What We Learned in the “MOOC Moment” Matters Right Now

I tried to share a link to this post, which is on a web site I set up for my book More Than a Moment, but for some reason, Facebook is blocking that– though not this site. Odd. So to get this out there, I’m posting it here as well. –Steve

I received an email from Utah State University Press the other day inviting me to record a brief video to introduce More Than a Moment to the kinds of colleagues who would have otherwise seen the book on display in the press’ booth at the now cancelled CCCCs in Milwaukee. USUP is going to be hosting a “virtual booth” on their web site in an effort to get the word out about books they’ve published recently, including my own.

So that is where this is coming from. Along with recording a bit of video, I decided I’d also write about how I think what I wrote about MOOCs matters right now, when higher education is now suddenly shifting everything online.

I don’t want to oversell this here. MOOCs weren’t a result of an unprecedented global crisis, and MOOCs are not the same thing as online teaching. Plus what faculty are being asked to do right now is more akin to getting into a lifeboat than it is to actual online teaching, a point I write about in some detail here.

That said, I do think there are some lessons learned from the “MOOC Moment” that are applicable to this moment.

Distance education has always had an uneasy balance between non-profit institutions and for-profit entrepreneurs, between idealists who want to expand access to higher education and opportunists who just want to make a buck.

We’re in an unprecedented moment with Covid-19, but the anxieties, fears, and even paranoia about what this moment might mean for for the future of online teaching and of academia as a whole aren’t exactly new. As I discuss in Chapter 1, at the height of the hype about MOOCs in around 2012-2013, many otherwise serious and rational people were very concerned that MOOCs were going to put all of us– particularly those of us who are invested in courses like first year writing– out of a job, or working for “the machine.” Chapter 2 of my book is a short history of some earlier key moments in distance education that shaped the rise of MOOCs, and the pattern of how these new modes of delivery impact higher education have been fairly consistent. Critics of early 20th century correspondence programs and the first wave of online courses in the 1990s suggested these alternative forms of delivery were bad because they lead to a corporatization of universities (what often is described now as “neoliberalism”) and a debasing of the more noble goals and ideal of higher education. The critiques Abraham Flexner had of correspondence schools in 1930 echo David Noble’s critique of the first wave of online education in the early 2000s. Similarly, enthusiasts of correspondence and online classes saw them as empowering to people who otherwise did not have any access to higher education.

It’s always about affordances. 

While I think MOOCs failed in higher education for a variety of reasons, I don’t think it was because they were online. Quite the opposite. I’ve been teaching at least part of my regular teaching load online now since about 2005, and I’ve come to see the discussions that compare online classes to face to face ones as fairly irrelevant. I think it’s about recognizing the affordances of the formats:

[I]t’s not useful to compare online courses to face-to-face courses in terms of which is “better”; rather, the consideration should be about the affordances of these different forms of delivery. Online courses have the advantage of bending (though not necessarily eliminating) the specifics of meeting times and meeting spaces, while face-to-face courses have the advantage of being able to exchange a great deal of information between teachers and students efficiently.

Which is why suddenly converting face to face classes to online ones without making changes to account for the differences in format is a bad idea.

I will say though that the faculty I interviewed for this book didn’t necessarily agree with this. While all of these faculty learned a lot from their experiences designing and teaching MOOCs that they can apply in their face to face classes, no one came away from the experience believing that the online teaching experience was as valuable or as satisfying as the face to face teaching experience. Then again, none of the faculty I interviewed for the book had ever taught online prior to their MOOC experience, and of course none of us have previous experience teaching during a global pandemic in any format.

Online teaching takes A LOT more planning and more support staff than f2f teaching.

Almost all of the MOOC faculty I interviewed were involved in very large MOOCs offered through their universities and in partnership with Coursera. The courses, mostly developed as experiments funded by grants from the Bill and Melissa Gates Foundation, were elaborate affairs with large support and production staffs.

Obviously, most online classes are not “massive” and thus significantly more simple to pull off logistically. At the same time, I think MOOCs and more modest online classes both require instructors to think in much more detail about planning in advance. Here’s a quote from chapter four, which is a deeper dive into the faculty interviews I conducted:

[Scott] DeWitt said, “I don’t know anybody who actually teaches the syllabus day to day exactly the way they plan [to] because things come up…. we’re constantly adjusting.” [Denise] Comer agreed: “I have an entire syllabus developed before the class begins, [but] I don’t have to have every single piece finished, I can have general goals, right? Learning objectives, learning outcomes, but I don’t have to have every day, all five minutes of every single day of the semester planned out.”

I don’t know anyone who teaches at the college level who doesn’t make changes like this, who occasionally just has to “wing it.” This works poorly online– which, again, is why what we’re in the midst of doing with suddenly shifting classes online during a pandemic is not really online teaching. It’s a lifeboat.

And while you don’t need an elaborate and large staff to teach a normal online class, it does take more staff and support than teaching f2f. If I’m teaching a class on campus and the wifi goes down or Canvas is on the fritz, we make do; if these things happen and I’m teaching online, the class is down too.

Video is a lot harder than you think, and probably overrated.

All but one of the MOOCs taught and organized by the faculty I interviewed involved a lot of “talking head” lecture videos, and most of the MOOCs I took as a student (and discuss at length in chapter three) involved a lot of video lectures. There’s a sort of face value/”truthiness” logic for using video lectures to replace what faculty do in face to face classes. I’m seeing this in the current Covid-19 moment as faculty try to teach their now online classes mostly with video conferencing software. But the reality is more complicated.

