Clay Shirky and Jay Rosen have popularized the phrase “People Formerly Known as the Audience” to describe the evolution of contemporary media consumers from mere listeners or
viewers into interactive and demanding participants. A similar redefinition of roles is emerging in conversations about the consumers of massive open online courses. With a student-faculty ratio of, in some cases, 150,000: 1, the teacher of a MOOC may well struggle to define his or her relationship to an audience of course-takers who do and do not resemble traditional "students."
In a recent Twitter exchange, media scholars Siva Vaidhyathan and Cathy Davidson debated the question of whether people enrolled in a MOOC are accurately described as “students.” @CathyNDavidson asked, "Are they really all 'students' or merely 'registrants'?" She later referred to Coursera’s total number of "course users" – but also described a Coursera course on bioelectricity as having "11,500 students."
Coursera, Udacity and Khan Academy themselves consistently refer to their participants as "students." Udacity’s website, for example, promises: "At Udacity we put you, the student, at the center of the universe." Only edX uses the term "learners" instead.
At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, home of edX, on-campus students are evidently not yet sure whether MOOC learners should be considered fellow nerds. A graphic that appeared in the MIT student newspaper The Tech in its first issue of September asked: "MIT’s First Online Course: How Did the World Do?" The question was answered with a chart that traced not only the number of registrants, but "number of students who looked at the first pset [problem set]," "number of students who received at least 1 point on the first pset," "number of students who looked at the final exam," etc. The overall numbers had been released by edX, but the MIT students’ more detailed framing of the information in the context of their own familiar parameters of success suggests an effort to grapple with the question of whether course registrants were comparable to "real" MIT students.
How to refer to MOOC participants is not a trivial issue of nomenclature to most faculty, for whom the role of "student" carries specific expectations shaped both by our own experience as students, and the personal and professional expectations attached to our current roles. At a minimum, a student is someone for whose education you have assumed some personal responsibility. You have a vested interest in your students’ progress, and your own success as a teacher is related to their success at mastering the course material you have designed. You are, to varying degrees depending on your institution, attentive to their needs: you are available during office hours, you answer their e-mails, you write them recommendations, you may offer individual mentoring and support. Above all, you notice if they are learning, and adjust your presentation of material if they are not.
It is not hard to imagine that the almost subliminal expectations triggered by the "student" role may work against the presumed efficiency of the MOOC model. The kind of dedicated and innovative teachers typically drawn to MOOCs will find it very difficult to ignore the demands of online learners who act and feel like, well … students. Their best students may e-mail them with questions, seek their advice on further study, ask for recommendations or job referrals, perhaps even travel to campus in hopes of meeting them. To ignore such requests would go against the grain of a lifetime of membership in the academy, where "paying it forward" requires helping your students as your professors helped you. But responding to even 1 percent of those taking a MOOC could mean interacting with 1,000 students.
Some promising models for non-instructor-based interaction are emerging. These include crowdsourcing or automation of grading, using grad students or alumni volunteers as online discussion leaders, or having centralized course materials supplemented locally by individual instructors. These approaches may create scalable opportunities for feedback, and are in many ways more consistent with the student drive toward peer-to-peer, customized learning than the kind of broadcast lectures that are currently the foundation of many MOOCs. Nevertheless, we should not underestimate the degree to which a sense of connection with an individual instructor, one who models the project of intellectual inquiry, is a key dimension of many students’ motivation. A charismatic instructor of many students is likely to feel the pressure of that desire for connection.
Faculty and administrators will need to be very clear, therefore, about how far faculty should go to meet such student expectations, and how this new work will be valued by the institution. Does this interaction come at the expense of time spent with on-campus, tuition-paying students? At the expense of the instructor’s research agenda? The high visibility and positive PR associated with MOOCs could quickly backfire if a large and media-savvy audience is disappointed in, for example, the tenure outcome of a popular online professor who has published less than his or her peers.
