The rush toward the creation of massive open online courses (MOOCs) is catching on in higher education like wildfire. All it takes, it seems, is to wave a bit of money around, talk up the brave new world of technological innovation, bash the “failed” world of higher education as we know it, and the privatization troops have administrators in a fit of unexamined, swooning technophilia. These “courses,” however, in addition to offering false promises, also undermine shared governance, run roughshod over established curriculum development procedures and move colleges toward the era of “teacherless classrooms,” which destroy the academic integrity of our institutions and demean the value of the education our students receive.
MOOCs are designed to impose, not improved learning, but a new business model on higher education, which opens the door for wide-scale profiteering. Public institutions of higher education then become shells for private interests who will offer small grants on the front end and reap larger profits on the back end.
At present, MOOCs are being proposed as solutions to enrollment shortages, among other things, in open-access institutions such as community colleges. The MOOC crowd promises cost savings, efficiency, improved access and the answer to our “completion” woes. The concern as voiced by Arne Duncan himself is that in our quest to increase completion, maintain quality and save money: “The last thing we want to do is hand out paper that doesn’t mean anything.” Wethinks he doth protest too much.
And that’s the big lie behind this allegedly noble quest to provide much broader access to higher education and improve student learning. There is not a bit of proof that MOOCs will do so in any meaningful way. The notion is to turn community colleges into Petri dishes for MOOC experiments, principled objections be damned. There are costs to cut in the public sector and dollars to be made in the private sector.
The much-hyped arrival of MOOCs has been made possible by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and a host of the usual corporate education reform suspects, who have long been involved in a full-court press propaganda campaign for their venture/vulture philanthropy.
Some of these interests are trying to figure out schemes for monetizing MOOCs in such a way that the small percentages of students passing MOOCs in cyberspace would pay institutions for certificates of competency awarded for completion of prescribed course regimens. Indeed, colleges and universities conceivably might even cash in further by recommending the most successful students to corporate interests … for fees.
Critics, meanwhile, are easily dismissed as part of the corrupt old world of failed higher education, troglodytes as afraid of this bold new magic as cavemen were of fire. And to the consternation of the self-proclaimed “change agents,” those reactionary faculty shielded by union contracts and powerful academic senates stubbornly resist the next new wave. Never are the implications of the MOOC offerings — typically announced with fanfare — outlined with respect to faculty and classified staff workloads (e.g., registering students and setting up and maintaining the technology infrastructure for individual course sections which, in some cases, have enrollments in excess of hundreds or even tens of thousands of students). Students will grade each other, or course work will be evaluated through word recognition computer software programs. Faculty, the promoters tirelessly stress, just must stop lecturing, instead becoming “facilitators” for student engagement in experiential education. And what of the student support services? Or, perhaps, in this idyllic (or should that be dystopic?) educational space, those needing support are just left out in the cold, after corporate partners first have made their millions though software sales.
In the San Diego Community College District we have dared to step in front of the vaunted train of progress that many of us see as nothing more than a repackaged Taylorism for academia. The San Diego City College Academic Senate recently passed a resolution decrying the move toward MOOCs. The resolution followed on the heels of a faculty presentation at the San Diego Community College (SDCCD) Board of Trustees meeting in response to administrative attempts to circumvent the departmental and collegewide shared governance process so as to rush through grant applications for MOOCs at both City and its sister college, San Diego Mesa College, before any campuswide discussion had occurred. This resulted in Chancellor Constance Carroll declaring a one-year moratorium on MOOCs in the SDCCD while a task force investigates the appropriateness of this new form of instruction for our district.
In our view, the central philosophical flaw in the MOOC paradigm is that proponents believe that there is nothing to be lost in turning professors into glorified tutors, parts of a larger information delivery system. What this misses is the key fact that the heart of what we do as college educators has to do with the immeasurable human interaction that we have with our students and the vital social experience of the face-to-face classrooms. This is something that simply can never be reproduced by a new technology, no matter how advanced.
Demoting professors to the level of information delivery systems may be gratifying to our detractors and financially attractive to bean-counters but it won’t improve education in the process of “transforming it”; it will degrade it. But to the academic Taylorists, who don’t believe in anything that can’t be quantitatively measured, this kind of thinking is destined for the dustbin of history.
