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A Terrific Piece on “The MOOC Moment”

May 15, 2013

Via a Facebook friend, an analysis of the sound and fury surrounding MOOCs by Aaron Bady:

Where this urgency comes from, however, might be less important than what it does to our sense of temporality, how experience and talk about the way we we are, right now, in “the MOOC moment.” In the MOOC moment, it seems to me, it’s already too late, always already too late. The world not only will change, but it has changed. In this sense, it’s isn’t simply that “MOOCs are the future,” or online education ischanging how we teach,” in the present tense. Those kinds of platitudes are chokingly [sic] omnipresent, but the interesting thing is the fact that the future is already now, that it has already changed how we teach. If you don’t get on the MOOC bandwagon, yesterday, you’ll have already been left behind. The world has already changed. To stop and question that fact is to be already belated, behind the times.

There’s a striking similarity between this kind of rhetoric and early globalization discourse. Indeed, one of the best ways to force change is to argue that the transformation is already happening.

I very much recommend reading the whole piece and not simply the excerpts I’ve culled from it. Bady does a much better — and more systematic — job than I did of linking together what Kohen calls “edutainment,” TED talks, and MOOCs. But among the many gems in the essay is this critical insight about MOOC discourse:

Things are moving so fast because if we stopped to think about what we are doing, we’d notice that MOOCs are both not the same thing as normal education, and are being positioned to replace “normal” education. But the pro-MOOC argument is always that it’s cheaper and almost never that it’s better; the most utopian MOOC-boosters will rarely claim that MOOCs are of equivalent educational value, and the most they’ll say is that someday it might be. This point is crucial to unpacking the hype: columnists, politicians, university administrators, educational entrepreneurs, and professors who are hoping to make their name by riding out this wave, they can all talk in such glowing terms about the onrushing future of higher education only because that future hasn’t actually happened yet: it’s still speculative in the sense that we’re all speculating about what it will look like. This means that the MOOC can be all things to all people because it is, literally, a speculation about what it might someday become.

I’ve often wondered about my own hostility to MOOC-talk. I’ve generally been a fairly early adopter of various technologies in an educational environment. I was one of the first professors to podcast lectures at Georgetown. I put up (mediocre) youtube lectures in 2008. I’ve been an evangelist in my field for public engagement via social media. So why am I not among the enthusiasts?

It might be that, like many academics, I stand to lose a lot from disruptive innovation. My line of work is one of the last to experience the relentless drive of late capitalism at the hands of business-consultant rent-seekers. My employer is prestigious, but not terribly financially secure. So perhaps the anti-professor rants that often show up on these threads have a point: I don’t want my cushy lifestyle to end. I’ll grant that this is some of it.

But the fundamental reason is, I think, that I’ve been there and done that. As Bady notes, there’s absolutely nothing new about MOOCs. Sure, the technology is better. We can record and post high-definition video relatively easily. Developers have created applications that reduce the effort needed to splice together a lecture and that allow for the relatively easy synching of various video and textual online resources. Moreover, decent online conferencing used to require dedicated equipment. Now we can do it — for free or a relatively small fee — through services such as Skype and Google Hangout.*

Still… none of that amounts to a game changer.

What I’ve found is that recorded lectures work best as supplements to ongoing courses. Most of the “thank you” notes I receive for the material I’ve put online bear this out. They tend to involve students who were having trouble understanding a particular topic, and needed to hear (or see) someone explain it in a different way. Now, one can construct a MOOC environment that does this well: combines the sage-on-stage with virtual discussion sections, online resources, and so forth. And there’s value to that. But your mileage will vary; the elements that make a MOOC seem of high quality might even be detrimental to educational outcomes.

By all means, add MOOCs to the arsenal of higher education. But don’t let  technofashionistas and op-ed columnists — let alone those who stand to earn a lot of money from expanded investment in MOOC infrastructure — convince you that a revolution is here. And, whatever else we do, we shouldn’t enable them to assist in dismantling a system that stands amongst the best in the world. Educational consultants, state legislators, and professional administrators are doing just fine with that on their own.

*Although my experience with Google Hangout is that each additional student online significantly increases the chance that connection failures, ambient noise, and other problems will disrupt the experience beyond repair.

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Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.