Category Archives: Teaching

Day of the MOOC

Day of the Mooc poster from


There was an Academic Senate discussion scheduled this afternoon on whether the district should be adopting MOOCs (Massively Open Online Courses).  I wasn’t going to be able to make the discussion but wanted to send a quick note to the AS President just to have my voice heard by someone.  It turned into something a bit more than a note though.  You might or might not find the topic interesting.  If you’re not aware, MOOCs are online courses from professors at reputable academic institutions but which are open to anyone.  They’ve been around for a while in internet terms, but they’ve made a number of headlines in the past year or so as more and more universities are looking at allowing their students to earn credit for taking these courses (as an alternative to actually offering sufficient sections of impacted courses) so that people can graduate on time.  Most notably, Governor Jerry Brown of our fair state of California has ordered the California State University system to explore this possibility further.  So aside from the troublesome public-private conflicts involved in such a venture, I had a few other points to make:


I’m an adjunct at Cañada College in the Department of Anthropology.  Regretfully, I won’t be able to make the Academic Senate discussion on MOOCs today.  However, I have several strong objections to the district adopting them.  I’m not certain if there will be an opportunity to air these objections, but I hope they can be shared in some way.
My first objection is, to some degree, from a purely self interested point of view. MOOCs are bad for adjuncts. It seems clear that the adoption of MOOCs will largely be made on the basis of cost savings and supposed “efficiency”.  Whatever other benefits MOOCs might or might not have, they will most likely result in a reduction of the at-will academic labor force because the most likely candidates for MOOCs are those intro classes that adjuncts commonly teach.  I realize that my employment prospects aren’t necessarily the strongest point to convince anyone not to adopt MOOCs, but it is related to a second and much more serious concern.
Second, MOOCs seem to feed into a perception that the purpose of an Associate’s or Bachelor’s degree is simply to aquire “facts”.  Increasingly the line between facts and knowledge is blurred, and the very structure of these massive online offerings exacerbates this.  Qualitative evaluation of students’ abilities to not only recite or identify facts correctly but to put those facts together in appropriate, logical and novel ways to solve problems is nearly impossible when there are tens or hundreds of thousands of students to evaluate. Multiple choice tests are not worthless, but even when special care is taken in their construction (which mostly doesn’t happen) their ability to shed light on how students arrive at their conclusions is very limited.  
Third, MOOC’s by their very nature exacerbate the perception of Higher Education as a commodity exchange. Education is not a service which one passively consumes.  Ask yourself what it is a student is paying, or more accurately incurring debt for? They do not pay for their degree.  That must be earned. They (partly) pay for the overhead of the institutions they attend, yet they hold no share of ownership in those institutions.  In fact, as a service education is queer because instead of paying other people to do the learning for the student, the student is paying other people to do work!  They are not purchasing a good or a service, but rather access. Access to not only the facts of an education, but to the culture of enquiry, skepticism and problem solving that academic institutions engender.  I don’t care if my students can remember the difference between a tribe and a band five years from now, but I do expect them to walk away with some idea of how anthropologists approach problems and maybe just enough of a changed perspective on the world that they have something different to contribute to their future employers and their understanding of current events.  
Fourth, MOOCs reproduce the benefits of this kind of change very poorly. What students and many politicians have difficulty understanding is that the real value of a college education, the thing that makes a college graduate worth significantly more than non-college graduates, is that they have during their time as students changed significantly if sometimes imperceptibly. This change comes not from the facts that students have acquired, but from the inescable process of enculturation that humans undergo whenever they enter an unfamiliar community. Anthropologists understand that change to be the result of one of the most powerful forces for change in our species, social relations.  Social relations needn’t be colocal.  There is plenty of ethnographic evidence to suggest that online communities can be just as authentic and powerful for human beings as communities which share physical spaces.  However, MOOCs are not virtual communities. Community does not arise simply as the result of making an online forum available.  Many attempts to create online communities based on such “Field of Dreams” assumptions have failed. Classroom communities arise in part because of the presence and investment of the instructor in getting to know his or her class.  It is difficult enough to acheive this in classes at four-year institutions where intro classes can number in the hundreds, instructors have TAs and grad students to assist and they are colocal with their students.  How can MOOCs ever hope to capture that.  Enculturation happens most effectively through the interaction of humans with each other when those humans understand each other as unique persons rather than faceless crowds. There is an upper limit to the number of such persons an individual can hold in their mind and maintain regular interactions with.  Anthropologists disagree on the exact number, but estimates range from roughly 100-300.  MOOCs are unable to exploit this fact of our humanity to reproduce the change in perspective an education brings.
Fifth, MOOCs serve only one kind of learner.  I do think some individual students can excel with MOOCs.  They are most likely highly motivated, but also tend to be autodidacts. In fact, many of the courses offered have autodidacts and lifelong learners in mind. MOOCs might offer this sort of person a great deal. But how many of these people are there?  How many of your students would you describe as autodidacts?
Finally, MOOCs are new.  They are glamorous and shiny and appear to be the kind of “out of the box” technological solution we as Americans love. I am no luddite but I think we need to be cautious about the allure of this apparent “silver bullet” that higher education has been handed. If we adopt MOOCs now, before they have been tested, while they are still driven by hype and fad, and while their business models and longevity remain obsured, we could be making changes to the structure of higher education that will be very difficult to come back from.  MOOCs are unproven, value facts over knowledge, are structurally antithetical to the mission of Higher Education, and exclude many learners who would benefit greatly from the personal experience of the classroom or a small online course. Most importantly, MOOCs short-change our students.  We will be reduced to teaching them the raw facts of our disciplines and not what makes a college graduate valuable: thinking.
-David Leitner