Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities
17May/130

The MOOCs Debate Continues

ArendtWeekendReading

Thinking stops us. To think is to slow down, even stop, turn around, and reflect. There is that famous scene in the Symposium where Socrates simply stands there in the street for hours, thinking. Barbara Sukowa, in the new film Hannah Arendt, literally smokes saying nothing for minutes on end to offer the exemplary sense of what it means to stop and think. One might even subtitle the new film “Smoking and Thinking,” which is a reminder of one loss—amidst many benefits—that health concerns and the end of smoking means for our thinking lives.

Thinking is especially important at a time of excitement and speed, when everybody around you is rushing headlong into the newest 'new thing'. The new thing in the world of teaching is, of course, online education and particularly the MOOC, the massive open online courses that seemingly everyone now wants to offer. There is a steamroller effect in the air, the fear that if we don’t get on board we will be left behind, standing alone in front of our blackboards lecturing to empty seats.

classroom

Or worse, that we will become an underpaid army of low-paid assistants to superstar professors. Outside of these professional and personal concerns, there is the worry that the rush to online courses and online education will cheapen education.

Aaron Bady seeks to slow us down and think about MOOC’s in his recent essay in The New Inquiry. Here is how he describes our current moment:

In the MOOC moment, it seems to me, it’s already too late, always already too late. The world not only will change, but it has changed. In this sense, it’s isn’t simply that “MOOCs are the future, or online education is changing how we teach,” in the present tense. Those kinds of platitudes are chokingly omnipresent, but the interesting thing is the fact that the future is already now, that it has already changed how we teach. If you don’t get on the MOOC bandwagon, yesterday, you’ll have already been left behind. The world has already changed. To stop and question that fact is to be already belated, behind the times.

The first thing I want to do, then, is slow us down a bit, and go through the last year with a bit more care than we’re usually able to do, to do a “close reading” of the year of the MOOC, as it were. Not only because I have the time, but because, to be blunt, MOOC’s only make sense if you don’t think about it too much, if you’re in too much of a hurry to go deeply into the subject.

Bady is right to ask that we slow down, and of course, this is happening. Amherst College and Duke University recently voted to pull out of EdX and rethink their online strategies. The philosophy department at San Jose State, a university that is embracing MOOCs, issued a thoughtful open letter questioning the implementation and use of MOOCs. At Bard, where the Hannah Arendt Center is located, there are ongoing and serious discussions and experiments proceeding on how to use MOOCs and online education in pedagogically sound and innovative ways. Many schools that don’t get the press and attention associated with speedily adopting the MOOC model are thinking seriously about using MOOCs well, and more generally, about how to employ technology in ways that will enrich or expand the classroom educational experience. In this way, MOOCs are actually spurring reform and innovation in ways Bady does not consider.

Nevertheless, in asking that we breathe, stop and think, Bady does a great service. He clearly has worries about MOOCs. And the concerns are meaningful.

MOOC’s are literally built to cater to the attention span of a distracted and multi-tasking teenager, who pays attention in cycles of 10-15 minutes. This is not a shot at teenagers, however, but an observation about what the form anticipates (and therefore rewards and reproduces) as a normal teenager’s attention span. In place of the 50 minute lectures that are the norm at my university, for example, MOOCs will break a unit of pedagogy down into YouTube-length clips that can be more easily digested, whenever and wherever. Much longer than that, and it falls apart; the TED talk is essentially the gold standard.

MOOCs as they are today do break the large lecture into smaller bits. They require students to answer questions after a few minutes of the lesson to make sure they are following it. Before one can continue, one must in essence take a quiz to see if you are getting it. Let’s stipulate: this is juvenile. It treats the college student like a grammar school student, one who knows little and cannot be trusted to be attentive on their own and needs big brother watching and making sure he is paying attention and learning at every minute.

In short, MOOCs threaten to change education to be about shorter, less demanding, more corporate lessons. The focus will be on skills and measurable learning. What will be sacrificed is the more difficult-to-measure experience of struggling with difficult ideas and the activity of thinking in public with others. Bady’s point, and he is right, is that a fully online education is hardly an education. It is a credential.

That may be true. But the sad fact is that for many if not most of our college students, college is more of a credential than an intellectual feast. Most students simply get very little out of large lectures.

lecture

If they are not sleeping or on Facebook, they are too often focused simply on learning what is necessary to pass the exam. This is a reality that many who criticize MOOCs are not facing up to—that our current educational system is, for large numbers of students, a sham; it is too often a waste of time and money.

Bady focuses on the last of these concerns and believes that the driving force of the arguments for MOOCs is economic. He writes:

But the pro-MOOC argument is always that it’s cheaper and almost never that it’s better; the most utopian MOOC-boosters will rarely claim that MOOCs are of equivalent educational value, and the most they’ll say is that someday it might be.

On this reasoning, MOOCs will soon take over the entirety of higher education, devaluing higher personal instruction. Bady is partly right. MOOCs will devalue a college degree, as ever more people can cheaply acquire one. But they will likely increase the value of a college degree from a physical university where students learn with real professors who care for and nurture them. In short, MOOCs will likely increase the attraction of and resources for those institutions that provide personal educations. There will always be some people who desire a meaningful education—although the number of people who do so is likely smaller than academics would like to admit. What MOOCs allow is for us to provide cheap and more effective credentialing educations for those who don’t actually want to invest the time, effort, and money in such an intellectual endeavor.

And this is where MOOCs have a real potential to provide a service, in separating out two now confused aims of higher education. On the one hand, education is an intellectual pursuit, an opening of the mind to an historical, moral, beautiful, and previously hidden world.  On the other, it is a credential for economic and social advancement. Of course these distinctions can be blurred, and too often they are completely, so that education as an intellectual activity is reduced down cynically to a credential. I think MOOCs can change this. By making the choice more starkly, we can let students choose which kind of education they want. And for those who simply want a credential, the MOOC option is probably better and cheaper and more convenient.

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Bady doesn’t take this seriously because he worries that MOOCs are being offered as a replacement for education at all levels. The confusion here, however, is a difficult one to speak about because the issue is one of elitism. We need to recognize that some colleges and some students are aspiring to offer an education. Others are providing instead a certification. But since we call all of these different endeavors a “college education” we confuse the question. One great side-effect of the MOOC phenomena is that we may once again be able to recall that not everyone in a society wants or needs a college education. The best answer is then to spend more resources on our abysmal system of high school teaching. But that is another story.

Bady’s essay is one of the best around on the MOOC phenomenon. It is well worth your time and is your weekend read.

-RB

To read more Arendt Center posts about education, teaching and MOOCs click here, here, here, and here.