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On MOOCs

Nobody has said so to my face, but sometimes I’m scared that some of my readers secretly think I’m single-handedly assisting in the downfall of academia as we know it. You see, I was the associate instructor of an information visualization MOOC this past semester, and next Spring I’ll be putting together my own MOOC on information visualization for the digital humanities. It’s an odd position to be in, when much of the anti-DH rhetoric is against MOOCs while so few DHers actually support them (and it seems most vehemently denounce them). I’ve occasionally wondered if I’m the mostly-fictional strawman the anti-DH crowd is actually railing against. I don’t think I am, and I think it’s well-past time I posted my rationale of why.

This post itself was prompted by two others; one by Adam Crymble asking if The Programming Historian is a MOOC, and the other by Jonathan Rees on why even if you say your MOOC is going to be different, it probably won’t be. That last post was referenced by Andrew Goldstone:

With that in mind, let me preface by saying I’m a well-meaning MOOCer, and I think that if you match good intentions with reasonable actions, MOOCs can actually be used for good. How you build, deploy, and use a MOOC can go a long way, and it seems a lot of the fear behind them assumes there is one and only one inevitable path for them to go down which would ultimately result in the loss of academic jobs and a decrease in education standards.

Let’s begin with the oft-quoted Cathy Davidson, “If we can be replaced replaced by a computer screen, we should be.” I don’t believe Davidson is advocating for what Rees accuses her of in the above blog post. One prevailing argument against MOOCs is that the professors are distant, the interactivity is minimal-to-non-existent, and the overall student experience is one of weak detachment. I wonder, though, how many thousand-large undergraduate lectures offer better experiences; many do, I’m sure, but many also do not. In those cases, it seems a more engaging lecturer, at least, might be warranted. I doubt many-if-any MOOC teachers believe there are any other situations which could warrant the replacement of a university course with a MOOC beyond those where the student experience is already so abysmal that anything might help.

The question then arises, in those few situations where MOOCs might be better for enrolled students, what havoc might they wreak on already worsening faculty job opportunities? The toll on teaching in the face of automation might match the toll of the skilled craftsmen in the face of the industrial and eventually mechanical revolution. If you feel angry at replacing laborers with machines in situations where the latter are just (or nearly) as good as the former, and at a fraction of the cost, then you’ll likely also believe MOOCs replacing giant undergrad lectures (which, let’s face it, are often closer to unskilled than to skilled labor in this metaphor) is also unethical.

Rees echoes this fear of automation on the student’s end, suggesting “forcing students into MOOCs as a last resort is like automating your wedding or the birth of your first child.  You’re taking something that ought to depend upon the glorious unpredictability of human interaction and turning it into mass-produced, impersonal, disposable schlock.” The fear is echoed as well by Adam Crymble in his Programming Historian piece, when he says “what sets a MOOC apart from a classroom-based course is a belief that the tutor-tutee relationship can be depersonalized and made redundant. MOOCs replace this relationship with a series of steps. If you learn the steps in the right order and engage actively with the material you learn what you need to know and who needs teacher?”

MOOCs can happen to you! via cogdogblog.
MOOCs can happen to you! via cogdogblog.

The problem is that this entire dialogue rests on assumptions of Crymble and others taking the form that those who support MOOCs do so because, deep down, they believe “If you learn the steps in the right order and engage actively with the material you learn what you need to know and who needs teacher?” It is this set of assumptions that I would like to push against; the idea that all MOOCs must inevitably lead to automated teaching, regardless of the intentions, and that they exist as classroom replacements. I argue that, if designed and utilized correctly, MOOCs can lead to classroom augmentations and in fact can be designed in a way that they can no more be used to replace classrooms than massively-distributed textbooks can.

When Katy Börner and our team designed and built the Information Visualization MOOC, we did so using Google’s open source Course Builder, with the intention of opening knowledge to whomever wanted to learn it regardless of whether they could afford to enroll in one of the few universities around that offers this sort of course. Each of the lectures were recordings of usual lectures for that class, but cut up into more bite-sized chunks, and included tutorials on how to use software. We ran the MOOC concurrently with our graduate course of the same focus, and we used the MOOC as a sort of video textbook that (I hope) was more concise and engaging than most information visualization textbooks out there, and (importantly) completely free to the students. Students watched pre-recorded lectures at home  and then we discussed the lessons and did hands-on training during class time, not dissimilar from the style of flipped teaching.

