching. Suggesting that the teaching profession will soon become extinct because of the advent of the MOOC reminds me of the suggestion that the occupation of Motherhood would disappear with the advent of an independent female labor force.  It’s a suggestion that’s borne out of fear for change and is not based on reality or an objective analysis of society’s needs, and the world’s cultural ebb and flow.

For your third argument about the eventual demise of the academic world – your points are both illogical and contradictory. First, let me speak to the theme that runs through your rant: you believe that the academic profession loses its value when MOOC’s are widely accessible and the course content taught therein is generally accepted as on-par with the course content taught in a traditional classroom. Specifically, you raise concerns about the replication of professors to perpetuate the academic profession as a result of MOOC’s.

Both points are illogical. First, though a MOOC can consist of 10,000 students, it is extremely unlikely that 10,000 students pass, or even stay in the class. In this regard, there will not be a sudden over-saturation of the market where we are plagued with 6 billion people waving around bachelor’s degrees with no way to differentiate between traditional and MOOC diplomas, thereby diminishing the value of “real” academia. Second, the fact that more people have access to higher education does not diminish the likelihood of future students becoming professors – these are unrelated phenomena, that happen to occur in the same academic sphere.

But in the event that you are, for some reason, still responding to the idea that giants like Coursera are right-wing plots to end liberal indoctrination and ‘out-source’ (perhaps better titled ‘digi-source’?) your job to “MOOC-ers”, please let me reiterate this point:


Speaking to your point about the administration of MOOC’s… well, honestly you’re just over-thinking it. The people in charge of the administrative tasks for MOOC’s would be the same as the administrative team that handles University life, class registration, non-profit educational funds, or really any other business. Administrative executives just might be the easiest thing to come by. And yes – perhaps some of them will have engaged in rampant MOOC-ery. I have faith that they will carry out the duties of their profession beautifully, despite that black mark on their conscious.

Judging by your harsh rhetoric and the fact that you did not incorporate any concrete examples into your essay, I assume that you’ve never participated in a MOOC – either as a student or as a professor. Maybe this is principle-driven, maybe not. If it’s principle-driven, then it completely undermines your very last point, “I don’t oppose the MOOC form in principle”. If it’s not, then you’re speaking from a place of willful ignorance. Either way, you should go ahead and try it – even professors can expand their knowledge and their interests with a free, no-pressure class through Coursera. The world of MOOC’s doesn’t have to just be about getting “the degree”. It’s largely about leisure learning – I should know, I do as much leisure learning as I possible can, through books, my blog, NPR, and Coursera.

So Mr. Canavan – rather than tell the world everything that is terrible and destructive about MOOC’s, your time would be better spent convincing the world that we still need small-town professors. Do not tell me all the things a MOOC is not. Tell me all the things that traditional university is. Because, frankly, your argument comes across as bitter and irrational. There are many more positive impacts you could have on the academic world if chose to advocate for those causes, like advocating for the hiring more young professors; making tenure rules more logical and less like a French union; cutting administrative costs; expanding social and psychological resources; increasing career advancement for graduates. These are all qualities that are absolutely unique to the traditional system – perhaps it’s time that academics did a little reflection and fixed the places where traditional university is broken before they start throwing stones at the MOOC house.