Gerry Canavan

the smartest kid on earth

Some Preliminary Theses on MOOCs

with 37 comments

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.

37 Responses

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  1. In point (1) above, you write: “both a hyper-reaction to temporary vibrations in the economic cycle and an unnecessary surrender to a shock-doctrine rhetoric of permanent crisis”. I would add to that, a projection of a current trend against social spending which certainly *needn’t* be continued, and hopefully won’t be. Which is to say, that I don’t think it’s just a reflection of the last half-dozen years & a shock-doctrine continuation of them — although it’s that too, of course. But it’s also part of the decades-long transformation of a country (and elsewhere too, I believe, although nowhere else is neoliberalism so deep) with a (comparatively!) equal distribution of income, achieved in part by spending on social goods like education, into a country divided radically into the haves and haves not. (I don’t mean to be mysterious about this: if we taxed the rich more and put the money towards public universities, there wouldn’t be the budget pressures that make all sorts of (supposedly) cost-saving decisions, MOOCs included.)

    MOOC is just part of broader changes in education, which in turn is just part of many changes in this country (evisceration of any notion of the public good, the widening of inequality, etc), which in turn feed on each other. So that your point at the end — that this encapsulates inequality in education — is just one part of a spiraling process: inequality effects education effects inequality, etc.

    The past six years have been a key part of the process. But they are, I think, just part of a process that is bother longer and wider; and we ought to remember that context.

    Fabulous essay, by the way. You should consider writing it up more formally and publishing it somewhere it would get more widely read.

    Stephen Frug

    February 18, 2013 at 8:20 pm

    • Yes, I think that’s right, and tried to gesture towards that longer context here and there in the post. It becomes very difficult to talk about any of these things usefully in isolation, which only feeds the assertion that the austerity future is inevitable and no alternatives are possible.


      February 18, 2013 at 8:46 pm

      • “It becomes very difficult to talk about any of these things usefully in isolation, which only feeds the assertion that the austerity future is inevitable and no alternatives are possible.”

        I dunno. I can sort of see it working the other way: pointing out that this is all part of a big, broad shift and that a shift in the other direction would help a lot of problems at once. In isolation all these problems seem hopeless; as symptoms of a big, deliberate change, they’re harder to talk about, but somewhat easier to imagine reversing.

        Stephen Frug

        February 18, 2013 at 8:51 pm

      • Well, that’s very Jamesonian, so I like it. But it can be easier said that done — imagining a conversation with someone like Clay Shirky, for instance, I can’t imagine he’d recognize himself that description at all. He just thinks he’s being realistic; he doesn’t see it as a movement, or a choice.


        February 18, 2013 at 8:57 pm

  2. […] “MOOCs are how you’d structure higher education if you believed there were no future.” —  Gerry Canavan on MOOCs […]

  3. When these first went live, I remember an interview with one of t he Stanford profs, who said something like, “Of course, Stanford won’t go out of business. We’ll still be running the university as it is.” The reporter didn’t follow up with the natural class-based argument. These things have always been about other people’s children, which is equally true when college administrators or Congresspeople sing the praises of online education.


    February 19, 2013 at 7:33 am

    • Very true, and true of the charter school movement and other experiments in primary and secondary ed as well…


      February 19, 2013 at 7:53 am

  4. Books 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.

    – Fr. Gerald of Canavanium, 1447 AD

    Alex Chaffee (@alexch)

    February 19, 2013 at 10:13 am

    • I’m amused, but of course handing someone a book isn’t the same thing (or even the major part) of educating them.


      February 19, 2013 at 10:20 am

      • And (he went on) the branding of the MOOC as just another useful tool was part of what this post sought to undo. The MOOC isn’t a technology, it’s a labor model that happens to deploy technology.


        February 19, 2013 at 10:25 am

      • I think you’ve put your finger on it: MOOCs represent a collision of two cultures that were formerly pretty separate: *teaching* and *training*.

