Who’s afraid of a MOOC?: on being education-y and course-ish

On Thursday, 22 March, the then-Tertiary Education Minister of Australia, Chris Bowen, registered for my new, up-coming MOOC (that’s a Massive Online Open Classroom, if you’ve somehow managed to miss it). Apparently, he’ll be taking the course, ‘Becoming human: Anthropology,’ an introduction to human evolution. By the next morning, Bowen had resigned from the Prime Minister’s cabinet and moved to the government back bench, stepping down from his post overseeing tertiary education.

Becoming human graphicI don’t think that the two events — registration and resignation — are directly related.  Well, unless Bowen was thinking that he should register for an online course because he might have more time on his hands…

But the two are definitely metaphorically related, because the discussion of MOOCs has become a forum for debating the future of tertiary education, including a host of political, economic and technological changes: public funding for universities, digitization strategy for education, economies of scale in educational cooperation, the role of entrepreneurs and for-profit institutions, student debt burden, reduced employment in academia, the un-bundling of university degrees (or here), the concentration on student outcomes, growth of university administration, the cost of a university education

Trying to keep up with even a fraction of what is being written about MOOCs is impossible — counting snowflakes in a blizzard — but there does seem to be a pattern: virtually any and every current fear about change in tertiary education is being projected onto MOOCs. You can find a column promising that MOOCs will fix almost every problem facing academe — or make it unfathomably worse — even suggesting that MOOCs are ‘digital sharecropping’ or calling for universities to declare a hiring freeze while we re-examine our long-term strategies in light of ‘MOOC mania’.

Fortunately, because they’re so scalable, everyone with an opinion could fit into a single MOOC.

With the politics and pedagogical debates in mind, I just want to offer some initial thoughts on my own MOOC-related experience and design goals. We can’t really evaluate the outcome yet, as the MOOC still hasn’t started its inaugural run, but we can at least talk about the design and orienting principles, however nascent they may be. This reflection is liable to run into several posts as it’s already a sprawling set of documents on my hard drive.

The MOOC is one reason that I haven’t been blogging as much of late. I was planning on having January away from serious academic writing (that is, non-blog writing), especially after the stress involved in applying for promotion to Associate Professor (I got it). Instead, I wound up carefully scripting 40 or so video segments for this subject, working on graphics, quizzes and other elements, and helping to build an online simulation of hominid evolution. (…and this is my first bit of advice about MOOCs: don’t underestimate how much work is involved in prepping all these materials.)


All jokes aside, here in Australia the ministry shake-up and failed leadership challenge in the federal Labor Party, as well as a more recent bum fight about funding reform for primary and secondary education, pushed to the back pages the announcement that Open Universities Australia (OUA) is launching ten new MOOCs. These are the first of what are intended to be 50 offerings through it’s new project Open2Study. OUA is the online provider owned by seven Australian universities, including my employer — Macquarie University — as well as Curtin, Griffith, Monash, Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, Swinburne, and the University of South Australia.

Open2Study intro video

Perhaps we’re developing MOOC-related fatigue, after all, last year was officially the ‘year of the MOOC’ according to the New York Times, but it’s especially surprising to me that we’re not getting more coverage here because Australians love when someone does an ‘Australian’ version of just about anything. The one exception is a piece at The Conversation: The Aussie Coursera? A new homegrown MOOC platform arrives.

The lack of coverage, however, may have to do with the fact that the tertiary education sector in Australia is not gripped by the same level of fear or millenarian imagining (‘we’re about to enter a new Golden Age…’) as the industry in some other places.

With some noteworthy exceptions — usually due to epic mismanagement or ideologically-driven ‘pre-emptive austerity’ — Australian universities haven’t undergone the kinds of financial shakeups that some other national systems have suffered. (For an anthropological discussion of this process, see the special issue of Anthropologies, ‘The Neoliberalized, Debt-plagued, Low Wage, Corporatized University’ and my piece on the Australian situation)

Any discussion of MOOCs here in Australia then seems at once lower stakes and less urgent, less likely to propose that MOOCs are the ‘final nail in the coffin’ or the potential financial ‘savior’ of universities. This may be about to change as Bowen’s replacement, Dr. Craig Emerson, just announced that the new federal budget is slated to cut $2.3 billion from tertiary education to pay for reforms to primary and secondary education in Australia. (Response here by Genevieve Kelly.)

My project was chosen to be the first cab off the rank at Macquarie after I pointed out at a panel discussion last semester during ‘Learning and Teaching Week’ that the technology made opening classrooms electronically inevitable. At the time, I argued that if the University didn’t promote open classroom efforts, the academic staff were going to start opening up our classrooms on our own. Either do it with us, or stand by as it happens without you. Anthropology (as well as a lot of other disciplines) wants to be free, or at the very least we are inexorably leaking onto the internet.