MOOCs have become a flashpoint for discussion of higher ed because they represent an easily graspable, almost parodic version of what was previously invisible: elite university education. They have a unique power to drive public perception of the entire sector. We all have a stake, therefore, in how they define, or redefine, such key terms as "students," "faculty," and "courses." If we allow the word "student" to lose its primary meaning as a person formally engaged in learning through enrollment in a school or college, a person toward whom that institution and its faculty assume some responsibility, then we undermine the case for colleges and universities as the place where students go to meet their educational goals. Similarly, recent reports that Cambridge Graduate University was claiming as “faculty” various eminent professors whose online lectures are freely available on the web remind us that if we do not insist on reserving the term for continuing instructors who are hired to teach the students of a specific college or university, we may erode public understanding of a quality institution’s dependence on a stable, dedicated faculty.
Finally, it is important to recognize that what distinguishes a "course" from a set of lectures -- regardless of which is face-to-face and which is online -- is the difference between a mere broadcast of information, and a mutual commitment by teacher and student to a pedagogical relationship that is supported by a larger curricular structure and institutional mission.
It seems clear that the spaces, formats, and media in which higher education is offered may change radically in the coming years. We will certainly need to adjust our terminology to keep pace with these changes. We must not lose sight, however, of the central axis around which all education revolves. Classroom walls may disappear as predicted, lectures may go the way of the dodo bird, but what will still define education is the presence of (a) a teacher, (b) students, and (c) a set of agreed-upon goals that they work toward together.
Alison Byerly holds an interdisciplinary appointment as college professor at Middlebury College, where she also served until recently as provost and executive vice president. While on leave in 2012-13, she is a visiting scholar in literature at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Her bookAre We There Yet? Virtual Travel and Victorian Realism is forthcoming from the University of Michigan Press.
As part of the company's gradual reinvention as a provider of agnostic support and consulting, Blackboard -- joining a market place crowded with competitors -- offers to help colleges reinvent themselves online.
Not too long ago, my university, the University of Virginia, along with a dozen or so other schools, entered into an agreement with a company called Coursera to develop Internet-based courses. The issue of Internet learning is especially fraught at Virginia. As just about everyone now knows, our president, Teresa Sullivan, was dismissed not long ago in part because the Board of Visitors thought that she had been lackadaisical in moving Virginia toward Internet-based learning. Though Sullivan was eventually reinstated, the issue of Internet education continues to be a major one at Virginia as it is (or will be) at many ambitious American universities.
What will happen when universities form partnerships with companies like Coursera? How will the coupling of the university with an online distribution company affect the kind of teaching that we do and the kind of learning that students can expect?
Our partnership with Coursera is young: at this point we are developing only a few courses in conjunction with them. But in time we will no doubt develop more, and an ultimate objective for both Coursera and the University of Virginia will be to use those courses to generate revenues.
Right now, it appears that Cousera is the junior partner in our mutual endeavor. Virginia is a large, well-regarded university with a six-billion-dollar endowment. Coursera is a relatively new corporation. For a while, it’s reasonable to imagine that Virginia will call most of the shots.
But what if the partnership works and begins to generate significant revenues? That’s a big if, naturally. So far, no major research university has succeeded in reaping enormous profits selling courses online. Though Harvard and Yale and Stanford have developed Internet-based courses, they do not give credit for them, either to their own students or anyone else.
But suppose Internet courses do begin to bring in revenues. If the partnership with Coursera works out well, we may soon become dependent on their good will. We may, in other words, need to take very seriously their thoughts about the kinds of courses we should teach and make available online. At Virginia, and at all the schools that begin teaching online, the distribution companies may come to have a consequential say in the way that professors teach and students learn.
What influence will the corporations have? What will they want? The immediate answer isn’t hard to come by. They will want to increase financial returns as much as possible. They will want to make as much money as they can without breaking the law.
And to do so, they will begin demanding the sort of courses that will sell best, not only in America but around the world. What sort of courses will these be? I think that they will be the most standardized, solid, predictable and sound courses that the university can produce.
Faculty members will have to submit their syllabuses in advance. They will have to cover precisely the ground that they say they will: there will be no swerving from the original plan. Digressions and jokes will be at a minimum, assuming that they are allowed at all.
