Saturday, July 8, 2017

MOOCS: A Problematic Solution to the Disinvestment in Public Higher Education

I agree wholeheartedly with Bady’s cynicism of the speed, inevitability, and necessity of the MOOC movement. From 2011-2015 I directed a national pilot program funded by the Gates Foundation. The program focused on integrating civic engagement and course-based peer mentoring into developmental English and math courses to increase community college students’ sense of belonging and increase retention. At Gates gatherings attended by grantees in the field of developmental/remedial education at the community college level, Gates-organized presentations (sometimes co-presented with the for profit business execs from Udacity and Coursera) centered on the revolution that online education and MOOCs specifically would bring to higher education so that the traditional place-based concept of education might no longer be relevant. The Gates Foundation’s language echoed that which Bady is skeptical of: the MOOC is “a behemoth force reshaping the face of higher education.” According to leadership at The Gates Foundation, the pace at which this change was to happen required the foundation to switch funding priorities and abandon any consideration of continued funding to its grantees, none of which were focused on MOOCs or online education. The program I directed aimed at making learning more collaborative and relevant to students’ lives was one of the casualties. Meanwhile, the neoliberal MOOC driven by what Bady described as “a desire to liberate and empower the individual, breaking apart actually-existing academic communities and refocusing on the individual’s acquisition of knowledge” would take center stage.

None of us Gates grantees were consulted during the foundation’s decision-making process that resulted in a complete change in their priorities. Entire books could be written about the problems with the foundation’s approach to education funding in the US both at the secondary and post-secondary educational levels. But I tell this story to highlight the practical impacts on students’ lives of the push to turn MOOC’s into credit bearing courses. Gates was able to drive funding away from collaborative, people-oriented interventions that supported developmental students in favor of pushing a pedagogy of individual gains through knowledge transfer via MOOC lectures.

For me, atop the list of reasons the change in funding priorities was so problematic was exactly the point that Bady eventually gets to: MOOCs are a poor solution for reaching vulnerable communities including the developmental students my program sought to support. He writes, “…If you want to use it to make educational resources available to underserved and underprivileged communities—which has been the historical mission of public education—MOOCs are a really poor way to do that. Historically, public systems like California’s provided high quality education to citizens of the state who could not have gotten the equivalent anywhere else. MOOCs promise to see to it that what the public universities are able to provide is not, in every sense, the equivalent of what rich people’s kids get.” Bady criticizes the MOOC delivery system for the way it caters to students’ short attention spans through bite-sized nuggets of knowledge transferred through lectures by prestigious professors. Not a pedagogy that has demonstrated success particularly with vulnerable students.

Bady makes the argument that with Harvard’s name behind the innovation the technology is "self-evident" and questioning the MOOC moment or the reasons for its existence is slowing down an inevitable force. (As an aside, it also so happens that The Gates Foundation’s support of the MOOC movement furthered its legitimacy.) He juxtaposes the two “origin stories” of the MOOC – one of a professor choosing to transition to the MOOC world to meet the needs of students "begging to be educated by a Stanford professor and Google" and another of a business executive continuing his business idea. He argues that the latter better describes the context since business interests not education drive the movement.

While I’m not as up on the trends in higher education as I used to be, I haven’t seen MOOCs become the dominant presence that the business execs claimed was inevitable. Bady writes that the MOOC moment “seems to me like a speculative bubble, a product which is being pumped up and overvalued by pro-business legislators, overzealous administrators, and by a lot of hot air in the media.”

In summary, Bady tells a story of business benefiting from disinvestment in public education that results in students not being able to access the courses they need. Business execs swoop in to save the day by dreaming up a cheap fix -chairless classes – MOOCs for college credit. This “solution” takes a turn away from the original intention of the MOOC to democratize education. Instead it maintains the status quo, diminishes the need to hire faculty, and devalues real student engagement while making no claim about MOOCs’ educational value. When the disinvestment in public education means that a cheap fix appears to be the only tenable way out (rather than fighting to reinvest in meaningful public education), MOOCs win regardless of their effectiveness.  

