“MOOCs” by Jonathan Haber: a review and more sabbatical anxiety

The main anxiety I have about my sabbatical project on MOOCs is the quickly approaching irrelevance of this work thanks to the passing of time and already published/in the pipeline books. I could see this working against me in two different and competing ways.

The first is that the quick rise and fall of MOOCs might mean that the “window of opportunity” to get a book-length manuscript published is closing quickly. I’m glad Charlie Lowe and I were able to strike when we were able to strike with Invasion of the MOOCsbut now I worry that it’s simply too late for another MOOC book.

At the same time, I’m worried that too many others have leapt out in front of me in the rush to publish on MOOCs. There are already about a dozen legitimate, academic or quasi-academic books out there on MOOCs (though a lot of what I’ve read has been pretty superficial and more in the vein of “how to succeed in MOOCs” rather than anything approaching critique or analysis.) I know at least one (maybe two or three?) other people in my field who are on sabbaticals now or soon and who said they were going to be working on MOOC projects of their own, amazon.com is already listing just shy of a half-dozen academic-ish books with “MOOC” in the titles that will be published in 2015, and I know of at least one other edited collection on the horizon about MOOCs. So by the time I have something to share with a publisher in August 2015 or so, the publisher is liable to say “that’s so 2014.”

(But I have to acknowledge that I am over-dramatizing this anxiety right now; the fact of the matter is I won’t get my sabbatical revoked if this project doesn’t pan out, I might end up shifting direction with my sabbatical anyway, etc., etc.).

So this is what has been on my mind as I was reading MOOCs by Jonathan Haber.

 

 

Haber describes himself as “an educational researcher, writer and recovering entrepreneur working in the field of technology-enabled learning,” and this book comes out of a project he called “Degree of Freedom,” “which involved trying to learn the equivalent of a BA in just twelve months using only MOOCs and other forms of free learning.” Basically, Haber (who has published in a bunch of different places about this project) took 30 MOOCs in the course of a year, though that seems to me to be a kind of dubious claim (more below on that).

Beyond that self-description, Haber is also (at least according to his LinkedIn page) currently the “inaugural Visiting Fellow at HarvardX, the organization within Harvard responsible for the creation of the University’s Massive Open Online Courses,” and he has a lot of previous experience in the education assessment/testing business, having developed a product/service called SkillCheck. This background certainly influences Haber’s views on MOOCs and of the whole Edu-Tech Industrial Complex, but I don’t begrudge him that. As tenured professor, I have a skewed view on MOOCs too.

So at first glance, his book looks a lot like what I was hoping to do. It’s part of the MIT Press Essential Knowledge Series, which are short books designed to explain some current concept or idea to a broad (that is, not just a bunch of academics) audience. His book is sort of structured the way I’m imagining my project, beginning with a history “before MOOCs” chapter and ending with a “the future” of MOOCs chapter.

And there are a few lines in the preference where Haber hits way too close to home for me. For example, after his extensive experience as a MOOC student (he claims to have completed 30 different MOOCs, though more on that below), he’s come to realize that MOOCs are “neither a panacea to the ‘crisis in education’… nor the terrifying threat condemned by doomsayers. Rather, they represent a phenomenon following along a well-worn timeline for initially overhyped but still transformative technologies that eventually find a ‘plateau of productivity’ from which they can do their slow-but-steady disruptive work.” (xiii)

Then there’s this:

This effort begins in chapter 2, which attempts to place MOOCs into a broader context of trends in traditional and online learning. On the surface, MOOCs might just seem like general online courses, albeit with no fees and huge enrollments. But seeing where MOOCs fit into the evolutionary history of online education, we can determine how closely the MOOCs taken today by millions of students fit (or don’t fit) the vision of earlier pioneers in technology-driven teaching and learning (14).

Damn, I thought, that kind of sums up what I was planning on doing.

But as I progressed through the book, my anxiety of reinventing the wheel eased, at least a bit. Besides the fact that there is room in the marketplace of ideas for more than one book that attempts to put MOOCs into a larger context of technical innovation and higher education (I told you I was being overly dramatic before), Haber doesn’t really follow through on what he suggests in these early chapters.

Don’t get me wrong– it’s a pretty good book. I think MOOCs is an accessible, well-written, and well-researched introduction to the topic of Massive Online Open Courses– very much fitting with the theme of this “Essential Knowledge” series. After moving quickly through the origin story– more on that in a bit too– Haber does a good job of explaining the differences between “xMOOCs” and “cMOOCs” and describing in broad terms what MOOCs are like in a way that would be useful for anyone who hasn’t taken a MOOC before. He talks about some of the different ways that MOOCs might end up “counting” in relation to more traditional college degrees and courses (Haber discusses ACE and CLEP credit in several places, for example), but he acknowledges that the biggest market might be in adult learners who already have college degrees and are taking MOOCs for self-fulfillment or as some kind of self-motivated workplace training.

He also spends a fair amount of time discussing the business of MOOCs (not surprising given Haber’s background), which is work that will come in handy for me this March. I’m giving a talk at the CCCCs in Tampa on the “business” of MOOCs– that is, let’s set aside the pedagogical value or lack thereof for a moment and try to follow the money. The theme of this year’s conference is “Risk and Reward,” so naturally, I could not resist titling my talk “Risky Business.” Stay tuned for a series of slides featuring a young Tom Cruise in his underwear.

Anyway, Haber’s book is a solid summary of the whole “MOOC thing.” If I were teaching a course in the winter term that involved some discussion about MOOCs (but of course I’m not– have I mentioned I’ll be on sabbatical?), I might very well assign this book. And if a colleague were to ask me for some kind of primer on MOOCs and where they’re at right now, I’d recommend they read this book first and then at least some of the essays in Invasion of the MOOCs to expose them to a different variety of perspectives and experiences.

But for me, Haber doesn’t move beyond a summary. He condenses the history of distance education to just a few pages before focusing more specifically on the history of MOOCs themselves. Since going into some detail about correspondence schools and the first wave of online courses is a big part of my project, this comes as some relief.

Strangely, Haber also stays quite general about what MOOCs are like from the point of view of students. Again, Haber’s claim to fame with MOOCs is he took a boatload of them to complete what he says is the equivalent of a BA in Philosophy in one year; he even describes his book as a sort of “senior thesis.” However, Haber shares few specific details about these courses– the assignments, the interactions with others, the qualities of the different MOOC professors, etc. I think that’s odd because there was ample opportunity for him to go into some of that detail in this book; in fact, even though MOOCs is fairly short (200 pages in a “small cut” book format), he’s actually rather repetitive in places.

So again, a good book and happily not my project. If anything, Haber’s summary/introductory work opens the door for people like me (and like I said, I know I’m not the only one out there who is on sabbatical with the intention of researching and writing more about MOOCs) to go beyond an introduction to MOOCs.

 

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