Speed Scholarship Week Day 3: MOOCs and Money

By James Grimmelmann

Posted on December 12, 2013


It’s day three of Speed Scholarship Week. Today’s installment is my take on Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs. Over the course of 2012, I went from being a great enthusiast of the idea to frustrated and disappointed with them. The paper—The Merchants of MOOCs—is my attempt to understand why.

In a nutshell, today’s MOOCs do not actually solve the problems they claim to solve, because very little about them is new. If the MOOC mass-media model worked at scale, the Sunrise Semester or the correspondence course or Fathom.com or their other antecedents would already have disrupted higher education in the way MOOCs allegedly will. At the same time, though, the “open” that makes MOCs into MOOCs is tremendously exciting, because it can make education far more accessible and far more participatory. What has gone wrong is that MOOCs have been hijacked by the entrepreneurs and investors who see them in the financial terms of Silicon Valley startup culture. The question is not how MOOCs can make money, but rather how to sustain open education, regardless of whether it makes money.

Here is an excerpt from early in the paper:

The first claim about MOOCs is that they will allow all students to study with the very best professors. Thousands of Joe Coursepacks teach introductory calculus every year. Some of them are good; some are terrible. Replace them with a single MOOC, and it can be assigned to the clearest and most engaging lecturer. As David Brooks put it, “a few star professors can lecture to millions.”

There’s just one problem. We already have lectures from elite professors for the masses, on calculus and on many other subjects. They’re called “The Great Courses” and they come in an affordable package of 24 videos for a special limited-time price of $59.95.16 The “massive” in “MOOC” is the same as the “mass” in “mass media”: people have been using broadcast technologies to deliver education for decades. From 1957 to 1982, CBS aired Sunrise Semester, a half-hour program in the early morning featuring NYU professors delivering college-level lectures. NBC’s answer was Continental Classroom, which ran from 1958 to 1963. Nicaragua used radio for distance education in mathematics starting in 1974; dozens of countries followed its lead. The MOOC format adds little to the tools already at hand.

If anything, the MOOCs of today fall rather short of their predecessors. A recent article in The New Yorker offers a revealing look inside the making of one of Harvard’s MOOCs, “The Ancient Greek Hero.” The day before the course went live, the videos for the first lecture weren’t finished. The main video editor was a classics PhD, but don’t worry, she was trained in “digital storytelling” by Harvard’s “MOOC video guru.” And the professor, Gregory Nagy, was planning to bring a cameraman on his spring break trip to Greece to film the mists at Delphi. Why, we might ask, is the Francis Jones Professor of Classical Greek Literature scrambling to get second-rate B-roll footage? And do we really think that the resulting videos will be the pinnacle of pedagogical achievement in teaching ancient Greek literature?

And here is an excerpt from later on:

One advantage MOOCs have over these various resources is structure: the “C” stands for “course,” as in “prescribed course of study.” When you listen to Mike Duncan’s podcasts, you’re on your own: no one will notice or care if you give up after a week. But a MOOC has a meaningful sequence of checkpoints and deliverables to help students tie themselves to the mast. There is something to this point, but the contrast between MOOCs and open educational resources should not be overstated. On the one hand, MOOCs’ commitment mechanisms also often fall short. Nearly six out of seven of the students who started the Stanford AI course failed to finish, and when A.J. Jacobs signed up for eleven MOOCs for a New York Times experiment, he completed the “two courses with lighter workloads and less jargon.” On the other hand, nothing prevents layering the checkpoints and other work of a “course” on top of open resources. Many teachers who integrate the Khan Academy into their class- rooms customize how they draw on it for each student. MOOCs bundle student supervision with course content, but in an unbundled world, even that union can be questioned.

The “openness” of these other creators and communities is of an entirely different order than the openness of MOOCs. It is the freedom to take content and build on it, remixing it into other educational resources. It is the freedom to dive in and out of topics, pulling them together in ways that don’t follow the fixed rhythms of a college course. And, most of all, it is the freedom to join in, not just as a student but as a teacher, moving back and forth between learning and sharing what you have learned as you collaborate with others from around the world on their own diverse educational journeys. MOOCs are charismatic megafauna, but open education is an entire ecosystem.

The Merchants of MOOCs was written for a symposium on Legal Education Looking Forward at Seton Hall, and it is forthcoming in the Seton Hall Law Review.

The preceding is re-published on TAP with permission by its author, Professor James Grimmelmann. “Speed Scholarship Week Day 3: MOOCs and Money” was originally published December 4, 2013 on The Laboratorium. The Laboratorium publishes under the Creative Commons License.



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