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I’m starting to get more than a little grumpy about MOOCs, what with all the hype about the revolutionary disruptions and game-changing tsunamis. I’m tired of the mainstream media punditry and their predictions that Stanford University’s experiments with online education (and by extension Coursera and Udacity) will change everything; I’m tired of Silicon Valley’s exuberance that this could mark the end-of-the-(academic)-world-as-we-know-it – a future that its press, its investors, and its entrepreneurs are all invested (sometimes literally) in being both high tech and highly lucrative.

It’s not a great frame of mind for me to start off two new Coursera classes today, both from the University of Michigan: Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World and Internet History, Technology and Security. I’ve sat down to watch the first week’s lecture videos this evening, but it’s hard to do so without stewing about all the ink that’s been spilled over in the last week or so – most of it focused on the institutional impact and little of it focused on the learner.

Oh sure, there’s the promise that these free online courses will somehow liberate students from the shackles of tuition and student loan debt. But to quote President George W. Bush, “rarely is the question asked: is our children learning?”

A recent article in The Atlantic posits that when we raise our eyebrows at the high drop-out rates in these online classes, we may be missing the point. The low completion rates is “just as it should be” and “what they do tell us is that lots of people are aspirational learners – a fact we should celebrate in its own right.” While aspiring to learn is, indeed, worth celebrating, I can’t imagine anyone seriously argue that aspiring to learn is sufficient. Yet The Atlantic suggests the low success rates are “a sign of the system’s efficiency.”

And perhaps as these are all just experiments – hyped experiments, but experiments nonetheless – we can shrug and say it’s great folks want to learn and, alas, it’s a pity when they don’t. Perhaps. But when we praise the failure to complete a class (a failure to learn) as “efficiency” and simply stop there, then I’m not sure what we’re building with MOOCs even rises to the level of what Dean Dad calls a “useful extra.” I’m not sure we can even know that it’s useful at all.

How do we know if students are learning – even those who complete the courses? After all, students who sign up for these classes come from a variety of disciplinary and professional backgrounds, with different educational experiences and degrees. Case in point: me, with a Master’s Degree in Folkore, having taught both folklore and science fiction classes at the college level enrolled in this Fantasy and Science Fiction class. If I drop out of this class, is it really an indication that it is “all praise the MOOC dropout, our best indication yet of system just beginning to find its footing”? Is it a failure on my part? On the part of the course? On the part of the instructor? The content? The platform?

No one will know. And more troubling, no one is really asking.

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