MOOCs: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

David Porreca, FAUW President

Last week’s FAUW Board meeting was dominated by a discussion of MOOCs – Massive Open Online Courses. 
MOOCs: They’ve become too big to ignore, and have drawn in the likes of Harvard, MIT and Stanford.  They have also become the darling idea of the “faculty productivity”-obsessed, and the bane of those who value the dynamic interplay between research and teaching that defines what we do as regular faculty members. 
To what extent should Waterloo get involved in this new method of content delivery – recently approved for academic credit by Antioch University in Los Angeles?  How can we go about pulling some value from the MOOC bog?

The Good: “It’s Free!”
The lack of a “paywall” for admission or registration has enabled registration numbers in existing MOOCs to run from the low thousands to over 100,000. Free online mini-courses could provide, at a once-only, up-front cost, a potent means of “branding” our university.  If the production values are truly professional – reports from existing MOOCs hint at the opposite – what better way to showcase the best of what we do at UW to attract clever young people to our university?  They could serve an analogous function to the mini-lectures that are offered to prospective students during the March Break Open House days across campus. 
The Bad, Part 1: “It’s Free!”
The moral commitment to an education that comes with some kind of fee – however nominal – raises the level of the student’s commitment to their studies.  Free MOOCs have demonstrated this principle in action, with completion rates in the single-digit percentages. 
The Bad, Part 2: “It’s Massive!”
Coming Soon: World of Coursecraft
The enormous numbers of registrants in MOOCs have been known to overwhelm the servers on which the courses are supposed to run, as well as overwhelming the generally under-paid and over-worked contract academic staff who coordinate the courses.   Clearly, the necessary infrastructure – hardware, software and properly qualified human personnel – are each equally essential to the success of any effort toward making a MOOC successful.
Moreover, the mode of delivery turns active, interactive learning into passive “info-tainment” that precludes “deep learning.”  Indeed, those who enroll in a MOOC interact mostly with their peers, including the marking of quizzes.  MOOCs might appeal to those concerned exclusively with raw enrollment numbers, but their scale largely precludes the sort of critical analysis that happens best through face-to-face interactions.  The granting of academic credit for MOOCs represents a hazardous devaluation of what we do as academics by missing utterly the activities that we do that add the most value to an education.
The Ugly: It’s for Profit!
Two of the three main enterprises that have been responsible for the recent explosion of MOOCs are for-profit companies.  They are inserting themselves as intermediaries in the workings of academic life in the crucial interstices between instructors and students.  In an analogous way, Access Copyright has attempted to squeeze profit from necessary academic interactions in a way that hinders the delivery of higher education by increasing the cost to the participants.  In the case of MOOCs, the cost comes primarily in the form of the resources sunk into the preparation of courses that fail to accomplish what on-campus, in-the-flesh classes do. 
Although the courses themselves remain free, the MOOC-sponsoring organizations do not have a clear business model.  They are all, however, functioning with the backing of substantial venture capital that will expect some return on their investment at some point down the line.  So far, they have been looking into providing services to employers who are looking for contact information of the best students enrolled in the MOOCs, a sort of credentialized headhunting service.  In addition, one can easily imagine how advertising could become an important revenue stream considering the numbers of participants involved.  Either way, the insertion of for-profit middlemen between instructors and students is a pernicious development that flies in the face of higher education as a public good. 
The University of Waterloo would be unwise to ignore the MOOC movement entirely – the state of development of these courses has been likened to the state of the desktop computer market in 1981 – so we should remain involved at least to the extent that it will enable us to seize upon any unexpected positive developments that may arise. 
Yet the style of interaction between faculty and students in such courses does not correspond to anything any of us would recognize as good pedagogy.  The use of MOOCs should therefore be limited to free promotional materials.  If they are done well, they will be elegant showcases of useful content that highlight the best of what we can do at Waterloo.  The Faculty Association will oppose any attempt to accept academic credit for MOOCs, as doing so will risk incalculable consequences on our capacity as faculty members to deliver on our teaching responsibilities.

One thought on “MOOCs: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.