The March of the MOOCs: Monstrous Open Online Courses

Jesse Stommel

MOOCs are a red herring. The MOOC didn’t appear last week, out of a void, vacuum-packed. The MOOC has been around for years, biding its time. Still, the recent furor about MOOCs, which some have called “hysteria,” opens important questions about higher education, digital pedagogy, and online learning. The MOOCs themselves aren’t what’s really at stake. In spite of the confused murmurs in the media, MOOCs won’t actually chomp everything in their path. And they aren’t an easy solution to higher education’s financial crisis. In fact, a MOOC isn’t a thing at all, just a methodological approach, with no inherent value except insofar as it’s used.

MOOCs are like books, good when they’re good and bad when they’re bad. There is evil they can help do and evil they can help undo. Emerson writes in “The American Scholar,” “Books are the best of things, well used; abused, among the worst” (56). Cathy Davidson writes similarly about MOOCs: “There are bad versions of MOOCs, and bad versions of traditional education.” This is echoed again by Tanya Sasser: “Some variables remain the same, no matter what the medium of instruction. Boring is boring.” Like the worst college classes of every variety, the worst MOOCs supply content without helping to facilitate learning.

Content and learning are two separate things, often at odds with one another. “The delivery of course content is not the same as education,” Siva Vaidhyanathan writes in “What’s the Matter With MOOCs?”. He continues, “Education is an imprecise process, a dance, and a collaborative experience.” Most content is finite and contained; whereas, learning is chaotic and indeterminate. It’s relatively easy to create technological infrastructures to deliver content, harder to build relationships and learning communities to help mediate, inflect, and disrupt that content. MOOCs, though, don’t only have to be about static content. MOOCs are trainable.

Too many people are drinking the MOOC Kool-aid (or dumping it out hastily) when what we need to do is look closely at the Kool-aid to see what we can learn from it. At this point, MOOCs are all untapped potential, mostly misunderstood and only potentially gangrenous. Audrey Watters writes, in “The Language of MOOCs,” “It’s clear to me that there’s a failure of acronyms here.”

“Massive”: What happens if we take the “Massive” out of “Massive Open Online Course”? In “We’ve been MOOCed”, Jim Groom writes, “The scale of MOOCs is all they have been reduced to, the massive has taken over, the rest is always already secondary.” There are financially sound reasons for making college classes bigger, but there are rarely pedagogical ones. Learning inevitably happens in every (on-ground and online) classroom, no matter the size, place, or shape. Learning is nascent and inexorable; however, it must also be cultivated and shared. The process we take through a course should be collaborative and dialogic. Massiveness does not always (or usually) lend itself to engaged participation of this sort. Without the “massive” part, there is still something revolutionary about MOOCs, perhaps something with even more potential — something lurking and embryonic.

“Open”: The first “O” in “MOOC” has been dangerously misread. The pedagogical value in openness is that it helps create dialogue by increasing access and bringing at once disparate learning spaces into conversation. Open, though, does not mean free. Everything is monetized, whether overtly, indirectly, or insidiously. To say that a MOOC is free is like saying that reading a book I found on the street is free. The book was manufactured from raw material. A publisher marketed it. Someone bought the book. And I spent time (that I could have been working) reading the book. I paid for the book. And we’ll pay (and already do pay) for MOOCs. The question is whether we’ll also dedicate the necessary energy and commitment to making them work.

“Online”: The second “O” in “MOOC” is a misnomer. Learning doesn’t happen online, at least not for humans. It happens in our brains, in our bodies, and in the world. The internet is a window not a world. The course for a MOOC is not, in fact, online. That would be like saying that a syllabus for a course is the course. It’s what jump-starts the course, and what organizes it, but it isn’t the course. The learning of the course happens in the moments that overstep the bounds of the syllabus and curriculum — the moments that happen in several places simultaneously. David Brooks writes, in “The Campus Tsunami,” “A brain is not a computer. We are not blank hard drives waiting to be filled with data. People learn from people they love and remember the things that arouse emotion.” A successful MOOC is a hybrid MOOC that confronts us online but engages us in the world — thoughtfully, physically, and emotionally.

“Course”: Education of this sort can’t be contained tidily inside of a close-walled “course.” Those boundaries too must be breached. Sean argues in “Courses, Composition, Hybridity” that learning is “creative and spontaneous, umbilical and imminent. A course is an act of composition, of the drawing together of thoughts through the use of tools to create — birth, deliver, discover, startle — not an artifact of learning, like a paper or final exam, but a use.” Learning is playful and random, which is not to say that it’s indiscriminate. If it were, we would have no need at all for syllabi, curriculum, or courses. Learning, rather, happens in the attentive unfolding of the rules — in their clever disruption and wild instantiation. We still need courses, at least as conceptual containers, but we can learn from the best MOOCs (like connectivist ones) and make our courses more and more boundless.

Emerson writes, in “The American Scholar,” “The state of society is one in which the members have suffered amputation from the trunk, and strut about so many walking monsters, — a good finger, a neck, a stomach, an elbow, but never a man.” These are the horrors Emerson imagines: severed heads, floating stomachs, fingers clicking away while bodies stiffen and minds wander. But there is also something exuberant promised in these horrors, a monster of another sort in the offing:

The scholar of the first age received into him the world around; brooded thereon; gave it the new arrangement of his own mind, and uttered it again. It came into him, life; it went out from him, truth. It came to him, short-lived actions; it went out from him, immortal thoughts. It came to him, business; it went from him, poetry. It was dead fact; now, it is quick thought. It can stand, and it can go. It now endures, it now flies, it now inspires.

Learning, for Emerson, is emergent and copulative not parthenogenetic. Education does lively work in the world, like a contagion, always spreading, always reaching. MOOCs have this potential, but only when we read them right. Even more importantly, the proliferation of MOOCs has broader implications for higher education, so turning away in the face of their incessant march would be both perilous and a missed opportunity.


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An Urgency of Teachers Copyright © 2018 by Jesse Stommel is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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