No doubt the brave new world of MOOCs will give lots of people who can’t go to Harvard access to “Harvard,” but it won’t be same. Indeed, the future of higher education will be less egalitarian and far more two-tiered with the sons and daughters of the elite still receiving real top-quality educations while other folks will get something different, quick, cheap and easy.
But this tale of two futures is perfectly in line with the thinking of the plutocrats who brought us the “productivity revolution” in the business world. There they got a smaller number of American workers to labor longer hours for the same money and fewer benefits while increasing productivity and bringing record profits for those at the top. In the realm of higher education, they can blame the colleges for the fact that fewer graduates are prepared for employment in the austere marketplace that they fostered while milking our schools for profit and transforming them to their purposes at the same time. It’s nice work if you can get it.
In the meantime, our job as professors, according to the dictates of the emboldened technocrats, is to become rope-makers for our own professional hangings. The debate here is not really one about technology and higher education, as most of us know that online education is now a permanent part of the educational landscape with legitimate uses. No, what this MOOC debate is about is whether we blithely open the door to the gutting of what is most precious about what we do.
If the unthinking technophilia and new Taylorism which MOOCs represent ends up killing face-to-face education as we know it, it won’t be because the technology offers a superior form of education. It will be because our visionless political and educational leaders have almost entirely abandoned educational values for market values. As many scholars have noted, in the era of neoliberalism we have just about given up on the notion of education as a public good rather than a mere commodity. Let’s hope we don’t allow this near-total triumph of market values to destroy one of the last public spaces in our society not completely determined by greed and instrumentalism. As opposed to the creed of the forces of privatization, we believe that there are still things whose value cannot be determined by the market and that education in a democratic society should be much more than an instrument of our economic system.
Six community college faculty members
Jennifer Cost is chair of English department at Mesa College.
Jim Miller is professor of English at San Diego City College.
Jonathan McLeod is professor of history at San Diego Mesa College.
Marie St. George is professor of psychology at San Diego City College.
Peter Haro is president of San Diego City College Academic Senate.
Jim Mahler is president of the American Federation of Teachers for the San Diego and Grossmont–Cuyamaca Community College Districts.
Tasked with assessing our first massive open online course (MOOC) here at U of All People, we have spent the past month temporizing, asking off-topic questions, and whatever else it is that assessment committees do. See Appendix A for suspiciously precise quantitative measurements. Below is a summary of our findings and recommendations, subject, of course, to the whim of the chancellor.
In its proposal, the original MOOC committee decided to retrofit Professor Arthur Treadwell’s Astronomy 101 lecture course, largely because of its huge enrollment (over 250 students) and reputation as an easy A. The “new” course, entitled The Universe Is Ours, consists of fifteen lectures, now copyrighted in the university’s name.
The syllabus and course requirements appear satisfactory, save that the syllabus is the same over-Xeroxed sheet from twenty years ago, and a MOOC has no course requirements. The 15 lectures form the backbone of the course; also, the cranium, pelvis, and tibia. It’s a MOOC: what you see is all you get. In general, the lectures are well-presented, though a few glitches remain that should be corrected in the final version.
Lecture 1: Starts too soon, with Professor Treadwell making a lewd joke to a front-row student identified as “Tiffany.” Tell Tiffany to wear more restrained clothing, or else Photoshop a bra on her.
Lecture 2: Camera angle is off; focuses solely on Prof. Treadwell’s shiny bald spot.
Lecture 3: Audio feed occasionally inaudible; fix lapel mic so that it doesn’t slide down Prof. Treadwell’s chest and make that sucking sound.
Lecture 4: Different professors have different pedagogical techniques, but in this talk, Prof. Treadwell exhibits so little body movement that the lecture hall lights, activated by motion sensors, fade after five minutes.
Lecture 7: Missing. The syllabus reads “Spring Break,” which is a poor excuse.
Lecture 10: Prof. Treadwell seems oddly morose and disappears in the middle of his talk, re-emerging from the wings a few minutes later, bleeding from his left ear.