        As an occasional professional trainer (of computer programming, in corporate and career-building contexts) I have always been uncomfortable calling myself a teacher, and frequently joke about how hard it would be if my students weren’t highly motivated, or if what I was teaching weren’t technical. The most erudite stuff I teach comes down to snippets of advice (like “don’t pre-optimize” or “object-oriented programming is the art of keeping similar stuff together and different stuff separate”) and has almost nothing to do with critical thinking, analysis, or even the algorithms and theorems of Computer Science. In that context, putting courseware (yes, I said it) online is natural, and has been going on for decades, and MOOCs are simply an incremental technological step. The prevailing attitude of those in the business of technology that if some dinosaurs lose their jobs, or if some consumers get a worse product, well, that’s the price of progress, a little creative destruction, and eventually things will shake out, and in the meantime we’re giving lots of people access to knowledge and maybe even enlarging the market for traditional education as these new learners mature.

        I haven’t studied this nearly as deeply as you have, especially from the education side, and I definitely share your egalitarian/socialist/pro-labor ideals and your skepticism about the long-term business model of “put free classes online and then fire the teachers” (though I’m not sure that’s not a caricature). But I can’t help but think you’re the newspaper columnist decrying blogs, or the encyclopedist decrying Wikipedia, and that railing at MOOCs is blaming the messenger for exposing what a house of cards the American Academy has become over the past, say, 40 years.

        By the way, I have put my money where my mouth is: I put all my teaching materials, including lecture videos, on my web site under a CC license, in the hopes that some people will still want to pay for my physical presence and personal attention… the technical equivalent of “give away the music and sell the T-shirts”.

        Alex Chaffee (@alexch)

        February 20, 2013 at 8:59 am

  5. […] This is an interesting take on MOOCs. Usually I hear people go on and on about how “revolutionary” MOOCs are, and how they will fundamentally change the face of education. This takes a different view. A part I thought was interesting: […]

  6. You talk as though online courses are going to replace the kind of student-teacher relationship that is found in, say, a master’s thesis program.

    What is actually happening is that online courses are going to replace the 400-student lectures, the weed-out calc and physics courses, the kind of courses where the teaching really *is* “try to stay awake while I read my Powerpoint slides at you, then do problems twelve through thirty at the end of the chapter”.


    February 20, 2013 at 12:45 am

    • They’re talking about MOOCs for language learning and for composition, as well as humanities seminars. They’re honestly talking about MOOCs and large online classes as total replacement for basically all instruction.

      Those kinds of huge, weed-out lectures you’re talking about are a place where I can imagine the MOOC at least potentially working. But those aren’t the bulk of classes in an Arts and Sciences college, and already proven to be an ineffective way to teach.


      February 20, 2013 at 6:56 am

      • I think some of what you’re reacting to is the initial slope of the Hype Curve (, where through idealism or excitement or avarice some people make outlandish claims for a new product or technology. The Khan Academy, for instance, always saw its videos as homework, to prepare students for Q&A and labs and discussions and analysis in the next day’s traditional in-person classroom.

        You can cherry pick quotations from idiots in any movement.

        Alex Chaffee (@alexch)

        February 20, 2013 at 9:09 am

  7. […] professor teaches should reflect current scholarship.  As Gerry Canavan explained the other day in a post that is well worth reading in its […]

  8. i think you’re bang on here…particularly about the fundamental conservatism of the business model (of the bigger xMOOCs – i had my say here on the fake furor of disruption: and the strange assumption that knowledge is neither generative nor ongoing.

    what i would add, though, is that the version of MOOCs you’re talking about here reflects more the talking points of xMOOC CEOs and university admins than the full picture of what’s happening with MOOCs. this isn’t a criticism of you – these are the voices that get play in media and thus MOOC as you mean it is a quickly reifying term – but this version of structure and pedagogy isn’t the full picture even of what’s happening with profs designing and teaching some of the Coursera courses. there is a whole history to MOOCs that are ABOUT generative knowledge (cMOOCs), and while far smaller (and sometimes hybrid) and not as famous, they’re still ongoing. and lend themselves more to working on the side of the existing system rather than to colonial knowledge delivery or disruption. also pedagogically, even some of the bigger MOOCs appear to be gradually moving away from the talking head videos, particularly in some areas.

    so i think much of what’s happening is absolutely part of higher ed tanking itself as a system, which concerns me deeply, and MOOCs as you describe them are fully as destructive as you describe.

    but i’m wary of closing the door on them yet, entirely. i’m hoping there’s subversive potential still in opening up courses. not the simple determinist democratizing that gets passed off at the moment as what MOOCs are, but more in the decentering of some of the hierarchical, non-generative aspects of higher ed as we know it. i take these kind of MOOCs regularly, and research in them, and given the depth of analysis and passion you’ve put in here, i just wanted to wave the flag for them and say, hey…these exist too! curious whether you think we should just rename them? ;)