The leaking lecture hall

Web 2.0 opportunities are simply making it too easy and cheap to put teaching materials online. Our universities are often forcing us to tape lectures, generate electronic syllabi and provide access to our students already, so many of us are asking ourselves, why, after we put so much energy into lectures, slides, student readings, and the like for our classes, should we not share these much more widely. We have watched as lecture-like presentations – most notably, TED conference videos, but also iTunes U, Slideshare, and the like – have grown as a genre through podcasting and other avenues. There are copyright issues, and many of us are nervous about what will happen when as these materials become public, but enough of us are ready to dive into the deep end that the process is only likely to accelerate.

Why lock up all our work in presentations with limited audiences if it’s simple to break down the walls around the lecture hall? Why not transform our lectures and syllabi into vodcasts and websites and create new forms of popular, multi-media publishing (or teaching… whatever you want to call it)?

The example of MIT’s Open Courseware is just one of many; their anthropology offerings are fantastic, but whet the apetite for much more. A number of anthropologists have been posting material through iTunes U, including lectures by the staff at Oxford UniversityArizona State University, and  Cambridge University. John Hawks has been putting a whole range of his teaching materials online, including even synopses of his lectures and lab activities from Anth 105. And there’s the AAA’s syllabi exchange site and Jason Antrosio’s links to introductory syllabi at Anthropology Report.

I’ve already been putting my syllabi online in different places and working more and more with technologies like screencasting. For example, I shared around my Prezi for my introduction to evolutionary theory (I’ll put up the new version of the syllabus for that class and link to that later), wrote a long blog post and shared the beta Prezi for my lecture on steroids and performance enhancing drugs, and have been publicly posting Prezis for my psychological anthropology lectures (like this one on the ‘self’ or this one on childhood.).

A project I was involved in, ‘Bringing the Learning Home,’ created a complete curriculum for teaching intercultural skills to students doing study abroad and international exchange. All of that material, including slides, lecture materials, Prezis, worksheets and the like are all shared and Creative Commons licensed to encourage international studies offices to incorporate more anthropological thinking in their programming. (More on this project at a later date, especially because I’m working on an ebook version of the whole thing.)

Exchange of teaching materials is one of the really important ways that we share ideas and keep our discipline healthy. I’ve been so grateful to my colleagues everywhere who have shared syllabi for their course when asked to design new offerings (twenty-three different subjects last time I counted). Pedagogic sharing acts as a subtle, subterranean way that we influence each other in the academic community, one that likely has more effect on future generations than our peers, as we influence how our colleagues elsewhere teach students who may eventually specialize in our core areas of expertise.

Especially when we are pushing for subtle changes, like a more integrative approach to biological and cultural anthropology (obviously a core theme here at PLOS Neuroanthropology), it’s helpful to share the teaching materials we produce. To get beyond the older, obsolete perspectives that make it unnecessarily difficult to understand processes like neural enculturation or biocultural emergence of variation in ‘human nature,’ we’re going to have to overcome previous forms of understanding. These paradigms are deeply ingrained in so many of the classic textbooks and other teaching materials that we habitually use.

If we share our teaching materials — lecture notes, slides, assignments, accessible readings, graphics, diagrams — we can work together to stymie the compulsion to refight anachronistic intellectual battles. Without new pedagogy and teaching materials, we risk unintentionally transmitting to future generations of scholars tired debates simply because they’re so embedded into our curriculum.

It’s not our peers’ views then that we seek to change through these efforts. Although we share the teaching materials with our peers, it’s their students’ views through fellow teachers that pedagogical sharing most affects.

A MOOC is a whole new level of open pedagogy. We educators are making a mistake if we only focus on the problems with MOOCs, and not the potential, or if we are so afraid of the economic consequences that we shy away from educational experimentation. I would love to see professors, educational programmers, and even web designers leading a charge into experimentation – economics and business plans be damned!

It’s a kind of intellectual Stockholm syndrome if we feel like we can’t experiment with exciting teaching opportunities or intellectual practice that might potentially threaten these institutions — those that employ some of us — even though we’re all well aware of many of their structural problems, their elitism, and their limits.

Then again, it’s also above my pay grade to have to worry about the consequences… I don’t want to be flippant, but lawyers and MBAs and administrators shouldn’t be allowed to stand in the way of pedagogical innovation. We’re right to be suspicious of many ‘start-ups’ and for-profit providers who are getting into this area, but there’s still likely to be a lot of really interesting and powerful new techniques that will emerge. (That said, I’ve got part of a post on how I think a greater move to open education is actually good for the ‘business plan’ of universities today, and hope to finish and post that one soon.)

