Some Preliminary Theses on MOOCs
MOOCs deploy the rhetoric of innovation and "the future," but I find they're really a fantasy about the end of history.—
Gerry Canavan (@gerrycanavan) February 17, 2013
MOOCs are how you'd structure higher education if you believed there were no future.—
Gerry Canavan (@gerrycanavan) February 17, 2013
These tweets got a lot of attention over the weekend, so I wanted to take a minute and expand a bit on why I think this is the case. On some level, after all, this seems like a calculatedly perverse thing to say; as we all know, MOOCs are the one and only future of a higher education system that is otherwise doomed. Doomed! And don’t they use computers, and the Internet? What could be more future-oriented than that?
But MOOCs actually register an end-of-history fantasy in at least three ways:
(1) First, the most basic economic justification for MOOCs assumes that the funding conditions of the current financial downtown (2008-) will never reset. Colleges, we are repeatedly told, are to face ever-declining budgets from this moment forward forever. There will never be any period of expansion and growth again; consequently “we must all learn to do more with less.” From my perspective this supposedly urgent need to upend the basic assumptions that have governed university life over its centuries-long history — of which the MOOC is but the most salient example — is both a hyper-reaction to temporary vibrations in the economic cycle and an unnecessary surrender to a shock-doctrine rhetoric of permanent crisis. Draconian cutbacks to education are a choice we are making, not an historical inevitability or some unyielding law of nature, and a choice we can yet unmake.
But going deeper:
(2) The pedagogical justification for MOOCs derives from a misunderstood belief in the surety and fixidity of current academic knowledge when, in fact, the entire point of the academy is discovery and dialogue. That is: the MOOC assumes we know what there is for us to know, and the only question now is how to package that knowledge in its best possible form for widest dissemination. So we must locate the “most charismatic” professors — but really, why not hire actors? — and have them lecture “deliver content” for huge Internet audiences of 10,000 or more.
But this bears no relationship to what actually goes on in classrooms, at least in the humanities fields in which I’ve spent the last fifteen years. The vitality of our teaching derives not from the recitation of what is certain but from the explorations of questions that are still unsettled and raw. MOOCs presume that nothing new will be produced in research — the entire point is to freeze established “content” in its perfected form — but also that nothing new or worthwhile is produced in the two-way encounter between teacher and student. Neither assumption reflects any college classroom I’ve ever sat in or how we in the humanities teach and learn.
This is at odds, we should further note, with the ecstatic assertions of “disruption” that frequently accumulate around discussions of the MOOC. In fact the MOOC is not a disruptive form but a fundamentally conservative one, flattening academic practice into the playing back of fixed lectures from a handful of professors recorded who-knows-how-long-ago under who-knows-which conditions. The MOOC is, in short, exactly how you’d structure higher education if you believed there was no future, if you believed you were living at the end of history and nothing was ever going to change. It’s in fact the interactive educational experience that is dynamic and radically adaptative, the interactive experience that has the power to disrupt the things both student and teacher think they know for sure.
(3) Parallel to this there is the question of who exactly is supposed to update all these MOOCs, or record new ones, years and decades from now, as will inevitably become necessary. And in some ways this is the crucial point, not just about MOOCs but about neoliberal attempts to defund and deprofessionalize the academy more generally. People working in the academy themselves are commonly complicit in this; we generally treat questions of our own reproduction as a kind of unhappy embarrassment, as if it weren’t necessary for any field of human activity to attend to the replenishment of its own conditions for existence. (Indeed, what’s wrong with the short-term balance-sheets of late capitalism is precisely this failure to attend in any meaningful way to long-term sustainability.) What’s unique about the field of higher education is that it itself is in crucial ways the system of replenishment for so many other fields — the means by which we produce more engineers, writers, teachers, lawyers, journalists, doctors, and so on. But higher education is also the means by which higher education replicates itself, as it must, as any system must. It needs to fulfill both mandates as it goes or the system will collapse.
Articulating the need for more professors in the future — and thus grad students and assistant professors in the present — isn’t any different than doctors recognizing that in each year that comes there will always need to be more med students to replace those doctors who will retire or die. There are children being born today who will someday need college professors. There are children not yet born who will someday become professors for children not yet born! The university requires a rational and sustainable system for replicating itself into the future because there will still need to be a university system after we are all dead.
Failing to account for, and pay for, the continuation and reproduction of a necessary system isn’t economic rationality; it isn’t a hard-nosed commitment to making the tough choices; it’s the exact opposite. It’s living as if there is no future, no need to reproduce the systems we have now for the future generations who will eventually need them. The fantasy that we could MOOCify education this year to save money on professor labor next year, and gain a few black lines in the budget, ignores the obvious need for a higher educational system that will be able to update, replenish, and sustain the glorious MOOCiversity when that time inevitably comes. Who is supposed to develop all the new and updated MOOCs we’ll need in two, five, ten, twenty years, in response to events and discoveries and technologies we cannot yet imagine? Who is going to moderate the discussion forums, grade the tests, answer questions from the students? In what capacity and under what contract terms will these MOOC-updaters and MOOC-runners be employed? By whom? Where will they have received their training, and how will that training have been paid for? What is the business model for the MOOC — not this quarter, but this decade, this century?
In a thousand ways today, all across the world, higher education today is eating its seed corn; MOOCs are just a particularly visible example of this phenomenon.
The answer to this objection, as best as I can tell, is that elite students will still have elite colleges, and their elite professors will just do all the new MOOCs. But this is revealing — against a rhetoric of radically democratizing MOOCs that expand access for all, we find instead a reality of intensifying class divisions in higher education, making the current divide between educational cohorts both formal and permanent while at the same time returning to us the worst aspects of the academy’s past as a luxury only for the rich. It’s also a fundamentally self-defeating explanation for how all this is supposed to work; when pushed to its limit the radical disruption of the MOOC turns out to retain the “rotten tree” of the university after all, just for those who can still afford to pay. To take up Aaron’s hyperextended metaphor once again, from this perspective we might say that the MOOCiversity keeps only the rotten tree, and clear-cuts the rest of the forest.
Of course this is not to say that every MOOC is necessarily bad. Of course not. It seems to me there are plenty of places where this pedagogical model can work quite well; I’ve even heard rumblings on my own campus of limited MOOC-style projects that could (at least potentially) solve real structural problems with core instruction here. I don’t oppose the MOOC form in principle any more than I oppose online classes, or three-hundred-person-lectures, or Wikipedia. There’s a place for multiple pedagogical models in knowledge production, and certainly a place for experimentation. But this fantasy we keep hearing of replacing whole campuses and all courses and all instruction with MOOCs — of doing away with face-to-face and digital-face-to-digital-face instruction entirely, at least for bulk of students and professions — is a fantasy of tearing down the robust university system our society spent centuries building and selling it for scrap. I say we shouldn’t do it.