MOOCing the Liberal Arts?
February 19, 2014
I had the opportunity to speak this past weekend with my colleague and friend, Liz Losh, about the FemTechNet DOCC2013 as part of the Gaede Institute’s yearly conversation on the Liberal Arts, this one on MOOCs. The Institute’s director, Christian Hoekley, put together a compelling program where both critics and successful practitioners of recent MOOCs joined in conversation with a small, engaged, thoughtful crowd of interlocutors to think, in particular, about the challenges of technologically enhanced/corporate/computer delivered education within the context of a liberal education that might seem diametrically opposed to the aims of most mainstream MOOC‘s: bent as they are to serve many, many, many customers, efficiently, conveniently, for free (or at low cost or via the “noblesse oblige” of the wealthy few [Astin]), leaving in the dust the traditional teacher/professor, brick and mortar classroom, and its well-established norms of community, conversation, and care.
Alexander Austin, described by many in the room as the “guru of higher education research,” reminded us that his lengthy and lauded career of research allowed him to assure us that evidence has established, over decades and across thousands of undergrads at a variety of learning environments, that what students need to succeed is frequent interactions with faculty, student-to-student contact, co-curricular opportunities, writing, independent research opportunities, and a common core, none of which are usually available, or even attended to, in the production, selling, and use of MOOCs. He understands this “course content delivery” view of education as decidedly uninterested in other things that most colleges want to boast about: their institution’s unique purview on teaching young people leadership, citizenship, self-awareness, or critical thinking. Meanwhile, Peter Hadreas named similar qualities left under-attended to in the MOOC his Philosophy colleagues were being forced to teach on Justice (and for which he and he colleagues penned an infamous letter of refusal as a direct appeal to Professor Michael Sandel): education that needs to honor knowledge, good will for the student, and open speech.
What we learned in the meantime, from Owen Youngman who carefully studied his own tens of thousands of students enrolled in his MOOC on new media, “Understanding Media by Understanding Google,” was that the very many students from around the world who were successfully, happily, and gratefully taking his course for free were primarily older students, with undergraduate and even graduate training: people who were already prepared to learn on their own, or with the guidance of other students, students who were augmenting their already completed liberal education with extra stuff available for free on the Internet.
The conference left me no less suspicious about what MOOCs can’t and won’t do, and all the nefarious reasons that necessiate that liberal arts professors and our students should stay impassioned in our refusal of this upstairs/downstairs scenario [Hadreas], what I have liked to think of as a separate-but-equal set up, whereby some people get to take the Harvard class for credit, and the rest take the dumbed-down, paltry, technologized alternative for free. But this conversation did allow me to see how MOOCs can enhance, although never replace, what we strive to do well in college, and can provide a small piece of what people might want or need who are not (or will not get to be) in college. MOOCs can provide a form of adult or remedial education where they add information, access, learning, and knowledge to those with little access to these fine things without them. For those of us in higher education, including our students, our work is to provide MOOC alternatives by using technology, and other means, to improve what we do and to open access to what we have.