Here are some questions to consider as you respond:
1.   Have you ever taken a MOOC or online course? If so, does your experience jibe with Bady's assessment?
2.     Do you agree with Bady’s overarching arguments about the problems with MOOCs and his ideological critique of the drivers behind the development of MOOCs?
3.     Since many of you in this class are in K-12 settings rather than in higher ed, have you seen any aspects of the MOOC or online learning brought to the K-12 system? Can you imagine any benefits of bringing the MOOC/online learning to the K-12 setting?


  1. I have taken a few online courses at the undergraduate and graduate levels. I will say that I didn’t do enjoy them half as well as classes I’ve taken in-person. All of the classes I elected to take online were mandatory, I had no say in the mode of how it was being taught. My friend, on the other hand, loves online classes. She loves the idea of being able to do coursework on your own time and not having to leave her house. This is where Bady’s argument led me. I thought of the differences between my friend and me. It seems almost as though there might be a struggle between those that see online class as a poor alternative and those that see online class as the only logical and fulfilling way to get through school. As Bady says, it’s like the moment in the 1960s, “just before Toyota used a technology breakthrough to come from nowhere and topple GM.” I, and many people who dislike online modes of education, are afraid that these MOOC are taking over. To me (and I almost rarely say this!), there is a sort of merit in the traditional form of education: sitting in a physical space dedicated to learning, presently listening to a professor or teacher, and actually interacting with your peers. However, I see the growing trend of online classes, as the number of offered courses through Blackboard or other sites increases.

    My school does offer a few courses online. These are only credit-recovery courses for students that may have failed a course and are accepted into the credit-recovery program. Basically, the site they use is fully loaded with the work they need to complete in order to pass the class and get the credit. This means that ambitious students could finish the entire year’s worth of work in a matter of weeks, while their peers are confined to going at the class’ pace. Students are expected to complete this coursework at home or in an Academic Support class, if they are enrolled. This is a great idea for some kids, especially those that try but struggle in some areas, but a lot of students are now seeing this as an easier alternative to taking classes, meaning that they will purposefully not do work to fail their class and enroll in credit-recovery. The assignments used in the online class are all questions that the student can instantly Google, copy, and paste into the answer box, making the assigned reading null. The assessments are not timed, allowing the student time to ask a friend or even turn to the internet to ask the question.

    If we are to include or incorporate MOOC/online learning to the K-12 setting, we need to monitor and better plan for the lessons and assignments. Currently, there are huge gaps in the responsibilities and educational expectations of the students. I think that a teacher from each grade level should be asked to form and monitor the online curriculum and lessons for students that require it, because I am still unsure who it is that is in charge of the credit-recovery programs at my school.

  2. Thanks for sharing your experiences, Brandon. I should have clarified my understanding of the differences between online learning and MOOCs specifically. A non-MOOC online course at the post secondary level is a course developed and taught by a professor at the institution around specific student learning outcomes and content. The delivery is through an online system. A MOOC with course credit, however, is a pre-packaged course developed by an esteemed professor (most often outside of the institution) without any connections to the local context. I suppose that both forms of online learning could be interactive, but my guess is that the MOOC is less so because of the nature of it being pre-packaged. I have never taken a MOOC, and I was skeptical of online learning until I took a course in community organizing at Harvard's Executive Education Program. The 80+ students came from all over the world. The course delivery included live lectures, small live break out groups facilitated by teaching assistants, break out rooms for pair work within the TA sections, polling, discussion, etc... It was incredibly interactive and just as effective as a highly interactive face-to-face class. A lot of resources went into supporting this course and I'm guessing that this level of thought and revising year after year is rare. For my developmental students who need a fair amount of scaffolding and support, I just don't think online learning is effective. But when non-MOOC online courses are developed for a given set of students around a set of learning outcomes connected to institutional outcomes with interactive capacities, I think online can be effective for some.

  3. Shana,

    I’ve never taken a MOOC, but I can imagine that they would be ineffective for the students who need a more tailored approach and individual attention from the instructor. I completed an entire degree online, and I agree with your response post where you point out how interactive and effective some online courses can be. Many of the linguistics courses I took online also had a face-to-face section, and the content mirrored those classes. I believe that online course are effective when the instructor utilizes video lectures, synchronous chat sessions, and is available for assistance throughout the course. The instructor for the psycholinguistics course I took was especially ready to provide clarifying lectures, which was very helpful considering the challenging content of that particular course. One of my favorite things about these courses, besides the convenience, was that my classmates were living all over the world. It was super interesting to get their perspective on language learning as they taught English abroad. Nevertheless, I can’t say that I learned as much in these courses as I have in the face-to-face courses M.A. in English program. I think this is mainly because the online discussions tend to feel a little forced and are rarely as clarifying (for me) as in-person discussions.