This whole section, however, comes with a major caveat: I have not won the argument about making the materials in ‘Becoming human’ completely open. I believe that they will only be open to students who register, at least in the first iterations, which I’m not entirely happy about. But I don’t get the final say in this — yes, it’s because of MBAs and administrators. If I ever get all my notes together for the ‘business model of MOOCs’ post, I’ll share my thinking on this problem, but I don’t like strings on a gift economy… I’m already thinking of ways to overcome this problem without getting my partners in the project too irritated. 

The freedom of lowered expectations

Our project is what The Australian is calling a ‘mini-MOOC’, ‘a taste of higher education, not the real thing’ (again, that’s The Australian). My offering, ‘Becoming Human: Anthropology,’ is like full-sized MOOCs: registration is free to anyone anywhere. The MOOC is a reinterpretation of some of the foundational material that I use in my course, ‘Anth 151: Human evolution and diversity,’ but the MOOC version is only four ‘modules’ or week-sized chunks long.

As I write this, enrollment is over 700, so it’s more like a Fairly Large Online Open Classroom or ‘FLOOC’ than a MOOC at the moment, but, well, we’ll just have to wait and see.

OUA has put some serious thought into the production quality issues. But this quality comes at a price: a grueling film schedule, and a content-driven design, where I’ll have less chance to change things as we go (well,… no chance, really).

The shortened four-module format is good, even though I initially asked for six. In retrospect, for this subject, five would have been ideal — four is a bit cramped, but better to err on the side of brevity. The shorter format makes it clear that we’re not actually going head-to-head with more substantial university courses.

Our MOOC, then, is really more of a ‘MOOSC’ (Massive Online Open Short Course), which cannot be so easily mistaken for a university course. And that’s a good thing. A really good thing.

The short course design shifts expectations. ‘Becoming human’ is clearly not a fully-fledged university class, but university course-ish.

The short form is education-y without the higher invest of time and energy (and money) needed for a university degree, either from instructor or student.

This kind of short course format could free us up to think about topics that wouldn’t support a full twelve-week course, to pull together a concentrated focus on a single topic, regardless of whether or not that topic has the natural flow on potential required of a course. In other words, a MOOSC format allows us to do things we can’t do in our regular university teaching: a reading group on a single book, or a tight set of ideas, or a limited skill like a research method.

Moreover, the shortened format may surmount one of the other chief problems with MOOCs: the very high drop-out rates. A semester-long course is bedeviled by the issue of fatigue, even for on-campus students (and for their instructors).

In fact, thinking in the MOOSC or short course format — or maybe not even a ‘course’ at all — opens the frame for considering what we are creating online: resources for learning, rather than complete, free-standing ‘courses’ with a central vision. As Nick Shackleton-Jones argues in his post ‘E-learning is dead. Long live online learning,’ the model of an ‘e-learning’ course is a top-down, centralized view of how education works. The problem is, that’s not how people are actually learning online:

Meanwhile the way in which actual people learn online took a different direction: people Googled stuff as they needed to know it, generated low-grade short form video of everything from dance-moves to cake-baking, from computer skills to people skills. Created Wikipedia. Once again the people who contribute are the ones who really care, with content typically consumed at point of need. Ever wonder why nobody is spontaneously creating elearning courses? (the closest is probably Slideshare). A familiar theme I grant you, but designing in this space is very different. Last year we created infographics, short video stories, animations, portals for content sharing, decision-support tools, scenarios and simulations. Each asset needs to be a good fit for the audience and the need. They may need them on laptops, phones or paper. Sometimes production values are critical, sometimes they are not.

Shackleton-Jones advocates for the creation of online educational resources that might be used for a wide range of different purposes, including in conventional university courses, but also by the online explorers and auto-didacts.

In other words, MOOSCs or education-y, course-ish offerings might be a way to create novel elements that correspond more closely to the way people learn online, rather than how we traditionally teach. In the process, we might get much better results, although the shift necessarily means we will disappoint those who hope that universities can just be replaced by online providers (a group I’m happy to disappoint).

The problem: the ‘C’ in ‘MOOC’

The idea that MOOCs will compete with university classes, especially classes at highly-regarded, elite universities and liberal arts colleges, is simply a mistake as far as I’m concerned. Conceptualizing MOOCs as ‘classes’ — or only as ‘classes’ — is a paradigm problem that is helping to clog up commentary on the issue, if not actually stopping innovation and practice (although I’m hardly the first to point this out).

It’s virtually impossible for an online environment to compete with an idealized university experience: small, intensive seminars full of bright people and facilitated by brilliant, passionate scholars. The idea that they might compete has been fostered by some MOOC advocates, especially proponents like Thomas Friedman, who has written that the ‘budding revolution’ in online education leaves him ‘incredibly hopeful about the future.’