For those not enrolled in the physical course, we opened up the lectures to anyone who wanted to join in, and created a series of tests and assignments which required students to work together in small teams of 4-5 on real world client data if they wanted to get credit for the course. Many just wanted to learn, and didn’t care about credit. Some still took the exams because they wanted to know how well they’d learned the data, even if they weren’t taking the course credit. Some just did the client projects, because they thought it would give them good real-world experience, but didn’t take the tests and go for the credit. The “credit,” by the way, was a badge from Mozilla Open Badges, and we designed them to be particularly difficult to achieve because we wanted them to mean something. We also hand-graded the client projects.

The IVMOOC Badge.
The IVMOOC Badge.

The thing is, at no time did we ever equate the MOOC with a graduate course, or ever suggest that it could be taken as a replacement credit  instead of some real course. And, by building the course in Google’s course-builder and hosting it ourselves, we have complete control over it; universities can’t take it and change it around as they see fit to offer it for credit. I suppose it’s possible that some university out there might allow students to wave a methodology credit if they get our badge, but I fail to see how that would be any different from universities offering course-waving for students reading a textbook on their own and taking some standard test afterward; it’s done, but not often.

In short, we offer the MOOC as a free and open textbook, not as a classroom replacement. Within the classroom, we use it as a tool for augmenting instruction. For those who choose to do assignments, and perform well on them with their student teams, we acknowledge their good work with a badge rather than a university credit. The fear that MOOCs will necessarily automate teachers away is no more well-founded than the idea that textbooks-and-standardized-tests would; further, if administrators choose to use MOOCs for this purpose, they are no more justified in doing this than they would be justified in replacing teachers with textbooks. That they still might is of course a frightening prospect, and something we need to guard against, but should no more be blamed on MOOC instructors than they would be blamed on textbook authors in the alternative scenario. It doesn’t seem we’re any different from what Adam Crymble described The Programming Historian to be (recall: definitely not a MOOC).

We’re making it easier for people to teach themselves interesting and useful things. Whether administrators use that for good or ill is a separate issue. Whether more open and free training trumps our need to employ all the wandering academics out there is a separate issue – as is whether or not that dichotomy is even a valid one. As it stands now, though, I’m proud of the work we’ve done on the IVMOOC, I’m proud of the students of the physical course, and I’m especially proud of all the amazing students around the world who came out of the MOOC producing beautiful visualization projects, and are better prepared for life in a data-rich world.

2 replies on “On MOOCs”

I took the IVMOOC, and I’m very happy you created it.
I’m 35, finished Computer Science a long time ago, and this was a great way of learning something I’m very interesting without needing to pay for it nor moving from my home, at my own pace, and found the ‘client’ project very engaging, and a great way of testing what I learned in the real world.
I don’t think MOOCs will replace the classroom any time soon, but I do think they are a very valuable learning tool.

Greetings from Slovenia.

‘The fear that MOOCs will necessarily automate teachers away is no more well-founded than the idea that textbooks-and-standardized-tests would; further, if administrators choose to use MOOCs for this purpose, they are no more justified in doing this than they would be justified in replacing teachers with textbooks. That they still might is of course a frightening prospect, and something we need to guard against, but should no more be blamed on MOOC instructors than they would be blamed on textbook authors in the alternative scenario.’

You are right, but it seems to me that you may be arguing against a strawman. The issue is not, on the whole, with MOOC instructors (as you say above, nobody has accused you of ‘single-handedly assisting in the downfall of academia as we know it’), but with those administrators and MOOC providers who appear to be toying with the idea of replacing teachers with a combination of computer technology and megastar super-professors, regardless of whether or not their doing so would be ‘justified’ on a pedagogical level. As you acknowledge, that really is ‘a frightening prospect’, so I don’t find it altogether fair to suggest that people are succumbing to hysteria – as in the parodic movie poster you use as an illustration.

(Of course, there are other administrators and MOOC providers who simply view MOOCs as a sort of advertising – a reasonably effective one, if the figures I’ve seen are to be believed. So you’re correct to say that there is not ‘one and only one inevitable path for [MOOCs] to go down’ – but I’m not sure that this is what you had in mind.)

As a discussion of how to build an open, interactive digital textbook-equivalent and incorporate it into classroom teaching, however, I found your post to be interesting and insightful, and I’ll be discussing it with teaching colleagues.

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