In the previous post, I wrote about the unwillingness or inability of proponents of xMOOCs as the future of international higher education. But what I find even more amazing about the current state of affairs about mainstream MOOCs is that the participants from around the world—-including their universities and often their teachers and scholars—-are complicit in the fraud. (MOOCs are actually a blessing in terms of their potentials, especially the affordances they have for truly improving cross-border higher education, but they are a fraud as they are currently pushed by venture capitalists who see nothing but a market and their “star” professors who are too busy delivering their video lectures to the world.
Whether the dominant market-based models will ever be interested in harnessing the real powers of open online learning for cross-contextual higher learning is a huge question at this point.) But from the perspective of the participants around the world, too, the line between honest excitement about their “access” to Harvard and Princeton (i.e., mainly through video lectures and quizzes in all disciplines) and just being stupid is very thin.
I once informally interviewed a college teacher back home in Nepal who had been taking a Coursera MOOC to ask “how effective” he had found the course he was taking. He said that he was “very excited” about the possibility of “going to Harvard”! When I repeated my question about the “effectiveness” of the model of teaching/learning, he emphasized the issue of “access” and of the “prestige” of the providing institution and the teacher. I gave up after a third attempt. This is how hegemony works.
Another time, I asked a former college biology instructor from Nepal who is now in the US to observe a Coursera course on “basic genetics” taught by a Canadian professor and tell me how easy it was to to “understand” the course. After pondering the “daily life questions about genetics” on the course banner (including “Is there a gay gene?” and “Is cousin marriage bad?”) and watching the first video, he said that the professor had done a great job of explaining the course and giving instructions, BUT he blamed himself for “not understanding anything.” He asked me, “Do Americans deal with these ‘genetic questions’ in their daily lives?” Not knowing the social/cultural context, he wondered how such questions were political instead of purely scientific. He said that the content videos were more than enough for him to handle, that he would not be able to do the assignments without close/personal support from a teacher, and that his previous education in Nepal must have been woefully inadequate! It didn’t occur to him that the course was typical of the North American academic culture; he blamed himself. When I asked him to look at the questions on the course banner as simple entry points to the content of the course, he had even more questions about those questions! “What is a gay gene”? He did some research online and got even more confused. “What is a paternity test?” he asked, unable to imagine this being a question of daily life! “What is GMO?” Regardless of how much information he gathered about the questions/issues in the course banner, none of them rang a bell for him.
Even as a teacher of language and communication, I understood the course so much better because of my knowledge and experience of the North American academic culture, terms, concepts, activities, and so on. Prior knowledge of course content/discipline that my friend had played a far less significant role in his navigation and understanding of the course. And there is a far-reaching pedagogical implication of this: difference in academic culture can be a greater barrier (and therefore a more important teaching/learning objective than we realize in open online courses) than knowledge of the academic discipline.
At least the nameless character in Ralph Ellison’s novel cited above is aware that he is invisible in the eyes of people who don’t want to recognize his existence and identity. Many of the participants of mainstream MOOCs, the invisible majority, are not aware that they are invisible to the “providers” of education. They blame themselves when they can’t follow what they’re being taught.
Not Sure If the Situations Will Change (Soon)
Considering how the hegemony of cross-border higher education is functioning at this time, I wonder if anything will cause the marketing of the awfully bad educational models of mainstream MOOCs to backfire. I wonder if and when a critical mass of students and educators around the world will recognize the benefits due to access as merely incidental and not central or intentional in the mainstream MOOCs.
In her book Willful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious at Our Peril, Margaret Heffernan argues that the biggest threats and dangers we face are the ones we don’t see – not because they’re secret or invisible, but because we’re willfully blind. She asks: “What makes us prefer ignorance? What are we so afraid of? Why do some people see more than others? And how can we change?” Examining examples of willful blindness in powerful social and economic institutions such as the Catholic Church, the SEC, investment banking, and big corporations, Heffernan demonstrates how failing to see critical but obvious issues of life and society can ruin us.
I wonder whether, when, and how the world of cross-border higher education will buy that small and cheap blind spot mirror that can be quite easily affixed on the side view mirrors. I may be pessimistic but I don’t think that the professors-turned-CEOs who have money to make from awful educational ideas will stop being naked emperors. I don’t think that the “star” professors whose egos are too inflated and whose cultural parochialism are too prohibitive to let them recognize complexities in the world will stop using the Internet to run across the global town more naked than ever before!
But perhaps the over-excited student in Moscow, Dhaka, Buenos Aires, and Seoul will come to their senses and stop bragging about how they are “going to” Harvard, Princeton, or MIT while getting almost nothing out of the lectures as far as genuine learning is concerned. Or perhaps the more informed and thoughtful teachers and scholars around the world will help to expose the fraud of mainstream, video-lecture MOOCs as the future of cross-border higher education.
I want to be more optimistic.