Lectures 11-13: Repeatedly, Prof. Treadwell exclaims, “Now listen up, ’cause this’ll be on the final!”— when in fact the MOOC has no exams.
Lecture 15: For the final talk in the series, we suggest at least a smattering of applause, rather than the profound silence at the end of this lecture, followed by Prof. Treadwell’s coughing fit.
Is Prof. Treadwell really the best person for this trial course? If too late to change, perhaps provide a body double or a guest lecture by someone in the theater department.
What about trying other departments? Not the English department, which is impossible to deal with, but maybe art or psychology.
If MOOCs at other universities are so “open,” what’s to prevent us from adapting (or adopting) some of those lectures?
Through content licensing, the MOOC may eventually generate real income. U of All People can sell the course back to the university (U of A P), in the process charging students per tuition credit. To become a three-credit course, the MOOC may be augmented to include:
* a Kindle textbook download.
* discussion forums, with slave or adjunct labor to monitor chat rooms.
* quizzes and assignments, peer-scored. Tout it as part of the learning process, and put the bastards to work. If successful, can be applied to all other coursework.
* that final exam that Prof. Treadwell keeps referring to, overseen by enough adjuncts to avoid paying anyone full-time rates. May be replaced by student peer reviewers (see above).
* MOOC student data forms that we can peddle to marketing firms.
Without course requirements or grades, who cares? But if we push the MOOC as a graded, three-credit course (see above, under Monetization), we need some safeguards in place, or at least something more than a lame honor code. The IT group at U of All People has recently developed its own proprietary software, Gotcha, to deal with student plagiarism and copycat Scantron issues. To date, it has caught 100 percent of the student body.
We could use a good slogan, though the PR department’s “If they can do it, so can we!” sounds too defensive. “At U of All People, the Future Is MOOC!” sounds too much like “moot,” but if no other options, maybe O.K.
We might also develop an alternative acronym to MOOC, something friendlier and more intimate-sounding, though "Mega Enrollment Seminar Series" may not be the way to go.
Given a modest investment of time, energy, and money, U of All People should be able to put forth a MOOC to rival its sister and brother and even cousin institutions. But first, fix that camera angle so we don’t have to stare at Treadwell’s bald patch.
David Galef directs the creative writing program at Montclair State University. His latest book is the short story collection My Date With Neanderthal Woman (Dzanc Books).
Given its history of losing faculty members in bizarre and distressing ways – amidst circumstances only whispered about in dread and confusion, the details never to be gleaned from the public affairs office’s laconic press releases -- Miskatonic University has never been a magnet for outside research funding. Observers have long wondered how the institution keeps its Arkham, Mass., campus open, much less populated.
The answer may be found, as it happens, as close as the shelves of any bookstore dedicated to marketing wares to the undiscriminating reader. More than 30 years ago, in a transaction conducted with its usual aversion for publicity, the Miskatonic administration contracted with a New York publisher to issue a mass-market edition of the jewel of its library’s rare-books collection. This was the sole known copy of the Necronomicon, a grimoire compiled in the 8th century C.E. by Abdul Alhazred and translated by the polymath John Dee, official astrologer to Queen Elizabeth.
The book’s reputation with nonspecialist readers has come primarily from a handful of references by the American speculative fiction author H.P. Lovecraft, in short stories concerning the ancient beings who lurk beneath the sea and in higher dimensions, waiting to reclaim Earth and to continue their pursuit of cosmic ends that are incomprehensible to the blinkered human intellect, though no doubt unspeakably horrific.
One may well doubt the wisdom of Miskatonic’s licensing arrangement. To publish a guide to the blasphemous necromancy that would summon creatures both pestilen and cyclopean to manifest themselves on the plane of an all-too-fragile reality would be a questionable decision even if the text were only available in an Elsevier journal, rendering access too expensive for most of mankind. How much more irresponsible, then, for it to be released in paperback edition readily shoplifted by teenage Satanists who perform the rituals after huffing paint thinner. (They account for roughly 67 percent of The Necronomicon’s current readership.)