    On the other hand, as tuition costs rise, I can see the appeal of MOOCs. If graduate courses were cheap or reimbursed by the Dept. of Ed., I would take courses for the rest of my career. I love learning, and taking courses would only help my students. Alas, I will have to stop taking courses since it is more responsible to invest in my children’s education at this point. In this sense, MOOCs could help someone like me who doesn’t need course credit, but simply wants to learn. Bady points out, “For learners wishing to brush up skills or keep abreast of new pedagogy, a MOOC might be just the thing.” But if MOOCs are only effective for those who are already educated, then they do no democratize education. Overall, the student population that needs affordable education probably also needs smaller class sizes, not a MOOC with 50,000 students.

  4. Shana, thank you for your post. I enjoyed reading about your experience with using an online program at your school. I have never taken a MOOC, and knew very little about them before reading Bady's article, but I share many of his, and your, concerns. I am especially skeptical of MOOCs because of their "pre-packaged" nature, as you describe. There really is no room for discussion, and no real way to build upon the material taught in class. The brevity of some of the MOOC clips (which Bady compares to TED talks) reminded a lot of the videos on the PragerU site -- merely soundbites that claim to take the place of a much more in-depth class session.

    I, like Brandon, am not a fan of online coursework. I never had to do them in my undergrad career and I was upset when I learned that some of my masters courses would be online. Even though they are not nearly as lacking as the MOOCs described in the article, I definitely do not get as much out of online classes, no matter how well the professor has put them together. I feel like even the online courses I've taken at UMass can't live up to the "actually-existing academic communities" I've experienced in in-person courses here. It's all about the individual getting through the course. The "discussions" that take place, especially since everyone is on their own schedule, are hardly discussions at all. For me, it's the dedicated class time each week and the building of community through discussions that makes coursework worthwhile. I can only imagine how disconnected MOOCs must feel.

    When I first heard of online education, I found it really exciting. Growing up in Boston, I always had colleges and universities around me, but to think that people across the country who otherwise wouldn't have access to education could do online coursework felt revolutionary. It was like the so-called ivory tower was being broken down. But after reading about MOOCs, I am beginning to think that those walls are being built again, and the education gap is continuing to widen. The example Bady gives about San Jose State students having to watch a Harvard class (in place of a live course, no less) was disgusting to me. MOOCs, when used as an alternative to live college courses that earn students credit, feels like a serious attack on public education to me. I think of this the same way I think about school choice: it sounds nice, and it seems to benefit everyone, but in reality it takes a quality public education away from those who need it most.

    That's not to say that I find MOOCs completely useless. Like Erin said, it's an affordable way to brush up on skills and further one's education on their own. MOOCs could be really beneficial to students who have interests that aren't met at their own school. One of my friends was really into Japanese language and culture in high school, but our school did not offer any courses on that topic. Whether it was just something she did in her free time or some kind of independent study, a MOOC might have been a good option for her. I can see K-12 using MOOCs if they aren't being challenged enough in school, if they have a special interest in a topic, or if they want to experience a college-level course -- as long as it is not a replacement for the education they are getting at school.

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  6. Shana, thanks for your insightful post! I agree with your skepticism toward online/MOOC courses, especially due to the neoliberal agenda behind their rise. I took online courses often as an undergraduate, and while I usually took five courses each semester, I always included one online course and usually considered it to be the least important. I also took one online class each summer, and these tended to be the courses that were mandatory and uninteresting (such as Geology). I found that this atmosphere was most helpful when I wasn’t seeking a deep level of knowledge in the subject. For example, my “general statistics” course was beneficial mainly due to the fact that I could rewatch step-by-step videos again and again. In comparison, although I enjoyed my online “Literary Theory” course, this material material was much “deeper” than that of “general statistics.” While I learned a lot, I know that I would have gained SO much more if I had participated in class-based discussions about the views of Cixous, Althusser, and Foucault. Instead, I had to settle for shallow, declarative-based online discussion. The idea of a MOOC course sounds even less appealing. Bady claims that “MOOCs are structurally devoted to pinning knowledge down like a butterfly, putting it on file, putting a price on it, and floating it on the market.” In an educational era that, as Devoss claims, seeks to create “lifelong learners,” how can we support such an inflexible, shallow pedagogical method? Yes, this course method supports the idea of global, continuous learning...but shouldn’t this idea also be supported through flexible, adaptive classes?