For one thing, making these videos is not nearly as easy as you might think, especially if you’ve never made one before. This is one of my favorite passages in the book, a quote from Cindy Selfe on what it was like for her to first record these videos in the MOOC she co-taught:

It’s different. We had takes. The first time we did this we had like five takes before I could actually get a word out. I had to do it with Scott [DeWitt]. In fact, that’s one of the things I’d be forever grateful for. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t make the words myself. And it wasn’t until we could sit there and just pretend like we’re having a conversation [that] I could get the thoughts out. So, you have to unlearn a lot of what you’re concerned about, I think. And then once we left that behind we were better, I think.

One pair of faculty I interviewed, Jeff Grabill and Julie Lindquist at Michigan State University, decided to not use video at all for their MOOC. “It was really a . . . pedagogical decision and an intellectual decision to see if we could scaffold something at [a large] scale that didn’t rely on that kind of lecture content” Grabill said. Lindquist said that they talked about incorporating video, perhaps footage to share with students of them walking around campus and what not. But besides it not fitting in with the pedagogy they were designing, they just didn’t have time.

The professor I interviewed with perhaps the most comfort in front of the camera and the most previous experience teaching MOOCs was Gautam Kaul, a business professor at the University of Michigan who had taught a large MOOC on Finance through Coursera several times before our interview. His courses had plenty of videos, but his thinking on their value for his MOOCs had changed with time and experience:

“As I’m doing more advanced stuff, the videos are less and less important and the content and assessments are becoming big,” particularly the assessments of the test questions and scenarios Kaul created. He added: “I believe we over-test our kids, but if you want to be learning on your own, if you are on your own, you have to figure out whether you’re learning it or not. I would say that 90 percent of my time is on [developing] assessments and 10 percent on videos.”

Video conferencing is a better option for the once f2f and now online class because there’s an assigned class time where everyone can meet. But beyond all the technical hiccups and problems that come with this, it’s far from an ideal solution.

The “MOOC Moment” had a lasting and continuing impact on the future of higher education, and the Covid-19 moment will impact us in similarly difficult to predict ways.

In the last chapter of my book, I make two “fuzzy” predictions and a warning about the future of higher education after the “MOOC Moment.”

Higher Education is not going to be “disrupted” or become all MOOCs or the Kevin Carey vision of “the University of Everywhere.” It’s easy to forget, but as MOOCs were starting to take off in 2012 or so, there were a lot of predictions out there that MOOCs were going to completely upend higher education as we know it. Udacity founder Sebastian Thrun infamously (and hyperbolically) predicted that in 50 years there would only be 10 or so universities left in the world. Serial disruption predictor Clayton Christensen said half of all higher ed institutions in the US would go out of business in the next ten to fifteen years, and by 2019, half of all K-12 would be online. Kevin Carey wrote an entire book where he imagined a world where the university would be “everywhere” online and for free. And so forth. None of this did or will happen, and I don’t think Covid-19 is going to cause this kind of mass disruption either.

Don’t get me wrong, things will change– see my next prediction and warning! Small institutions, both proprietary trade schools and traditional colleges, have been hurting for a while now. I don’t think half of them are going to close, but the Covid-19 crisis obviously doesn’t improve things for these schools, certainly not in the short term.

But I am confident, even in the current moment, that a century or so from now, we’ll still have a system of higher education that looks similar to what it looks like now. The universities that are on the Times Higher Education list of the top 100 universities in the world will continue to operate pretty much the same way they do now, people will still think college is a good idea, and so forth. However…

The shape of the hierarchy pyramid of higher ed in the U.S. might change for the worse. As I write about a fair amount in the book (mostly indebted to David Labaree’s argument in his book A Prefect Mess: The Unlikely Ascendancy of American Higher Education), there is a paradox to increasing access to higher education: different tiers of universities allow those at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder to make some advances through access to a version of higher education, but it simultaneously assures the people at the top of the ladder will stay there and continue to have better access to the best universities. The rich will stay richer.

With MOOCs and online programs, what I worry about is the hierarchy pyramid will grow both taller and wider, making the distance in the unspoken but widely understood between schools like EMU and the University of Michigan even wider. As I write about in the book, I can imagine a scenario where elite universities like UM can continue to more or less do business as usual, while universities like EMU face even more budget cuts and are left with little choice but to reconsider something like MOOCs.

To me, the impact of Covid-19 in this all depends on what happens with the international and national economy, and that all depends on stuff we still don’t know about the virus. In the short-term, it’s certainly not going to be good; then again, people tend to go back to college during recessions and higher ed clearly has a role to play if the U.S. has a massive financial stimulus along the lines of what we saw in the depression.

The lines between nonprofit and for-profit institutions in higher ed could become even more blurry. In the book, I talk specifically about Online Program Management companies, and I go into some detail about the contentious arrangement the EMU administration made with the OPM Academic Partnerships. These nonprofit/for-profit and private/public partnerships have always been a part of higher education, and they aren’t all bad. But they can go too far (as was the case at EMU) and these arrangements have to be constantly watched and reevaluated.

My guess is that the Covid-19 crisis will require a lot of universities to make a variety of short and long-term deals with for-profit vendors that could be both beneficial and volatile. A really easy example of that is Zoom, an already popular video conferencing platform that quickly seems to be emerging as the preferred software in higher ed. All of a sudden, EMU has a site license, and I am sure we are not alone. As a result, Zoom’s stock in the last month has gone from about $65 a share in December 2019 to more than $150 a share in late March 2020.

Finally, I think it’s pretty certain that global pandemic is going to get worse before it gets better, a crisis that is clearly more important than anything right now, including a book about MOOCs. But I also think we’ll eventually get through this, too.