At the end of this summer, after reading a LOT of MOOC news and discussions and writing a lot in emails, blogs, and discussion forums, I almost promised myself to not write a word about MOOC anymore (at least for a year or so). But some of the more recent conversations have helped me learn and think about a few things that may be worth writing. Of course, I don’t mean that there’s nothing good about MOOCs. But the waters in the mainstream discourse about MOOC continue to be so murky that one wants to avoid catching frogs and water snakes when trying to catch pedagogical fish anywhere in the MOOC lake.
Since I’ve decided to share a few more thoughts, let me first quickly share a thought about where the absurd parts (which, unfortunately, happen to be the mainstream!) of the development of MOOCs have recently landed. Please skip the next, very long paragraph if you don’t have the time for one more piece of rant– but I promise I will share better ideas after this paragraph.
About a week ago, I read some MOOC news that made me really think that some of the MOOC-drivers’ grandiloquent visions about reinventing higher education have awkwardly morphed into the domain of learning management systems! Here is a piece on Forbes that, among other things, shows how some of the proponents of the big xMOOCs are desperately trying to get into the business of education with their sheepskin almost fully coming off their wolf bodies. As reported in further detail here, Sebastian Thrun, a founder of Udacity says a lot of things that makes me wonder how much he knew about LMSes before he stopped teaching and started making ludicrous claims about the power of technology to transform education. Thrun, who is best known for saying that there will only be about ten universities in the world in about thirty years, starts off by saying that he’s “insanely proud” because he thinks he’s found the “magic formula” for making MOOCs work, but then he goes on to sound like all the ingredients of that magic formula are vastly similar to those of traditional online education using traditional learning management systems like Blackboard. In fact, this is not the first time I’ve wondered how much the MOOC-heads from Stupid Valley, California (as I jokingly describe them) knew about LMSes before they making the too big claims about the next step that they took in developing that technology (of course, they must be given credit for helping make the new advancements, as well as for a lot of new affordances in the newly open and in many ways more capable forms of LMSes). Now I’m not just being cynical, but unless one is willing to forget that the academic culture and system in the Western world has developed a wide range of powerful methods for teaching/learning, it’s really hard to listen to these people without wondering whether they’re ignorant, dishonest, or both. I hope to gosh that people around them ask them to read some journals and books on pedagogy, because now they’re going far beyond their own familiar field and making claims about teaching in many other disciplines–not to mention many other academic cultures/systems in the whole blessed world. That said, it’s kind of interesting to seem them hitting the wall very fast, whichever lane they start taking. Should they create animated textbooks? Should they steal some ideas from Khan Academy, iTunes U, YouTube channels, etc and pretend they found a magic formula? Should they pick the attention-seeking “star” professors from the “best” universities and try to monetize their lectures? Should they they cater more to non-academic learners like corporate workers instead? Oh, oh, wait, maybe they should sell the “free” education altruistically given to them by professors at Harvard and MIT to those “hungry-to-learn” third worlders? Damn, those people can’t pay much in dollar value! Maybe they should dupe the rich few out there (after all, you have the name “Harvard” to work with); just put together a few thousand students each from a hundred countries and you have a steady stream! But again, that would be nice if even the well-to-do internationals would actually pay it– I mean many of them have enrolled just to brag about being “in” Harvard. I would do the same if I was still in Kathmandu. Of course, I would learn a few things in the meantime, but I know I wouldn’t pay in dollars. While the lure of the big names bring thousands in, if they actually have to pay, many aren’t dumb enough to believe that the “critical thinking” taught in Californian terms apply very well in Calcutta. In any case, just listen to them closely, and you’ll hear them saying something like, “We don’t have the idea yet, but we’re dying to get in, ‘disrupt’ the current systems and make the fast buck; we’ll say anything it takes, including that we are soo interested about lowering the cost and improving the quality of education ‘for’ students.” They are like the Catholic Church’s attempt to convince people that it provides “leadership” on all things about human society and life while lagging behind the times all the time on all things about society and life–or worse. Think about condoms, for example.