    As Erin claims, these courses can be great when you are an educated individual with the goal of utilizing some of the free resources around you. My friend and I plan on taking a free theology course together, and in this instance, we ourselves could at least engage in beneficial one-on-one discussion about the material. It seems that the greatest problem is the fact that there hasn’t been a great amount of pedagogical study, and due to the neoliberal agenda at play, it doesn’t seem like this consideration will be prioritized in the near-future. The goals embedded within contemporary education (lifelong, engaging, adaptive learning) seem to be much more aligned with the notion of a “flipped classroom.” Yes, online engagement is beneficial and supports the idea of continuous learning, but I believe that we also need to engage in face-to-face discussion/ negotiation. In a flipped classroom, students can go home and work individually with declarative knowledge, and this knowledge can then be negotiated and analyzed alongside others in the real classroom. The flipped classroom could create a sense of community both within the classroom and also online with global members in the field. This would also serve to enforce the idea that declarative knowledge is attainable at all times, for anyone, within the digital world. As we have all individually concluded, online-learning cannot replace the value of face-to-face discussion and negotiation, and at the moment, without pedagogical study/experimentation, these digital courses do not support our emphasis in ongoing, flexible, collaborative learning.

  7. This is an extremely interesting and timely discussion for me because UMass Boston is currently exploring more online options to make up the budget deficit. I find nothing wrong with online courses or MOOCs when they are used to supplement prior learning or provide access to content to those who didn't have it before. The issue, as I see it (and Bady does too), is that these courses are used to REPLACE face-to-face educational experiences and limit such high quality instruction to the privileged class. If these online courses can provide the same or better education than a face-to-face one, then that's one thing, but I have never encountered credible research that suggests this to be the case. My problem is that this is solution for an age of austerity (or divestment, as Shana aptly puts it). Students like online classes because they don't require the same investment, cost less (often both in terms of tuition and transportation), and (most importantly) they are convenient. I don't blame students for taking them for all of these reasons, but the fact that these are the reasons (not because of the quality of the online experience) is extremely disturbing to me. Because we have divested from public education, we are now in position where students have to make the choice between a high quality public education and a lower quality one. The University of Phoenix figured this out a long time ago and they have profited enormously. And while many for-profit institutions like this have been hit with lawsuits for exploiting underprivileged populations and saddling them with debt, we now have a Secretary of Education who is refusing to uphold the restrictions and sanctions that the Obama administration had imposed that limited the proliferation of such predatory "universities." If we're satisfied with making the university a credentialing institution then we will have our wish with a such future of online education. The only solace I have, at this point, is the fact that the MOOC seems to have had its day - it had horrible completion rates and I've heard very little about institutions adopting this model going forward. This gives me hope.

  8. Shana, thank you for this wonderful post. I quite like how you referrenced the Marxist move Bady makes by invoking commodity fetishism. As he states, the logic that the MOOC rise operates on is, “we don’t have to understand why it’s happening, where it’s going, or where it came from.” This “temporality,” as he calls it, is a consequence of the internets virtual flattening of time and space is one in which everything is sped up so fast, that we don’t have time for the kind of deliberate thought that Bady is explicitly working through – indeed, he says as much toward the beginning of the piece. This is the contextual criteria, which when met, gives way to a pure ontology – “ it be” – expressed in treating the MOOC as a self-evident fact. I wonder whether we will be able to make such critical interventions the further into the digital age we move. It is quite interesting that he is also applying commodity fetishism, as traditionally we might apply this instead to physical phenomena such as gold (which he invokes later in the piece). This signals a sort of desire for the return of physicality that the internets logic seeks to erase. What is interesting about the invoking of a “gold standard,” is that it has its roots in commodity fetishism. I wonder what invoking the gold standard to describe face-to-face education means for his commodity fetishism framework. Does it function as a sort of slippery slope, as the marxists of yore would have been opposed to commodity fetishism I imagine. Now however, the fetish object isn’t even a material object, and so we must invoke the previous objects of fetish. This speaks to the question I pose above as to whether we will register a problem with the logics of the internet, and see a need for critical intervention. This is to say, will the logic of the internet begin to inform the ideology of the world outside the internet – perhaps it already has really – and if so, will we begin to register any appraciable distinction between physical spaces and non-physical spaces. This dovetails into the problem of the spatial metaphors for the internet: it is not a space, but instead an immaterial non-space that we think of as having dimensions as a consequence of our language. We clearly need to rethink the metaphors we use to describe the internet, and fashion a language which reflects the difference between the physical and the virtual. Moreover, we clearly need to intervene critically regarding the intersection between our financial system and its ideology and the logic of the internet. There seems to be a greater problem which this article only attends to part of.