    Bonnie Stewart (@bonstewart)

    February 20, 2013 at 8:47 am

    • Thanks, that’s a really good and thought-provoking expansion of what I’m writing about here. I don’t know about renaming — that never seems to work…


      February 20, 2013 at 11:36 am

    • I think the name will fade on it’s own and we’ll be back to calling this stuff education in all it’s varied forms soon enough. The MOOC moniker bugs me, personally…

      Massive – I get that making the name speak to scalability is part of the allure (rolls eyes a little). In my view, this addition makes it seem like a course is automatically out to set some kind of Guinness Book record without regard to the context of scale nor the sensible limits that would make a solution logistically or pedagogically workable. Some are insanely big and an insanely big xMOOC seems silly when reliable feedback and discourse is so far removed. Might as well just hang the content out there and call it something fancy like “the internet.”

      Open – THIS is a little more interesting. There’s something here that could provide tremendous value for providers and other folks in the entire chain (both from a competitive commodity standpoint as well as increased adaptability.) This could support the generative nature of knowledge development, vice serving in its stead as a flash frozen mass distribution. From an access (still open but licensed) standpoint, an instructor could use a component from another university as a part of an assignment. Let’s say Prof Canavan offered a dynamite primer or explanation of a concept that another facilitator / professor wanted to add to a reading assignment for discussion for next week. Done right, Gerry or his institution could get some reasonable license payment for the use of this small piece. Sounds a bit capitalistic… But if you want to reward excellence and broaden access to top-class resources — there needs to be an incentive in the system. Just make it easy and painless for folks to mix, blend, and enhance and don’t be a-holes about the fees. The system could bloom with reusables that drive the types of things that the classroom (physical or virtual) is great at. This isn’t commoditization of content. It’s commoditization of value based on choice, reputation, and other factors. Could work…

      Online – This is a funny thing add in this century. Online courses aren’t new. I took my first online course over a decade and a half ago. So, what is new with MOOCs? 1) A race for scale without regard to consequences or consideration of the benefits of (real) small group interactions and 2) We have folks that haven’t developed the skills to teach online now moving to teach online at a scale that they really aren’t ready for (and may not even be necessary.)

      Course – I have some personal heartburn with just about anything taking on the label of “course”. Even many of the xMOOCs tend to be more of a low intensity focused community gathering or conversation. Like Bonnie says, the xMOOC are generative and can work to push the bounds of collective perception. There’s value here but “course” implies an assumption of consistent measurable transformation between A and B. I’d hesitate to think about an xMOOC in the terms of this definition. xMOOC (C for conversation) is going to limit consistent measurable transformation and “course” is going to limit the power of that longer, slower, and less predictable set of semi-directed conversations.

      I wish another “transformation of education” [sarcasm mine] would get as much attention as the MOOC. As a competent – but under-educated – citizen, I’m digging the direction of the competency based assessment. We should be putting as much of the spotlight on the destination as we do the many pathways available to the journey…

      I’m all for reshaping institutions in this industry so they can 1) survive and 2) continue to provide world class education opportunities. 1 and 2. Not 1 or 2. MOOC-like activities, or OOC, or coordinated internet conversations, or whatever you want to call them have a place and can be valuable. But as a broad brush, they can’t possibly be the future of education… can they? ;)


      February 20, 2013 at 3:39 pm

  9. Your article reminded me of the “half life of facts” by Samuel Arbesman. Where do our “facts” come from unless someone (usually in a higher education setting) has the time to challenge and create new facts? So higher ed isn’t going anywhere, it’s just the delivery system that is mutating.

    Moocs are about imparting the “current facts” from the perspective of the person imparting those “facts” to 1000’s rather 400. You are absolutely correct that moocs will need frequent updates to remain current, just like a good teacher updates their course material every year. So good teachers who can plan for an online environment (it’s akin to developing lessons for elementary classes which might be difficult for some lecturers) will thrive in the mooc environment and that is good for all learners.

    So, as a new delivery system are moocs flawed? Yes of course, as they have a tendency to perpetuate some of the worst aspects of higher ed. But they have also been a gateway for 1000’s to access course content and some of the world’s top thinkers, which would not normally be available to them. (I read a comment somewhere from someone who just pops into courses to look at the resource that the professor has aggregated.) So, I’m on the fence about moocs. I’ve been in some great moocs that have stretched my mind, introduced me to new ideas and the thought leaders in the field and I’ve been in some awful ones (including FOE which crashed and was shut down.)