And here starts my first good, okay, better, more sharable, idea about MOOCs. It is an illustration, using a great new example, of what I’ve been saying about MOOCs on the cross-cultural/national front. I’ve been saying that the attempt to teach millions around the world by using a course that is designed, delivered, or dictated from one place in the world does little more than probably give most of the thousands around the world an interesting bragging right to say that they’re being educated by the “best” professors of the world at Harvard or Brown. That is, without educated local teachers to help students put abstract ideas from another society (which no one at the center seem to care are extremely local) into practice in their own local lives and societies, the implicit or explicit presumption of the universality of knowledge is going to plague even the best intentions of the “best” professors (of the world?!) on mainstream MOOC platforms. As long as the contents of the course are not designed or fully adapted locally, MOOCs will continue to expose pedagogically ineffective, intellectually bankrupt, and ethically offensive world views of the professors who are not aware of the naturally occurring human weakness of assuming that their local ideas are universally valid or relevant. I must acknowledge that some MOOC instructors have taken the trouble to take their non-local participants into perspective up front as they designed the course; these instructors have started doing clearly better, and their teaching seems clearly more effective in terms of the ability to inform, inspire, and engage learners across national and cultural borders. The best I’ve seen so far in this regard was the Ohio State MOOC on writing rhetorically that was offered earlier in summer. (And I don’t say this just because it was taught by some of the writing professors whom I respect most in my field for all kinds of other reasons; in fact, I won’t hesitate to say that the course was not effective for other reasons).
After the OSU MOOC was over this summer, I noticed and signed up for a course titled “Think Again: How to Reason and Argue,” co-taught by professors of philosophy at Duke and UNC Chapel Hill. I had been eagerly waiting for this course because I thought that this would finally address the elephant in the room, especially because these were professors of philosophy and ethics, with one of them possibly from a different academic background. This week, I had a chance to observe the course and watch some of the videos. I found the course good for all kinds of reasons, but I was “totally” disappointed by the absence of cross-cultural/contextual sensibilities in the design and delivery of the course. So, what I wished would be a positively good example unfortunately became an illustration of the same old problems that I had been writing about. If MOOCs continue to give us lemons, maybe we should continue to make lemonade!
Here are some specific examples of how the assumption that a good course/teaching here will be worth the time everywhere else is just a bad assumption.
First, in order to increase the completion rate in the course (MOOCs have a notorious problem of roughly ten? percent of those who enroll completing the courses), the Duke and UNC professors offered to shave their head and facial hairs respectively and donate them to The Locks of Love. Quite a few students took to the discussion forum to say that they’re committed to complete the course just to fulfill the kind professors’ dreams (donating hair and increasing completion rates). In the local context of the US, the idea of donating hair and publicly displaying its removal are both good and fun ideas, no doubt. But if you think about the different contexts and cultures from where thousands of the (126,000) students in the course come, this good idea quickly begins to strike one as a potentially offensive one–especially in the context of a course that is meant to teach you “how to reason and argue.” Assuming that the hair challenge is not a tricky topic for discussion, I wonder if it even occurred to the professor for a moment that their good and fun act could be perceived widely differently in different cultures/societies around the world. In some cultures I know, the removal of hair on one’s head (and even face) is perceived as humiliating, punitive, or plain offensive when publicly displayed.
One could say that all that matters is that the teachers’ intention is great (but the road to hell is often paved in good intentions as well, right?). And, more broadly speaking, it’s interesting that the professors’ bragging right for having so many students in the course presumably comes from the course being globally accessible. Nonetheless, the more time I spent observing the course, the more I thought that the design, delivery, and resources (even examples) in the course so far (second week) show a nonchalance, refusal, or willful disregard for how students from different parts of the world may perceive and learn the materials and activities in the course.