And there is this too: the courses will also have to be radically inoffensive. They will have to be palatable to as many people across the world as possible so as to increase market possibilities to the maximum point. The course designers will have to think about whether they are offending the sensibilities of, say, Chinese students and also of the Chinese government when they put a political science course up for sale. They will have to wonder if this or that class in religious studies might insult Islam. (A look at this month’s news reminds one that Islam is not terribly hard to insult.)
There will, in other words, be a constant dialogue between professors and the corporation about what kind of content is going to be admissible. There will be disagreements and there will be disputes. Some professors may walk away. But in the end, it is not hard to predict who will win the arguments, provided the online courses are capturing significant revenues.
At a certain point our corporate partners may demand that all of the courses we teach be Internet-friendly. They may want to film each class we give on the chance that it might someday be profitable. And naturally they will want those courses to conform to the standards of the successful online class.
I think that there’s an analogy between what could happen to American university classes in the age of international Internet education and what happened to American movies when Hollywood studios decided that to make the kind of money they wanted, it would be necessary to market their product globally. American movies now are lowest-common-denominator movies, intended to sell in Singapore as much as in Seattle. Where we once had "McCabe & Mrs. Miller" and "Nashville," we now have "Spiderman" and "Batman."
What was most original and lively in mainstream American movies was erased by corporate imperatives, and something similar may become true about American education. To sell broadly, we’re going to have to tone our teaching down — become flatter and more predictable. And we’re going to have to be careful not to offend anyone. We’re going to need to engage in a certain kind of mass pedagogy. Those who don’t will not succeed in the new Internet-based academy— assuming that such an academy really does come into being. And this is, I want to underline, a big assumption.
Another analogy might be helpful. It’s possible that the incursion of the Internet market into the universities will be something like the incursion of big-time college sports. There are any number of American schools that appear now to have been swallowed by their sports programs. They admit anyone who can stand out in football and basketball, no matter how poor a student; they hide the indiscretions and the crimes that athletes and coaches commit; they overpay coaches and elevate them to superstar status; they organize social life around football and basketball games.
These schools are constantly sending out the message that academics don’t matter much and that sports and school spirit and getting drunk on Saturday and staying so until Sunday late at night really do. We can all name a dozen or two schools that because of sports are close to no longer being schools. Penn State seems to have been swallowed by its football program and now is in danger of losing a major quotient of its credibility and standing because of it.
Something similar may happen with Internet education. Certain colleges may become addicted to the revenue that Internet courses draw and they will deform themselves in the attempt to make more and more money. They will adulterate their intellectual goods for the marketplace and perhaps those goods will sell briskly. We now speak of football factories. In not too long we may be speaking of academic Internet factories. This is especially distressing, now that some of our best universities have jumped aggressively into the distance learning game. It would be sad if Harvard or Yale — two schools that lately seem gung-ho for money raising by almost any means — were deformed even slightly by the hunger to make money selling courses online.
But not every school that has a big-time football team has become a football factory. Stanford University retains its academic reputation despite having a first-rate team. Last year that team included Andrew Luck, the NFL’s top draft choice. Just so, it’s probable that even if Internet education does take off, not every school will be swallowed by it. Some will push back against the corporate types who want to dumb down their work to create profits.
But this is the first time in my memory when our leaders — presidents and deans and boards of trustees -- have so energetically opened the doors of the house of learning to commerce. It is the first time that they’ve shown willingness to insert the entrepreneurs directly into our day-to-day teaching lives. In the past they have stood between us and the market. Though the members of American boards of trustees often come from business, they have understood that the hunger for wealth is not compatible with genuine intellectual life.
The quest for truth will always collide in time with the quest for profits. If Internet entrepreneurs forge a strong alliance with the governors of universities, converting them to the pursuit of gain, teachers and students who want a university based on the disinterested pursuit of truth will be hard-pressed to fight back and to win.
Mark Edmundson is University Professor at the University of Virginia.