More MOOCs, More… What?

Just as he is, in many ways, the godfather to the blogs, Benjamin Franklin’s spirit stands over the baptism of the MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses). Something new and different? No. As are all children, MOOCs were birthed out of a long line of ancestors. Franklin’s Junto and subsequent libraries, the Lyceum movement, New Thought (to some degree), Chautauquas, correspondence courses, telecourses: Proponents of all of these would be perfectly comfortable with the structures and presentations of MOOCs. All they would have to learn is manipulation of the technology.

That’s both the problem of the MOOCs and the promise. They buy into ancient church-driven assumptions of the one with imprimatur speaking (or writing… or preaching, for that matter) to the many, a necessarily conservative model for learning and one that (as the Quakers argue in terms of religion) can douse the individual light within. The people who are comfortable with this are generally those already able to succeed within similar structures throughout educational establishments (and European-related cultures in general). Not surprisingly, as George Veletsianos writes for InsideHigherEd, “Recent research suggests that the majority of people enrolled in these open online courses are highly educated. As far as US participants are concerned, a large percentage also live in high-income neighborhoods.” Like all of the past movements I mentioned, though putatively aimed at those outside of traditional educational structures, they are taken advantage of by those situated in cultural circumstances that include knowledge of traditional educational mores.

Veletsianos starts off with a quote that could have come from Franklin or from any movement for mass education in America since: “Anyone, anywhere, at any point in time will be able to take advantage of high quality education.” But that ‘anyone, anywhere’ will first have to attain competency with a panoply of highly specific and culturally based learning skills and will have to demonstrate willingness to work within a set of unvoiced constrictions that outsiders rarely even know exist. Toward the end of his essay, Veletsianos writes, “It is already clear… that in order to create more egalitarian structures for education, we need to start peeling away the multitude of barriers that prevent the most vulnerable populations from participating.” Creating successful MOOCs, in other words, is not the simple ‘if you build it, they will come’ of Coursera and the other early proponents of what is clearly, for the moment at least, merely the newest style correspondence course or Chautauqua meeting.

If MOOCs are ever to be successful, they are going to have to present a new style of learning and not simply technologically enhanced camp meetings.

My favorite MOOC gadfly, Professor Steven Krause of Eastern Michigan University, wrote last week:

MOOCs (et al) can’t compete with/replace higher education as we know it because of student motivation and the recognized and historic (market?) value of a college degree: I’ve never met anyone who has taught a MOOC who actually believed they would compete with/replace higher education. Really, the only folks who said MOOC courses and badges were going to compete with university degrees as we know them were policy wonks and folks hoping to make money from all this, and really, those people were just wishing and hoping that if they keep repeating the same wish over and over, maybe it will some day come true.

When the MOOCs were first developed, the accent was on the courses and their presenters. The students were “assumed.” Now, as Veletsianos and Krause are hinting, focus is turning to the student—at least on the parts of those approaching MOOCs with any real intelligence. Divergent styles of individual learning—and not just mass dissemination of information—are going to have to be incorporated into the courses if they are going to have any sustainability at all.

A lot of people are attempting to rescue MOOCs from the dunghill of abandoned educational strategies. My fellow editor at this blog, Martin Kich, recently posted about “the seemingly increasingly desperate efforts to find something meaningful to do with MOOCs” by people such as MIT’s Otto Scharmer.

MOOCs reflect assumptions strikingly like those of “supply side” economists and politicians. Unfortunately, like what is happening when “supply side” theories are put into something like full effect (as they are in Sam Brownback’s Kansas), the successes of MOOCs are extremely limited, to say the least, only benefitting a certain privileged few.

As tools for teachers, MOOCs probably have a future. As their replacement, likely not. The dedicated autodidact can certainly take advantage of them, just as she or he could of encyclopedias or even such works as Will and Ariel Durant’s The Story of Civilization. Learning, though, isn’t access to information or even the achievement of “results” leading to “badges” (what are we all, Boy Scouts?). Learning is myriad in its manifestations and its results can’t always be quantified—nor should they be. Learning, as the old saw goes, is as much about learning to learn as it is about the particularities of any “content.” This is the lesson that Veletsianos’ research seems to be heading toward proving, and that Krause and Kich, both experienced classroom teachers, already know.

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