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 book Are We There Yet? Virtual Travel and Victorian Realism is forthcoming from the University of Michigan Press.
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