Yet another miscellaneous MOOC link round-up

I’m not enrolled/participating in any MOOCs right now, I think pretty much for the first time in about a year. I’m busy with summer stuff (expect a gardening post soon), upcoming travel and other MOOC writing/editing things. There are plenty of  options to choose from on Coursera’s web site right now– including a course called “Introduction to Public Speaking” (and how exactly would that work?)– though I think the next one of these I’m going to take is going to be from Udacity (or someone else) and about something I know very little about (like math).

But I still wanted to post about a few of the links I’ve come across in the last couple of weeks. As has been the case before, this is mostly for me to come back to later on and it is not in a particular order– roughly chronological, I guess.

Here’s a link to Coursera’s Contract with the University of Kentucky on CHE.  I blogged about this a bit earlier and I know Jeff Rice has discussed this a bit on Facebook; maybe he’ll end up blogging about this too.

Pedagogies of Scale by Sean Michael Morris and Jesse Stommel at Hybrid Pedagogy. Alex Reid blogged about this and I commented about it there.  I think I mean something different than they do about pedagogy– or maybe what I would say is that pedagogy might scale, but teaching (and especially evaluating/grading writing) doesn’t.

MSU is going to have a Writing MOOC– here’s a link to enroll, and here’s a handy video:

Here’s a link to a CBS Detroit article about it, and a couple of paragraphs:

The most common method for teaching writing skills has always featured extensive face-to-face interaction, both with instructors and peers during the writing and revision process. A pair of Michigan State University faculty members are hoping to find out whether that process can be replicated in an online setting while keeping high levels of engagement intact.

Jeff Grabill, professor and chair of the Michigan State University Department of Writing, Rhetoric and American Culture, and Julie Lindquist, Director of First-Year Writing at Michigan State, will teach ‘Thinking Like a Writer,’ a free online non-credit course focused on helping a wide variety of people improve writing skills.

I know Jeff better than any of the other people who have been doing these composition MOOCs (which is not to say that I know Jeff all that well, but I’ve had beers with him and such), and I was on a panel with him at ATTW where he talked about the possibility of this MOOC. As I said in my post ATTW/CCCC post, “if Grabill et al attempt a MOOC, it will be better than what I’ve seen so far and/or be an ‘interesting failure’ (I believe that’s how he put it) and I think I am right in that the hype around MOOCs right now simply does not square with the realities of what they currently are.” So I’m anxious to hear how this turns out; it starts July 1.

“What Professors Can Learn From ‘Hard Core’ MOOC Students” by Jeffrey Young at CHE. I’ve been meaning to blog about this for a while now– a really interesting piece for at least two reasons. First, there’s what these “hard core” MOOC students (the folks Young interviewed completed dozens of courses) say about what it takes for these courses to be successful:  clarity/organization, a “star” professor, text (and not just lectures), and passion. Second, it says a lot about just who the “successful” MOOC students are: all of these folks are middle-aged and college educated with degrees from very good universities. In other words, these students are not the audience that Coursera has said they are trying to attract, the disenfranchised South African, the struggling teenager, etc.

“Predatory Learning” by Michael Gecan in the Boston Review is a kind of interestingly sprawling article that is mostly about education reform in the midwest (??) in the early 20th century, notably about the expansion of high schools and community college/technical school options.  There are also a couple of paragraphs about MOOCs; here’s one of them:

If MOOCs were offered as an experiment, as an approach to be tested and evaluated and refined, that would be one thing. But MOOCs are being sold, hustled really, as the best and brightest breakthrough since the printing press. The MOOC sales staff all have what in religious circles is called a “witness story.” There’s always a poor lad or lass in some desperately poor place, as far away as possible, who takes a course that would never be available if not for MOOCs. I heard one recently about a boy in Mongolia who took a poetry course through an Ivy League online offering. Now, I’m glad that he had the chance to take that course. And I hope more have the opportunity. But, as scientists love to say, the plural of anecdote is not data. And it is reasonable to suggest that we need to see more data about the impact of MOOCs over time. The limited data already available are ambiguous. Yes, there seems to be enormous initial interest, with some courses attracting even hundreds of thousands of watchers. But the data also show that most of these watchers stop watching and that few finish. The dropout rate is far greater than the appalling rates in failing high schools that led the corporate and foundation elites to demand the restructuring and closing of these schools.