But given Miskatonic’s difficulty in attracting donations from alumni – or, in many cases, even finding them – the Necronomicon royalties have been a godsend, if that is the word one wants. Certainly the venture has gone better than the institution’s recent experiment in distance learning, a mere hinting reference to which, it is said, drives survivors into a fury of shrieking madness.
Now, only a little of the above is, strictly speaking true. Miskatonic University does not actually exist. (It does have a website, however.) John Dee was indeed a formidable man of learning and Her Majesty’s sometime astrologer, but he did not translate the Necronomicon in the 16th century for the very good reason that Lovecraft only made it up in the 20th. That a paperback edition of what purports to be the cursed book has been published is true, though not the statistic about two-thirds of its enthusiasts being inhalant abusers. There, I’m just guessing.
The significant thing about the Necronomicon isn’t just that a nonexistent book can generate so much fascination that someone decides to write it; that’s just the sign of a publisher savvy enough to follow up a good tip. No, the interesting thing is to trace the subsequent history of the manifestly bogus paperback. Enough people have convinced themselves is an authentic work of occult knowledge that there is now a milieu dedicated to practicing its rituals, and to defending its integrity as an ancient document. Lovecraft only thought he was writing fiction, you see, because the Old Gods were using him as a mouthpiece. Prove they weren’t!
A paper appearing in The Irish Journal of Gothic and Horror Studies covers the phenomenon in sufficient detail for most readers, though it looks like the tip of the iceberg next to The Necronomicon Files, a study of the whole murky saga that debunks the cultists’ claims and rationalizations with great thoroughness. Which won’t make much difference, of course: the will to believe is a hardy vine, with deep roots. But The Necronomicon Files is a more serious work of scholarly detective work than might have seemed possible, given the topic, and I’ve been meaning to bring it up in this column since discovering the book.
Shorter and less outré, but tackling another case of imagination and reality getting tangled up, is Georges Minois’s The Atheist’s Bible: The Most Dangerous Book That Never Existed, published in France three years ago and now available in translation from the University of Chicago Press. In broad outline, the stories look analogous. The condensed version has it that in the course of a 13th-century test of strength between sacred and secular authority, Pope Gregory IX claimed that, among countless other sins and blasphemies, Frederick II had either written or caused to be written a work called De tribus impostoribus -- “On the Three Imposters” -- referring to Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad. Something to offend everyone, in every place the Crusades had reached, as if that hadn't been enough.
The title was so appalling that church authorities naturally wanted to make sure it was destroyed, once they’d read it themselves, just to see how great a danger it posed to others who might be lead astray. And they surely would have held quite a bonfire, had anyone actually published the work -- or, indeed, written it. The fact that the book did not exist made it difficult to find, of course, while also firing the imagination in transgressive ways.
“Repeatedly,” Minois writes, “people would think they were on the point of uncovering it, of knowing who was the author, and each time it was only an illusion. It was an effective scarecrow, because its title alone created fear…. [yet] people were curious to know the contents: what revelation would it contain? what arguments might it develop? The church tracked it to destroy it, while heretics and atheists chased after it to read and make use of it, and still others sought it out of simple curiosity. Every time hope was dashed, curiosity grew.”
Something like a prototype of the Necronomicon phenomenon, then -- if more historically consequential, and altogether less silly. (I love Lovecraft, but the thought of living within a belief system extracted from his fiction is ghastlier than anything in it, and he almost certainly would have agreed.)
Once established in the public's imagination, Imposters became a reality. It took longer -- centuries rather than decades -- but a couple of books purporting to be the unholy treatise were eventually published. The one that appeared in France in 1768 was, for a while, in as much demand as a couple of pornographic novels of the day. (The titles of the novels were fair advertisement of the contents, and would set off every web blocker ever invented.)
Success, of a kind, then, but fleeting. By the 18th century the arguments for agnosticism or atheism were well-established (as were the responses from the faithful, and the replies of the doubters) and it’s not surprising to learn that the fascination wore off after that. But for more than five hundred years, The Three Imposters menaced the faithful and inspired the skeptics, and earned its modest place in history. We should all be lucky enough to write a nonexistent book with so long a shelf life.