I don’t fully understand what Friedman or others think will happen, but I suspect he envisions a kind of academic ‘dream team’ of charismatic intellectuals, all delivering polished, engaging lectures through short, slickly produced video clips, posting great assignments that are somehow marked with instant, accurate feedback, and offering buzzing online discussion threads spawning intense local study groups.

Might happen, I suppose. Probably does in some of the best situations. But might not happen. Probably doesn’t in most cases…

I share Friedman’s optimism, not because I think MOOCs will bring down the cost of a university degree, replacing four-year residential institutions with a smorgasbord of free online courses. Nor do I think that MOOCs will be a kind of virtual ‘Dead Poets’ Society,’ eclipsing bricks and mortar university experiences with a kind of immersive virtual, educational world (although some of these online classes are liable to be damn good).

It’s going to take some serious design thinking, including imaging beyond the ‘class’ as a structure for a MOOC, before we can produce the very best online educational resources and opportunities. To me, the battle over whether online university education should exist or not is over — it’s already happening. The question is, do we do online education well, or is it going to be really disappointing. Do we learn from how students (and non-students) are learning online or do we just try to package up and sell what we do on campus in some kind of online format. My own experiences, both in delivering and in taking courses online, suggest that we have a very long way to go in figuring out what is possible and what works.

MOOCs provide the ideal environment to learn how to do online education better, with large numbers of students who are willing subjects and plenty of opportunity to generate data about teaching methods, presentation techniques, and student problems. Anybody who does research on educational technology would be salivating at the kinds of subject pools and beta testing teams generated by the largest MOOCs. What we will learn in online education can improve what we provide our campus-based, face-to-face students. In the process, the initial providers may go belly-up, but that’s their problem, and their investors’ problem, not an educator’s problem.

One of the reasons that I agreed to do the project with OUA is that I wanted to see what we could do with the technology, especially in partnership with an experienced provider (Open Universities Australia). I have one course already online (Anth 151 ‘Human evolution and diversity’), and another one is liable to go online soon (Anth 207 ‘Psychological anthropology: body, brain, and culture’). I’d like those offerings to be really good, rather than just watered down, pre-recorded versions of what I do on campus. MOOCs are already leading to alternative platforms, as educators ask whether the video-lecture + multiple-choice-quiz format is really the best fit for all content (yeah, probably not).

Assuming that MOOCs will either bring down the cost of tertiary education or provide identical learning experience — or must accomplish these ends or inevitably wind up over-hyped failures — too narrowly interprets what is possible, and what MOOCs are up against (spoiler: I don’t think they’re competing with universities… only… and I think one of their chief rivals are other forms of online reading and informal education). Moreover, I think it misses the point that a lot of education is already online.

The exaggerated hype is inevitable, however, as MOOCs rub up against the fever dreams of venture capital, the spintastic confabulations of public relations, and the still-reverberating hopes of the dot.com internet bubble. We’ll need to get past this hype to truly find what is possible because, I suspect, MOOCs will need to escape the model of university classes as they find their own centre of gravity, appropriate format, and distinctive opportunities, especially to do things that cannot be done in a university class.

Assuming that MOOCs can (or must) replace university degrees may slow their development into something distinctive, flexible, and intellectually interesting. We can be education-y without being a course. After all, universities do a lot more than just provide courses; some of our institutions offer public lectures, museum exhibitions, short courses in between terms, alumni tours, conferences, outreach to high schools, and a wide range of other events that are not courses.

Our MOOC — or more accurately ‘MOOSC’ — is not competing with our own core ‘product’ — university classes — but a much larger, diverse set of events, objects, texts, or experiences. Through MOOCs, universities and academics are potentially moving into spaces currently occupied by book clubs and Wikipedia and documentaries and after-school ‘gifted and talented’ programs and a whole host of resources, some of them already online. If MOOCs are truly to be disruptive technology, they will not just move our current students from on-campus classrooms to virtual relations; they will become a channel through which the university reaches publics that we don’t currently engage enough, in ways we haven’t done before.

For me, it’s a no brainer. University education is already going online. MOOCs are here and they’re a great way to figure out how to do that online education better, but the quicker we stop thinking of them only as courses, the quicker we’ll be able to turn them into a whole range of other exciting opportunities. We’ve got lots of tricks up our sleeve already as educators, but MOOCs or MOOSCs or other technological innovations are liable to give us a lot more.

Additional links

There’s no way I can post a comprehensive list of all the stuff I’ve been reading on MOOCs, but a few pieces stand out, in addition to those that I’ve linked to throughout this post. I’ve tried to put some of those below, but there will, without doubt, be even more in subsequent posts.

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