I came across Bryan Alexander’s response to all this on his blog, “How not to write against MOOCs and education reform,” which is a critique of Gecan’s piece. Here’s a quote from him I think is relevant (though he says lots of other good stuff here too):

To begin with, it’s depressing to see thoughtful, serious articles in mid-2013 that claim to analyze MOOCs making elementary mistakes about technology.  ”Predatory” proceeds energetically without realizing cMOOCs exist.  That cMOOCs were the first out of the gate, and represent an alternative to xMOOCs which authors might actually appreciate (please check Wikipedia if you’re unsure of the difference).  Gecan also deems xMOOCs to be so “incredibly complex and technical” as to be comparable with the most advanced financial products which helped cause the 2008 financial crisis.  xMOOCs are many things, but they are not that complex.  Indeed, some charge them with being un-innovative in an era of actual technological innovation.

In the nutshell, one of the (perhaps the) main problems with discussions about MOOCs being “good” or “bad” is a fundamental disagreement about what MOOCs are.  As far as I can tell, most of MOOC enthusiasts who work in higher education rather than Silicon Valley/the VC world are for “cMOOCs” and their focus on community spread across platforms, experimentation, and specifically not for transferable college credit, and most of the MOOC critics are against “xMOOCs” and their focus on scalability, assessment, containment within a course shell, and specifically for developing courses that can be taken (and purchased) for credit, be that credit what we think of as “college credit,” as placement, as “AP” credit, etc.

I agree with Alexander (well, depressing might be a bit strong) that it is a problem that we still can’t agree on what a MOOC is, but there you have it.

“The Language of MOOCs” by Audrey Watters is something I wish I had seen this before my C&W talk about MOOCs because this is kind of what I was trying to talk about, sort of.

From CHE “AAUP Sees MOOCs as Spawning New Threats to Professors’ Intellectual Property.” Here are the opening paragraphs:

Colleges broadly threaten faculty members’ copyrights and academic freedom in claiming ownership of the massive open online courses their instructors have developed, Cary Nelson, a former president of the American Association of University Professors, argued here on Wednesday at the group’s annual conference.

In the meeting’s opening address, Mr. Nelson characterized the debate at colleges over who owns the rights to faculty members’ MOOCs as part of a broader battle over intellectual property that’s being waged on America’s campuses. At stake, he said, is not just the ability of faculty members to profit from their own writings or inventions, but the future of their profession.

“If we lose the battle over intellectual property, it’s over,” Mr. Nelson warned. “Being a professor will no longer be a professional career or a professional identity,” and faculty members will instead essentially find themselves working in “a service industry,” he said.

First off, at EMU, this is actually something the faculty union won a long time ago: without getting too technical about it, a faculty person who develops an online course “owns” that content and has to be reimbursed by the university if someone else uses it. Second, the whole ownership of course materials/copyright thing gets into some pretty debatable territory. Of course MOOC providers shouldn’t be making money off of course materials supplied free to them by professors, and from what I have been able to gather, most people teaching in MOOCs at this point have been doing it not for money but for fame, for research, and/or out of the goodness of their hearts. At the same time, for those of us who believe in copyleft/open-source scholarship and teaching materials, the fight for intellectual property is more about access than about ownership.

And third, I have a bit of sad news for my colleagues at the AAUP: given that 70% of all college courses are no longer taught by professors but by part-time and woefully underpaid instructors/adjuncts/lecturers/graduate assistants, I would say that we have been working in a “service industry” for quite a while.

From the Los Angeles Review of Books comes “MOOCs and the Future of the Humanities: A Roundtable” (Part 1) and (Part 2) by Ian Bogost, Cathy N. Davidson, Al Filreis, and Ray Schroeder. A really great “conversation” of sorts (though I kind of wish it was actually more of an exchange) between some smart cookies on MOOCs.  As is often the case, I think Bogost’s writing here is the most sharp of this very sharp group.

Speaking of which, Cathy Davidson has been blogging a lot lately about a MOOC she is planning on teaching a MOOC starting in January 2014 called “The History and Future of (Mostly Higher) Education: How We Can Unlearn Our Old Patterns to Relearn for a Happier, More Productive, and Socially Engaged Future.” She has a long post about some of this at “Clearing Up Some Myths About MOOCs” and subsequent posts about progress in planning the course at her blog here.  Now, I’m just skimming what Davidson is writing in the “Myths” about MOOCs post, agreeing with some of her points, disagreeing with a lot of them, and I came across this, which she labels as “Myth #8: MOOCs exploit faculty.”

