MOOCs: Cash Cows or Content Curation Systems?

by: Ioana Literat, George Carstocea, Ash Kramer

A reflection on the MOOC debate in higher education, this post was written in the context of Prof. Virginia Kuhn’s graduate seminar, IML 555: Digital Pedagogies, at the Institute for Multimedia Literacy, University of Southern California. As students in this class, a key element of our research project was enrolling in a MOOC (Massively Open Online Course) – Coursera’s E-learning and Digital Cultures MOOC (January-March 2013) – and reflecting on the educational, pedagogical, and ethical dimensions of such learning environments. Our thoughts below are thus shaped by this experience, as well as by the stimulating discussions that we’ve been having throughout the semester in class.

An initial conclusion we shared was that Coursera’s MOOC felt less like a class and more like a curated introduction. If we subtracted the discussion boards and final project from the class, the course materials and critical apparatus provide a useful introductory archive. At the same time, it is worth considering whether this move towards curation is, perhaps, part of a larger pedagogical trend in contemporary education. When workshopping our teaching statements in our seminar, we noticed that many of them conveyed our aspiration to function as guides or curators rather than “instructors” in the more traditional sense of transmitting information. So does the curation-based model of the MOOC reflect a larger pedagogical paradigm shift? And, if so, is it an outcome of the recent popularity of alternative and more participatory pedagogical approaches?

Or perhaps we are simply noticing the curation of content because that is the only aspect of traditional classroom coursework that Coursera preserves in full. That is to say that curation doesn’t define Coursera classes or MOOCs in general as they differ from traditional classes, but rather that curation becomes much more visible when the interactions and engaged learning practices that form much of the traditional seminar experience disappear when faced with this type of mediation.

The general, fragmented nature of the participation options, as well as the fact that none were considered mandatory, made us less inclined to contribute. The kinds of responses on the forums also contributed to our reluctance.. For all the potentially dystopic teleology in the material, there seemed to be so much positive enthusiasm for everyone to engage in the MOOC that no one really wanted to criticize anyone else. As a result, rather than conversation, the forums displayed a tendency towards repetition and agreement. Most entries seemed stand-alone attempts at beginning a conversation, but the size of the class and the fact that there were no community practices in place and no knowledge of our peers to draw upon, ensured that these shout-in-the-dark posts would not develop into a conversation.

However, despite our shared sense of disappointment with regard to the interactions facilitated by this course, we agree that there is a need to have a more balanced and constructive conversation around the topic of MOOCs. Popular discourses about them often discount the fact that these classes come in a variety of shapes and sizes. We might want to import into our discussion the difference between cMOOCs (connectivist MOOCs that pay attention to collaboration and horizontal relationship-building in networked environments) and xMOOCs (those that focus on the transmission of technical information). As more and more of these platforms proliferate, we will surely witness several iterations of these online learning models.

Between all the utopian and dystopian discourses about MOOCs, it is often difficult to encounter a pragmatic and realistic perspective on what these courses do well. This is partly because MOOCs are most frequently discussed in comparison to embodied higher education. Typically, this comparative approach is misleading and unproductive. The problem arises from the fact that MOOCs claim that their courses are analogous and produce outcomes comparable to the ones of traditional learning environments. When the criterion of education is transmittable knowledge, rather than its actual transmission, MOOCs do have an upper hand as an economy of scale. However, when we start considering quality in education, and realize that curation is simply the prerequisite rather than the expression of such quality, the limits of the MOOC model become apparent.

More problematically, from a global perspective, such a comparative approach – holding MOOCs to the standards of the traditional college classroom – can be seen as highly elitist. Sure, MOOCs are missing plenty of the socialization and intellectual formation elements that are valued within the U.S. system of higher education, but in the absence of such opportunities in less privileged socioeconomic contexts, aren’t they still a progressive and laudable development? Even if MOOCs are built around the transmission or curation of knowledge, isn’t this still a progressive development, and something that may empower global learners who are curious and hard-working and intellectually hungry?

As we move forward, a key challenge that must be addressed by advocates of MOOCs is the tendency of non-elite schools, including community colleges, to see technology as a solution to their financial problems – as seen in the recent letter from San Jose State Philosophy Department discussed previously on this blog. In our view, the problem with MOOCs is neither content nor form, so much as it is the opportunity it gives administrators to cut programs or add additional barriers for student to gain meaningful, equitable, affordable education. Much of our criticism stems from this fear, more than it does from any inherent problem with MOOCs as information delivery or curation systems.

Your comments are welcome. They must be relevant to the topic at hand and must not contain advertisements, degrade others, or violate laws or considerations of privacy. We encourage the use of your real name, but do not prohibit pseudonyms as long as you don’t impersonate a real person.