This past week I attended the webinar A Practical Response to Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCS). The webinar defined MOOCS as everything from iTunes U to the edX initiative of Harvard and MIT. Here are a webinar resource list and a link that compare the range of MOOCs. Seven Things You Should Know About MOOCs provides the basics that can be ingested in 5 minutes. Also, I previously blogged about MOOCs.
The webinar title suggests a less than favorable overall assessment of MOOCS. The 60 minute webinar bore out that expectation. I won’t expend much figuritive ink on the bias except to note a couple of points. The moderator’s near fanaticism in noting that “elite” institutions led MOOC initiatives was overkill. The same was true for references to the “hype” around MOOCs. The moderator’s comparison of MOOCs to the Oprah Book Club suggested the webinar would be as “fair and balanced” as Fox News.
Here are a few things the webinar coupled with my MOOC experience got me to thinking about:
Who are MOOCs for? The obvious answer is potentially everyone with internet access. As of June 2010 this means 77% of the United States population with no state at less than 60%. A tremendous potential of MOOCs is the ability to engage in informal, free-choice, and lifelong learning, concepts today in the forefront of museum discussions. Outstanding reports from the Center for the Future of Museums are available on these topics. Academic sponsorship of MOOCs responds to this social need. A good bit of the critique of MOOCs rests in their perceived impact on traditional academic degree models. The perception is greatly inflated. Coursera is one of the more successful MOOCs at this time. Their home page notes that you can “Improve your resume, advance your career, expand your knowledge, and gain confidence by successfully completing one of our challenging university courses.” All of that is true. I believe that making such coursework available to all citizens, in their homes/libraries leads to increased civic engagement. For academia to argue otherwise is self-serving.
What About MOOC content? The criticism of MOOC content is difficult to take seriously. For MOOC courses taught by tenured professors at Princeton, Harvard, or any other institution, one might reasonably assume that the content will reflect those very credentials. I did not complete the Human Computer Interaction course I previously blogged about specifically because of the course content. As opposed to alleged comparability to the Oprah Book Club, I dropped the course because I could not keep up with assignments that required peer-interaction and review. The course was more about the subject than I wanted. I do look forward to other courses I have registered for that are more relevant to my research and career interests.
How can MOOCs be sustained economically? The panelists were surprised that the biggest reason webinar respondents gave for liking MOOCs was that the offerings were open or free, causing one panelist to ponder “perhaps” we should be examining the cost of higher education. As I often argue in my blogs, when our institutions demonstrate their relevance to the public that they serve, that relevance will be translated into economic support. For example, in the case of the C.H. Nash Museum, over the past five years, we have moved from a position of extracting resources to inserting resources into the community in consultation with the community based on their expressed interests and needs. When it comes time for the public of our community to demand of the elected officials support for programs, we are now in a much better position to receive that support. I don’t see this as opportunism, rather, as living into our mission as an institution created to serve the public.
MOOCs, whether manifested as iTunes U, Coursera.org, edX, Ted talks, or the Oprah Book Club, ultimately operate from the same starting point. In his book Cognitive Surplus, Clay Shirky (2010:98) writes “Interpretations that focus on technology miss the point: technology enables those behaviors, but it doesn’t cause them . . . no one want e-mail for itself, any more than anyone wants electricity for itself; rather, we want the things electricity enables.” In the same way MOOCs is a technology that enables the publics desire for Massive Online Open Courses. If this is wrong, then MOOCs or whatever they evolve into, will fail. If the behavior is real, then all the hand-wringing and excuses will not stop them from succeeding.
What are your thoughts on MOOCs?