One could be forgiven for believing that MOOCs had simply faded away. When they first came on the scene, MOOCs — Massive Open Online Courses — were widely and wildly predicted to be about to change the world, and they would do this in three to four weeks. The high cost of higher education would plummet to near zero; second-tier academics would find themselves out of work as the first tier monopolized the MOOCs in their field with the attendant global reach of the Internet; the big-name colleges and universities would be left floundering with their high cost structures and inflexible design; and a new highly-educated global workforce would raise living standards everywhere. Venture capital began to pour in and one institution after another desperately climbed on the bandwagon while the music was still playing. Whether the vision of the MOOCs was utopian or dystopian depended on your point of view — and vested interests. We heard quite a bit about the virtues of face-to-face education (taught increasingly by stressed adjuncts who can’t rub two dimes together), the role of the inspired instructor standing before attentive students, and the “experience” of living in a community of scholars. For many undergraduates a residential education is a study in sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll: when we talk about institutional support for an education in the classics, this is what we mean. And the MOOCs were going to take all that away.
One could be forgiven–and one would be wrong. As Clay Shirky points out in a trenchant essay on Medium, online education is alive and well and growing at a rapid clip. The reason we don’t see this is that we have fallen for the old magician’s trick of distracting us with one hand while the other reaches into the hidden pocket to pull out a pigeon. Have the MOOCs changed the fundamental experience of undergraduates at Harvard, Amherst, Pomona, and Yale? No, and that’s the distraction. Meanwhile, the students at less prestigious institutions are taking more and more courses online; enrollment is growing; online education has found a foothold in the education marketplace. The MOOCs have not faded away, but they have been transformed to meet the actual needs of the non-elite students, who make up the majority. Readers of the Scholarly Kitchen, who are among the elite and who work with the elite, may have overlooked the MOOCs simply because they are themselves not part of the primary MOOC audience.
As I wrote that paragraph It occurred to me that some background may be in order. To begin with, what the heck is Medium? If you are not familiar with this service, check it out. It was founded by Evan Williams, who already has Blogger and Twitter to his credit, making him one of the few entrepreneurs who have transformed the digital world more than once; we do not have his equal in the world of scholarly communications (but Vitek Tracz is a credible nominee). Medium is a community long-form writing platform, and it may be the platform you will be using in the future. Indeed, why is the Scholarly Kitchen still sitting atop WordPress when it can use the easier tools and free services (including superior discoverability) of Medium? And after you answer that question, consider all the time and money that goes into open access hosting services. Why not Medium? It’s there, waiting to disrupt.
As for Clay Shirky, he is, I think, the most insightful observer of digital media we have. Google him; he is everywhere. Anyone who believes in the democratizing power of digital media — open access advocates, this means you — should look at Shirky on the Web’s Power Law. But I recommend starting with his first book, Here Comes Everybody, which describes the world of social media and explains how it differs from other media. Less persuasive is his Cognitive Surplus, the thesis of which is that humanity has a surplus of intellectual power that can be released and made productive through the careful use of collaborative technology. And where will we find the under-optimized surplus? Why, in all that useless television watching. The notion that people can be “improved,” genetic engineering aside, strikes me as grist for satire, but not everybody shares my sense of humor. In any event, Shirky apparently has not actually watched television in the past decade; his views are still anchored in what Newton Minow called “the vast wasteland” of fifty years ago. If we are suboptimized while watching The Wire, Wolf Hall, and The Sopranos, I wonder what standard Shirky would have us live up to. Pinterest?
One final point on Shirky before returning to online learning. There is something of gratuitous politicization in his writing (cognitive surplus/surplus labor: get it?). Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, sometimes a group of people is just a group of people and not a political movement. Shirky, with his talent for neat turns of phrase and barbed aphorisms, seems to imply that we are all complicit with the reactionary forces that his collaborative community is cleverly overturning. He is an exasperating figure, who can pick a fight with you even when you agree with him.
And I do agree with him. The force of Shirky’s arguments is that he shows us how to think of online media in its own terms rather than as an extension of traditional media. It takes nothing away from Downton Abbey and Empire to say that the Mechanical Turk and Hadoop operate on different principles. When we return to the MOOCs and view them with Shirky’s guidance (i.e., online education is something that is not traditionally associated with the form of instruction at Princeton or Yale), we can begin to see their appeal.
Let’s take a look letter by letter:
- Massive. Why must an online course be massive? Why cannot it be narrow and targeted? While there are millions who can and should learn calculus, there is a much smaller number who need to learn the basic accounting of, say, running a restaurant or managing a small hotel. Have we been so seduced by the big numbers that we have overlooked the need to train people to handle the small ones? Why is it that we solely praise those who “think outside the box” when the frustrations of daily life stem largely because there is inadequate thinking inside the box?
- Open. Open everything would not be a bad thing, if we could figure out how to make it work. In the meantime — for the next ten thousand years — having people pay for services they receive has the benefit of creating a competitive market, where buyers can be matched with sellers, and right now. This is not the perfect solution but the practical one, especially considering the lower cost of online delivery compared to site-based education and the possibility (and moral responsibility) of subsidizing the impecunious.
- Online. Well, yes, but does that mean face-to-face education is without value? It is worth examining how outcomes could be improved by combining online content delivery with classroom-based discussion. Some things should be online-only, but some may best be hybrids.
- Courses. This seems self-evident, but we have to be careful not to impose the structure and assumptions of the traditional classroom on online learning. Should an online course be the equivalent of a fourteen-week semester, or are there topics that can be handled meaningfully in shorter (or longer) programs?
The MOOC, in other words, has not disappeared. It has begun to adapt to the world it operates in, starting with a big utopian idea and gradually finding new uses and new users. This is the way it is with digital media, indeed of all media. The new medium starts out as an alleged replacement for an established medium and then gradually finds its own way as it discovers its underlying nature and marries those capabilities to genuine interest and demand in the marketplace. We will be seeing more MOOCs (no doubt expressed as a different acronym) in the future, which represents a genuine area for growth for publishers that are stymied by what appears to the unimaginative as a flat or declining marketplace.