Second, when I went beyond the striking hair challenge into the materials and assignments in the course, I was more and more disappointed. At first, I was glad to hear one of the professors say in the introduction video that he and his colleague are not out to change the minds/beliefs of students (with a reference to missionaries). But I found it somewhat ironical that there was nothing in the course that could practically help students around the world to achieve the purported objective of “thinking again” about “issues that matter to ‘you’ most”–unless the “you” only means participants in the US. Perhaps the expectation is that anyone out there who wants to benefit from the “free stuff” have to vicariously try to follow, if they can, the analogies of and references to baseball, car salesmen, Monty Python…. and arguably the underlying assumption that reasoning and argument can be taught in universal terms. I was reminded that my most missionary friends say that they too are not out there to convert anyone, just sharing the good news from their local scripture and its particular canons. I don’t allude to the missionary reference to be snarky; honestly, it’s a significant tool for self-reflection for any teacher as well (even in non-MOOC settings), and I think that it is much more (not less) important for those who want to invite the “world” into their virtual classrooms.
I will add more details to this entry as the course develops. But for now, let me add that I thought the course was great for all kinds of reasons. But I think it is a great course as someone who has a good understanding of the US academic system (terms, concepts, activities, discourses, value systems), the social and cultural references, the basics of the discipline of philosophy in the Western world, etc. My only complaint, as I’ve been making for some time now (I wish I could stop) is that if I were a participant somewhere in, say, Cameroon or Cambodia, I might just be saying wow, I’m learning a lot about how to “reason” and “argue” from American professors without thinking how far the terms of reasoning and argument apply to “issues that matter to [me] most,” uh-uhm, in Cambodia or Cameroon.
MOOC-heads of S-ville, CA, are still having their way about using “best” courses created by “best” teachers at the “best” universities in certain academic and social cultures contexts will really change the face of education and save from themselves many millions of people around the world who are “hungry” for “quality” education. Or maybe, just maybe, they are saying such things to see if they can make a quick buck?
But at least I am still hoping that we will soon begin to see more of the more serious educators who are willing to think, well, more seriously about the quality of learning, relevance of content, and effectiveness of design and delivery for those hungry masses out there. I have to admit that as of now, even among the best scholars who join the MOOC world still seem convinced by the idea that we can “educate the world” by using cookie-cutter courses made in the “best” places in the world. Sometimes, they almost make me despair, but at other times, I just think that they are simply part-unable and part-unwilling to acknowledge that their “universal” ideas are mostly very local. Or, perhaps such an idea doesn’t register very well in their minds– it’s a frequency problem, and the technology of human heads may be improving.
If you’re interested in learning to “rethink” issues that matter to “you” anywhere in the world, head over to Coursera, find the course, and join. And let me know how significant (or important) you think the blind spots I described above is. Let me know how far you agree with my thought that the blind spot is merely an unfortunate (albeit usually inadvertent) consequence of people’s unwillingness to think about learning by “them” out there in serious educational/pedagogical terms. I would say that such a problem is actually not as prominent in North America than in most other places in the world: I think that scholars here are generally very open and thoughtful about the non-universality of what they teach. I have a feeling that most of the scholars here who are aware of the epistemological blind spots that MOOCs necessarily create are NOT willing to teach MOOCs. In other words, I want anyone reading this in, say, Nepal not to generalize what I’m saying. Analogically speaking, for most fellow teachers I know, if they’re asked to teach a course where the majority of students will be older people, they are instantly aware of what concepts, examples, activities, and discussions they should and shouldn’t include and how they should and shouldn’t present the materials/activities in the course. Most teachers quickly understand that, for instance, “running” doesn’t always mean a good thing to senior citizens in class in the same way that it does to the nineteen year old students in another class! This awareness generally characterize the MOOCs developed and taught by teachers in my field (especially by those at OSU) so far.
So, what I’m writing about seems like a mind-bending conundrum for anyone who may be interested in conducting research on how culturally aware MOOC teachers are vis-a-vis how participants from across the world in their virtual classroom fare. And that conundrum is this: most of those who teach it usually mess it up and those only those who don’t want to teach it would do well. It’s like the philosophical question as to whether the tree whose falling non one heard/knew fell or made a sound at all!