Of MOOCs and Mutants

Learn and watch.

August 24, 2015

Some three years ago, when MOOCs rose up on the edge of our collective, higher educational consciousness, they were hailed by some as educational saviors and derided by others as signifying the beginning of the end for universities. The third fall semester is now here with these creatures wandering among us. MOOCs are past their terrible twos, but what kind of three-year-olds they will make is still very much unclear.

As others have written about extensively in this blog and elsewhere, the status quo is that MOOCs are tolerated by most in our various worlds now.  What they will become was the subject of a recent blog post here, who also comes to this world, as I do, with both a professor’s eyes and an administrator’s eyes.  As a former tenure-track professor myself, I sometimes struggle through which lens to see things.  I like to think that administrators who have been tenure-track faculty possess both lenses and see in full high-def stereo, but I know many of my faculty colleagues would strongly disagree.

As a still active professor, I have found that what George Lakoff and Mark Johnson helped us see more than 35 years ago is essentially right. We are creatures of metaphor and also of simile. Having such tools to help us access things that we don’t quite understand is not only helpful, but perhaps a necessary part of the human condition.  The power and necessity of these images are linguistically and philosophically hard-wired into us.

With the shock of MOOCs somewhat behind us, how can we now incorporate them into our everyday lives and language? As an ex-MOOC-er myself, perhaps it will be argued that I am the wrong person to do this. That said, I propose that the best way we can think about MOOCs is as mutants. I mean to use this somewhat loaded term in the same way that it is used in the X-Men movie series. In that series of seven movies and counting, which has grossed over $3 billion, the people of Earth at first are enamored with these mutants. The mutants are under the watchful, if occasionally manipulative, eye of their university president of sorts. Their leader is Professor X, Charles Francis Xavier, a telepath who is said to have four Ph.D.s and an M.D., as well as having served as a faculty member at Columbia University.  In other words, he is a presidential search committee’s dream come true.

The non-mutants at first imagine these super-humans as saviors of a sort. When faced with extreme crises, the mutants are sometimes the only ones who can save the day. But, over time, it becomes clearer and clearer that the super-powers of these super-humans are almost always double-edged.  The mutants often cannot control their powers, causing collateral damage as they attempt to address the crisis. Their actions sometimes cause independent problems of their own.

What the normal humans realize over time is that these mutants and the use of their powers need to be watched carefully.  Their extraordinary reach and abilities can teach us a tremendous amount about ourselves, with our non-super-human powers, but they also have the power to cause us serious damage.

MOOCs partake of many of these same powers, both positive and negative. MOOCs have super-powers. They can impact tens of thousands of people. I very fondly recall sitting with faculty members at edX’s X Consortium schools as they realized that they were embarking on an endeavor where they could teach simply massive numbers of students. Before this, they could only hope to teach dozens of students at a time.  It is undeniably true that the “teaching” that goes on in MOOCs is of a different variety than the teaching that goes on in our offline classrooms.  But MOOCs provide access to what we are doing in higher education to millions of those who could never have dreamed of being in a classroom of any kind at our campuses, especially those learners in the developing world who are not necessarily looking for a degree from us, but perhaps a certificate or just the actual knowledge that we can transfer to them.

Universities, like the fictional worlds portrayed in X-Men, are in crisis.  In our case, it is not an alien invasion per se that we have to worry about.  Our campuses have been invaded and our potential students have been body-snatched by the same tide of globalism that is impacting nearly every other industry.  The Internet itself has made educational competition global.  That process cannot and should not be stopped.

Another of the key impacts of MOOCs is that they have opened the door to the broad introduction of technology into our classrooms and our campuses. I taught a fully online course this summer at Yeshiva University to students around the world.  Our product development team introduced an element of live interactivity into the course, with daily chats using Adobe Connect, and there are dozens of other such aids out there. And truly substantive masters degrees offered fully online truly become a reality with the insights that we have learned from the rapid development of educational technology spurred by MOOCs.     

Elsewhere on our campuses, alumni offices and others are also using these new tools.  Small Private Online Courses (SPOCs) are the spawn of MOOCs. A SPOC for alumni is a way for schools to provide a private space for alumni to reconnect with their schools on an educational and personal level. Such offices are also using impossibly fun web conferencing tools like Shindig and many others like them to keep their alumni connected to their schools, and hopefully sending in donations as a result.   None of this would have been possible without the disruptive mutant power of MOOCs.

We are learning an extraordinary amount from those who are assiduously studying MOOCs and how students actually learn. Many faculty don’t want to think of what they produce as being a product. Some of them (me included) entered academia because they didn’t want to sell widgets or shmattes for a living. But universities simply exist in a competitive environment. Even just considering the domestic market, students have oodles more choices than they did just 10 years ago. Each paying student is competed for and earned.  We hate to have some pesky administrator looking over our teaching evaluations. But students now face an open sea of choices. They can choose between, on the one hand, going to a school with a great teacher who has learned from the massively researched elements of teaching and learning in MOOCs, and, on the other hand, someone who demands that students conform to a professor’s style of teaching. They will choose to “buy” the better “product.” The scale and study of MOOCs can help all of us on that front.

Whether we like it or not, universities can simply no longer balance budgets by ratcheting up tuition by 10 or 20% each year. We are now just as likely to hear the terms “alternative revenue streams” and “return on investment” in departmental meetings as we are to hear terms like “new dialectics” or “intricate interconnections.”  The slightly grown up MOOCs are now rapidly turning the corner to profitability, especially at Coursera, where their Specializations are generating significant income for their partner schools.  Even if MOOCs aren’t generally generating direct revenue for schools, they are perhaps the best possible investment a school can make in showing that they are cognizant of the new higher ed reality.

Some will scoff at my use of a basically cartoon image to help understand what is happening in higher education.  I admit to being enamored with cartoons as teaching devices.  I am also a habitual user of metaphors and similes in my teaching.  There is a mutant version of this very creature already in existence.  It is a MOOC on contracts created by Charles Fried and the HarvardX team.  This is a daunting subject, especially for those who have chased papers over many years at Harvard Law School, and Professor Fried is a daunting person.  Making him into a cartoon opened up this important subject to tens of thousands.  The creation of this rigorous and engaging course with a deeply traditional professor at one America’s most deeply traditional institutions is a microcosm of the changes we have seen over these three years.

Finally, with Charles Francis Xavier/Professor X front and center here, it must be asked if it really is a surprise that the consortium of schools that is affiliated with edX calls themselves the X Consortium. Coincidence? Perhaps. When you get back to campus, look for the MOOC mutants. They are there. Be guided and helped by them, but continue to watch them carefully.

Akiba J. Covitz is Executive Director of YU Global: Yeshiva University Online.  He previously served as associate dean for faculty development at Harvard Law School, vice president for university partnerships at edX, and senior vice president for strategic relationships at Academic Partnerships.  Before all that, he recalls a simpler time as a professor who could simply watch comic book-based movies without thinking about work.

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