 I’ve already said I fear this on a general level. I don’t like the implications, the assumptions.  Not at all.  Since this blog is about my personal first-hand experiences, I will say I am underpaid as a Coursera teacher and I’m often dismayed by the “start up” mentality where everyone at Coursera is making it up on the fly.  I’m daunted by the amount of work (it’s basically like writing another book, I think), and, having said all that, I also have to say:   I. Am. Having. A. Blast.    I love teaching.  I love challenges.   I love working with my amazing team.  And, as frustrating as start-up mentalities and expediencies can be, it is also fun to be trying something new, experimenting, seeing if it has any value, any lessons that might be applied in more typical situations–or not.  I don’t know yet, and that’s the fun, after decades of teaching.   And I think we’re going to be creating a pretty fabulous educational experience for tens of thousands of students and, given that we’re also doing a series of face-to-face co-located courses and events, I hope we will even be able to create a national conversation, with urgency and importance, about society’s  need to re-invest in public education.

I appreciate Davidson’s enthusiasm here, but I guess there are two things that I notice. First, the claims that she’s making about not being exploited and being able to afford to do this in the first place all depend on her being (I presume) very well paid and secure in her position at Duke University as the “Ruth F. DeVarney Professor of English and John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies.” In other words, Davidson is one of the most empowered and elite tenured professors at one of the most empowered and elite institutions in the world. So her feelings (or lack thereof) about being exploited are probably a wee-bit different than for the likes of me, the non-tenured but full-time instructor of first year writing at a community college, the graduate assistant, etc.

I also see a lot of “I” in this, as in (her emphasis) “I. Am. Having. A. Blast.” which I see as an unintentional nod to one of the reasons why we have to be careful about trusting the impressions of MOOC professors in the possibility of MOOCs. These are first and foremost professor/teacher/”star” centered environments, so it is perhaps not surprising that the professors/teachers/”stars” that are feeling the love are the most enthusiastic. And that’s why I think paying attention to learners in these things is so important.

Last, I’ll share “MOOCs, MIT, and Magic” by Tony Bates reporting back here at length about a conference about MOOCs at MIT.  A couple of good points that I think are spot-on:

Sir John Daniel took a much more critical view of MOOCs, suggesting, using the Gartner ‘hype cycle’, that MOOCs would soon enter the ‘trough of disillusionment’ and reflected on whether or how MOOCs will reach the “plateau of productivity”. He also pointed out that open and virtual universities in both developed and developing countries have been providing open and distance learning on a massive scale for over 40 years, and these initiatives have provided high quality and recognized qualifications.

Yep, and I think we are currently descending into that trough. And this:

I was the last speaker in this session and focused on the pedagogy of MOOCs, and suggested some ways in which they could be improved, based on 25 years of research in online learning. In summary the basic points I made are as follows:

  • MOOCs face several challenges, in particular low completion rates, problems with student  assessment, especially for assessment that requires qualitative or essay-type answers, and poor Internet access in developing countries
  • there is 25 years of experience and research into what works and what doesn’t in online learning
  • by and large, this knowledge is not being applied to the design of edX or Coursera MOOCs, which are based mainly on video recordings of classroom lectures
  • paying more attention to pedagogical issues and instructional design could help mitigate some of the challenges
  • in particular more attention needs to be paid to skills development, knowledge construction/deep learning and learner support
  • research should focus on course designs that focus on skills development rather than the transmission of information, on how to scale up learner support and oncosting models that provide resources for improved learner support
  • MOOCs should not be ‘second best’ for developing countries, replacing more locally based provision
  • for all this to happen, computer specialists and educators/instructional designers need to work together as equals

A copy of my presentation can be obtained by sending me an e-mail ( and I will send you an invitation via Dropbox to download the slides.

I’m tempted to send him an email….


3 thoughts on “Yet another miscellaneous MOOC link round-up”

  1. Thank you for the link to my grousing post. It fascinates me that the MOOC object remains so shifting and diffuse, this many years in. Perhaps this is due in part to academia’s habit of thinking about technology as instrumental, as utility, rather than as a subject of intellectual inquiry. (Not everyone does this, but it happens often enough)

    Fine post, btw, catching up all kinds of stories.

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