  9. I definitely agree with Bady's cynicism of the MOOC movement and I also agree with you when you say you "haven’t seen MOOCs become the dominant presence that the business execs claimed was inevitable." In fact, I had to actually google what the term MOOC stood for because I wasn't sure when I began reading the article.

    Though I don't feel that online education in general can even come close to genuine face to face classroom instruction, I feel even more strongly about the lack of effectiveness of the kind of online education MOOCs offer. It seems like proponents of MOOCs are blindly pushing these programs because of how quickly technology has infiltrated our world (and of course because of money too) but nobody is stopping to ask themselves the very important questions that need to be considered that Bady presents in his article. What I found most shocking is that people in favor of MOOCs are not pausing to question the effectiveness of such an education, especially when it comes to more diverse populations. Engagement is extremely important for learning and in order for real learning to take place, classes need to be student centered. This is just not possible in a MOOC environment.

    I have never taken a MOOC course but I have taken regular online courses and they are nowhere near as engaging as a regular classroom experience so I can imagine that a MOOC would be even less so.

    I can't say for sure if anyone in my school uses MOOCS but I know that one of the 6th grade math teachers uses Kahn Academy to help supplement her already existing curriculum. In that sense, I feel that MOOCs can have a place in education but that should be all that it is: a place. When online education programs such as these threaten to replace traditional education, that is when they become problematic.

  10. VHS is more or less the “high school” equivalent of MOOC, though I think any illusions that it might meaningfully replace classroom education shattered a number of years ago. I do see some parallels, however, between the enthusiasm for MOOCs and the discussion surrounding charter schools. Much like MOOCs were pedaled as a “as a kind of fantasy solution to this unsolvable problem” of spending money on chairs, buildings, and teachers, charters were supposed to be the magic bullet that solved public education without spending any additional money. I’ll be the first to admit that there is a LOT of inefficient spending in public education, but I’m not sure I ever saw a compelling case that suggested charters were much better. Further, “inefficient spending” and “underfunding” are not mutually exclusive problems, and I’d venture to say that in many cases both problems are working together to leave students wanting. On top of that, diverting needed resources towards “investing” in MOOCs or charters only further dilutes the resources available to more traditional solutions. I think there’s something uniquely American about the “magic” fix; we love when solutions are easy to come by and fast-acting, and we love those sorts of solutions so much that we blindly chase them even when it becomes clear they are not an effective approach. All we’re dealing with here is an educational get-rich-scheme.

  11. I've had a few MOOC classes in my college career and I've hated every one of them. Not the content of the course, but the experience of it. I need face to face interaction in order to learn. It might play into why I hate homework so much because it's just me with the material, but when we come in for a class discussion, it really hammers it home for me. I can see MOOCs being useful tools, but I'd hate to see it become the replacement.

    I can see benefits of bringing MOOCs to areas that don't have access. In some places, finding a wifi connection is easier than attending a school. The limitless possibilities of bringing Education to places around the world that otherwise wouldn't have access is the only true benefit I can see to MOOCs. I would ideally love to see every person have access to in class, engaging discussions, but if that isn't an option, but a MOOC is, then I'm all in for that.


MOOCS: A Problematic Solution to the Disinvestment in Public Higher Education

I agree wholeheartedly with Bady’s cynicism of the speed, inevitability, and necessity of the MOOC movement. From 2011-2015 I direct...