'MOOCs, High Technology and Higher Learning'

Author discusses book offering a critical analysis of massive open online courses from a social science perspective.

November 24, 2015
 

Where are massive open online courses now, and where are they going? Robert A. Rhoads, professor of education at the University of California at Los Angeles, tackles those questions in MOOCs, High Technology and Higher Learning (Johns Hopkins University Press), in which he places MOOCs in the broader context of open courseware.

In the book, Rhoads formulates seven theses about MOOCs to frame his arguments, writing that the loosely defined “MOOC movement” presents problems of diversity, faculty life and academic freedom, among others.

“I see MOOCs as constituting a social movement on the basis that multiple social actors and organizations have aligned their actions to such an extent that the phenomenon takes on the classic characteristics of a loosely coordinated activity with common lines of action and similar definitions of the situation,” Rhoads writes. “As a complex and loosely coupled assemblage, the MOOC movement evidences a variety of tensions and uncertainties, including little agreement about where the movement may actually be heading.”

Rhoads answered questions about his book, billed by its publisher as the first book to explore MOOCs from a social science perspective, by email. Some of the responses have been edited for clarity.

Q: In just a couple of years, we've gone from some MOOC advocates saying there will only be 10 universities in the future to where we are now, where most MOOC providers seem to be leaning on professional development courses to make some money. To someone who hasn't been paying attention to MOOCs, that trajectory looks like a flop. Where in higher education should someone look to see the impact MOOCs are having on faculty roles?

A: Based on the early projections and proclamations of the MOOC advocates mostly tied to venture capital and likely driven by profit, the MOOC movement has been and is a flop. But their claims were never taken seriously by most professors and the lifelong education folks who created MOOCs in the first place. When a select group of professors described their ambition to “democratize higher education” while creating for-profit companies to do so, many within the bowels of the university knew what they were up to. It was odd to many of us that The Chronicle of Higher Education gave them such a powerful platform to advance a profit-driven model of MOOCs. When some of them failed and turned to “corporate training” as their new form of “disruption,” it didn't surprise me one bit.

So this form of “democratization” rhetoric did undermine the MOOC movement in some sense, but not in terms of die-hard adult education folks who knew MOOCs would neither replace the need for brick-and-mortar universities nor supplant face-to-face classrooms; for them, MOOCs were another vehicle for advancing and extending learning. These were educators and scholars committed to the most creative forms of online learning, stressing social and connectivist learning. From this perspective, the MOOC movement has been hugely successful and continues to grow. Here, I think of George Siemens, Stephen Downes and a host of others who really led this movement.

But the for-profit folks cast a negative shadow over the movement with their far-fetched claims. We are lucky and should thank the professors in the department of philosophy at San Jose State University who were some of the first to step up and challenge efforts to supplant face-to-face courses at underresourced public universities with MOOCs organized by companies such as Udacity, all in the name of “democratizing” higher education. To suggest that students at universities such as SJSU were better off watching video recordings of a “famous” professor at Yale University lecturing to privileged Yale students (who get face-to-face lectures) was grossly antidemocratic. Further, some of the for-profit folks actually pushed for a redefinition of the role of professors at nonelite universities, suggesting they could turn their lectures over to faculty working at elite universities, while refashioning their role along the lines of a teaching assistant. Another antidemocratic aspect of their rhetoric. Anyone who knows anything about teaching and learning research knows that students from underprepared and disadvantaged educational backgrounds need more face-to-face contact, not less.

Now, with that said, MOOCs have shown to have quite powerful effects when used as supplements to face-to-face instruction, as opposed to being replacements. The idea of “replacing” face-to-face learning with MOOCs was an idea that early on was quite attractive to the for-profit folks as they saw an opportunity, but unfortunately, it also appealed to some legislators and administrators caught up in trying to reduce the costs of course development and delivery, and more generally, public higher education as whole. But this strategy has not worked, and this is in part why some see the MOOC movement as having failed. But it hasn't -- only the narrow “profit-driven” or “cost-savings” models have faltered. MOOCs as an innovative supplement to traditional face-to-face teaching and learning are still moving forward.

