3 Questions for Jonathan Rees

On MOOC critiques and listening to opposing viewpoints.

July 29, 2015

Dr. Jonathan Rees is a professor of history at Colorado State University Pueblo. He writes the widely read More or Less Bunk blog, and is the author of the upcoming book Refrigerator, part of the Object Lessons series from The Atlantic. Jonathan’s book Refrigerator Nation, will also soon be released in paperback.

I wanted to interact with Jonathan because he is a persuasive and articulate public critic of MOOCs.  

Question 1:  What do you think of MOOCs?

That depends upon the MOOC. I think corporate video-based MOOCs are a poor substitute for face-to-face college classes and I'm afraid that the business plans of the companies that make them and their collaborators in higher education require them to replace quality traditional classes in the near future. On the other hand, I think that independent, connectivist MOOCs show great potential for creating new, uniquely-valuable educational experiences for people of all ages. If I had all the time in the world, I'd be participating in DS106 right now.

Question 2:  Can you articulate a reasonable counter-argument to your critique of MOOCs? Devil's advocate and such.

A MOOC that doesn't replace a face-to-face class will bring excellent educational content to people who wouldn't have access to it otherwise and will do no harm to anybody. Unfortunately, once a MOOC is out in the world, it seems impossible for the faculty members who created it to control exactly how it gets used unless they paid careful attention to their contracts.  See Christopher Newfield's analysis of that issue here.

Question 3: Can you see a way that smart, passionate people in our academic community who hold divergent views and beliefs (say around MOOCs, but other topics as well), can actually listen to and learn from each other?

Like a lot of faculty, the first thing I did when I heard of MOOCs was to take one. Unlike a lot of other people I actually did all the work and finished the course. That MOOC was the first iteration of Jeremy Adelman's World History MOOC from Coursera. Following the example of the University of Oklahoma's Laura Gibbs, I started blogging my experience in the class. Much to my shock (since I figured Princeton professors with their own MOOCs had a lot better things to do with their time), maybe three posts in Jeremy started showing up in the comments to my posts. I learned a lot from him both about how MOOCs are made and about teaching in general. I like to think our views on MOOCs grew much closer by the end of those discussions than they were at the beginning.

How would you answer the same questions that I posed to Jonathan?



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