    Karen Young

    February 20, 2013 at 2:03 pm

  10. […] post is a response to the blog pose “Some Preliminary Theses on MOOC’s”, by Gerry Canavan. In summary, Mr. Canavan argues that Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC’s) are a detriment to […]

  11. I have responded in a blog post and would love feedback and to engage in this dialogue.


    February 22, 2013 at 9:56 pm

    • Kat, I appreciate the response. I think if you were a regular reader of my blog some of your complaints about the piece might not have been made (or at least not made in quite the same way); I don’t think many people who do read this blog would agree with you that I wear rose-colored glasses with respect to current conditions of labor and debt in the academy. In fact I oppose those trends in the academy very strongly for exactly the same reason I oppose the rapid overinvestment in MOOCs; they are both symptoms of a higher education system that is being defunded as well as a profession that is being aggressively deskilled and de-professionalized. (This is what adjunctification is.) MOOCs, in my estimation, would only accelerate this process, for the reasons I outline in the post; a transition from the classroom setting to online “content delivery” would tend to make professors superfluous in favor of low-paid module managers. That would be bad for people like me, of course! But it would also be bad for higher education as such, because (1) this mode of education has been demonstrated to be a highly ineffective pedagogical style (2) it’s going to be distributed along class lines, accelerating trends towards two-tier education outcomes in this country (3) continuing to defund the university will further harm the ability of the academy to reproduce the next generation of teachers and researchers.

      Now, I should say I use the word fantasy advisedly in the post — because I *don’t* think MOOCs are going to replace current practices higher education in any meaningful way. I’m sorry if that wasn’t sufficiently clear when this post is taken in isolation. I think MOOCs will prove to be a very expensive but ultimately short-lived fad. There are many reasons for that, some of which I make clear in this post, and some of which I make clear in other posts on the blog with the MOOCs tag. I think there’s been a lot of hype, but very little evidence that this hype will change higher education in any significant way. I think they’re a boondoggle. I suppose we’ll have to wait and see which one of us is right…


      February 22, 2013 at 10:22 pm

  12. “That would be bad for people like me, of course! But it would also be bad for higher education as such, because (1) this mode of education has been demonstrated to be a highly ineffective pedagogical style (2) it’s going to be distributed along class lines, accelerating trends towards two-tier education outcomes in this country (3) continuing to defund the university will further harm the ability of the academy to reproduce the next generation of teachers and researchers.”

    this just isn’t convincing. it reeks of elitism. you’re best argument would be that moocs reduce the constructivist learning environment, but rather than tackling this issue head-on it seems you’re attempting to mystify the process of classroom learning.


    February 24, 2013 at 7:17 pm

    • I don’t see what reeks of elitism in the paragraph you quoted. Point (2) is explicitly anti-elitist, and point (3) is implicitly so. And point (1) is the point about pedagogy you said I should have made instead.


      February 24, 2013 at 7:25 pm

  13. […] Some Preliminary Theses on MOOCs | Gerry Canavan […]

  14. […] via Some Preliminary Theses on MOOCs « Gerry Canavan. […]

  15. […] there are no longer universities. It’s a line of thought by Gerry Canavan in his post “Some Preliminary Theses on MOOCs.” Canavan argues that MOOCs are an “end-of-history fantasy.” How’s that […]

  16. […] Some Preliminary Theses on MOOCs. […]

  17. Reblogged this on Living Ethnography and commented:
    Are MOOCs an “end-of-history fantasy”?


    March 3, 2013 at 7:38 pm

  18. […] C21′s “What’s the Matter with MOOCs” event.  His contribution drew on his recent blog post which argues that MOOCs are an end of history […]

  19. […] may indeed be the future, but, as Gerry Caravan aptly put it back in February, “MOOCs are how you’d structure higher education if you believed there were no […]

  20. […] 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 Freeze the present Share […]

  21. […] for good in education. Her observations of TED echo the observations that Aaron Bady (and some others) have made about MOOCx: they encourage a passive consumption of knowledge and an almost […]

  22. […] the Matter with MOOCs” event.  His contribution drew on his recent blog post which argues that MOOCs are an end of history […]

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