Q: You name copyright (and ownership disputes between colleges and faculty members) as one of the ways MOOCs can be used to exploit faculty labor. If you replaced references to MOOCs with “textbooks,” does your criticism still work? If not, how are MOOCs different when used in a course?

A: Comparing MOOCs with textbooks makes little sense to me, as textbooks are copyrighted and faculty maintain some semblance of compensation for their intellectual work -- their academic labor. This is less clear when it comes to the world of the MOOC, but of course for anyone concerned about faculty being adequately rewarded for their intellectual contributions (such as the American Association of University Professors), [it] supports the position that professors need to maintain high levels of control over MOOCs as intellectual property. In my book, I actually highlight how two democratic ideals sometimes clash within the context of the MOOC movement: the ideals associated with the “knowledge commons” (that knowledge and information should be readily available, including courses and course materials), and the ideal that laborers ought to be justly compensated for their work -- in this case, academic laborers and their development and delivery of courses.

Q: You write that “the discourse surrounding MOOCs has largely ignored diversity issues,” which you predict is going to be a “significant barrier to the success of the MOOC movement in the coming years.” Then again, one could argue MOOCs -- based on their sheer size -- offer a tremendous opportunity to let people from all over the world work together on a single topic. What can MOOC instructors and providers do to unlock that potential?

A: First, MOOCs have not attracted the forms of diversity early advocates claimed they would. Most notable here is the fact that the vast majority of MOOC takers already have a degree, as high as 80 percent in some studies, and hence they hardly represent the kinds of educationally disadvantaged students early advocates of MOOCs, often employing a “democratization of higher education” discourse, supposedly were seeking to serve.

Second, the MOOC movement largely ignores the “digital divide” and the fact that not everyone has access to a computer and high-speed Internet.

Third, the MOOC movement mostly ignores a whole host of diversity issues that the field of higher education has been wrestling with for years, including efforts to enhance campus climates for underrepresented student populations. As we've witnessed time and time again, especially in recent weeks, racist and sexist microaggressions are common on college campuses. Are we to believe the MOOC online learning environment would be immune to verbal assaults and microaggressions, as well as more overt forms of discrimination? Of course they would not be, and yet very little has been done to anticipate and address such concerns.

All of the above is not to suggest that I do not support MOOCs in some manner or form. But proactive steps need to be taken, including MOOC designers and instructors addressing the following: develop clear guides for communications among MOOC takers including in terms of group work, online chat rooms, bulletin board postings, etc.; provide clear channels for MOOC users to be able to report discriminatory behaviors and/or practices by other users; consider the ways in which MOOC users' diverse backgrounds may shape understanding and interpretation of materials (one size does not fit all and instructors' own biases are often projected by the materials they select); develop strategies for encouraging empathy among users, such as encouraging MOOC users to “interview” other online learners in relation to a course-related assignment (when possible).

Q: You conclude by writing that MOOCs are here to stay, even though serious unsolved problems remain. What's your advice to faculty members at any institution who want to get involved in solving those problems?

A: MOOCs should not be primarily framed as a way to save money in efforts to expand access for low-income populations. This was the most antidemocratic aspect of the early MOOC movement -- that the wealthiest students at elite universities could continue to reap the benefits of face-to-face contact in the most highly funded teaching and learning environments, while students at less-resourced universities would be increasingly served through online formats.

MOOCs and other forms of online learning aimed at serving low-income and disadvantaged students should be framed as supplements, not substitutes for face-to-face learning.

Institutionalized MOOC initiatives need to engage faculty at the earliest stages of development and in the most serious ways, with faculty actually having much say in the ultimate direction; without such grassroots support, administratively led MOOC initiatives are likely to fail and be perceived as potentially exploitative.

In terms of particular college or university initiatives to develop MOOCs, intellectual property issues need to be worked out early on. This should not be an afterthought.

MOOCs should be viewed as a particular kind of teaching and learning tool -- good for some things, but not so good for others. Just as we would not use a hammer to dig a ditch, we should not use MOOCs to solve the broad public policy problem of building and supporting accessible public higher education.

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