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 that...is 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?