More on MOOCs

The discussion on MOOCs and their implications has continued unabated, with universities outside the UK and the US joining the so-called ‘democratization of higher education’. In spite of numerous problems such as a high drop-out rate – and in spite of prophesies about the death of the MOOCs – these online courses have opened up a dialogue about change in the higher education sector. The MOOC phenomenon, in many ways, consists of two divides. As Bonnie Stewart outlines expertly, there is a perceived binary of privatization (market-driven education based on a business model devised by giant corporations in Silicon Valley) vs. the public status quo, upheld by those who vehemently defend the traditional boundaries of academic institutions. Of course, one problem with this binary view is that universities are already privatized or run like for-profit corporations, with or without MOOCs, and market forces have always influenced academe (an influence evident in the dire funding situation). In that light, the more plausible argument is the one put forth by Stewart – namely that ‘MOOCs are a symptom of change in higher education, not its source’.

Another divide in the MOOC phenomenon is the rift that might be created between elite universities that produce MOOCs and the less prestigious institutions that buy license to use those MOOCs in their classrooms. The recent debate started by professors in the philosophy department at San Jose State University highlights the worrying possibility that online courses would damage the credibility of smaller institutions and their faculty, and worse, ‘replace professors, dismantle departments, and provide a diminished education for students in public universities.’ (NB: San Jose State has recently announced that it would put the MOOC project with Udacity on hold, so perhaps the philosophy professors’ criticisms have helped to instigate change.) The emphasis on prestige is no doubt a part of an intricate marketing scheme. According to Andrew Ng, co-founder of Coursera, ‘Most people today will never get to take a U of T class or a Caltech class. But I would love to see a future where the University of Toronto is teaching not just thousands of students but millions. And the world will be a much better place for it.’ His claim is questionable – to link progress and improvement to enrollment at U of T seems tenuous at best, for it is not so much attendance at elite universities that would transform the world, but rather a dedication to learning and self-improvement. Further, Coursera, the largest of the online providers of MOOCs, are now offering courses by less well-known universities (there are even courses in different languages), so hopefully the divide can be bridged gradually, and the global student population will be exposed to more diverse teaching methods and intellectual approaches.

In June this year, I started taking an MOOC offered by Coursera – it is a module on photography and its cultural implications, taught at Royal Holloway, University of London. The course thus far has been fascinating, the lectures engaging, and the materials easy to access, so as far as user experience is concerned, I am pretty content. Of course, due to the demands of my own job, I have not been the most diligent student, and have not participated in the online forum with thousands of other students. But this MOOC experience has been remarkably insightful in two regards. 1. Teaching an MOOC is probably an effective way to practice adjusting pedagogical approach according to the needs of the students, since the global classroom would include students who do not come from an English-speaking, Anglo-American background; such adjustments might then trickle back into the physical lecture hall, thus improving the learning experience of students who are enrolled in the institution.

2. MOOCs are arguably good for the humanities (especially since a virtual space would not make sense for the sciences that need physical facilities). It is no longer controversial to say out loud that the study of literature, philosophy, art and history is in decline, or in a crisis. But as Rosanna Warren argues, academics are partly responsible for this decline. Warren provides a sobering reminder about how specialized jargon, narrowing reading lists and pedantic approaches have, to a certain extent, alienated the students and the wider public, and obscured the values of the humanities. Many literature departments in Asia, for example, train their students to read theoretical texts only, and one could graduate with a PhD in English literature without having read much of Shakespeare (though one might be well versed in Derrida). This is not to undermine the importance of theory, nor am I arguing for the so-called ‘canon’ to the exclusion of all other works, but something must be said about why we do the humanities. Judith Butler, in a commencement address at McGill University, remarked that ‘[The humanities allow us] to learn to read carefully, with appreciation and a critical eye; to find ourselves, unexpectedly, in the middle of the ancient texts we read…The humanities give us a chance to read across languages and cultural differences in order to understand the vast range of perspectives in and on this world. How else can we imagine living together without this ability to see beyond where we are, to find ourselves linked with others we have never directly known, and to understand that, in some abiding and urgent sense, we share a world?’

The question, then, is one of community, to which writers and commentators on the value of the humanities continually return. The MOOCs might offer the humanities a chance to reach a larger audience, to rigorously demonstrate its persistent relevance to our world, and perhaps to instigate change. Maybe these online courses, which create a different kind of community, can provide a space for the humanities to thrive outside the traditional, research-based academe. So the problem is not really about privatization vs. status quo, but about how we can innovate education so that it yields something other than monetary profit. Now is indeed the time to talk about engagement and impact, though probably not in the sense that administrative authorities think. The MOOCs do remind me a bit of the pamphlets published in nineteenth-century England by the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge. We now need to talk about ‘universal schooling’ in a new sense. If MOOCs are indeed a symptom of change in higher education, then I hope they will help disseminate meaningful knowledge, and help us think about what being together means in the face of the cruelties, mass disillusionment and relentless volatility of our times.

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