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MOOCs, Thrun, Gates, and Middlebrow Culture!

Dear Commons Community,

Having just spent last week at the Sloan Consortium’s Annual Conference on Online Learning which featured a number of major presentations by movers and shakers (Daphne Koller, Anant Agarwal) in the MOOC universe,   I did not think I would be posting so soon again about this technology.  However, Jonathan Freedman, a professor of English and American culture at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, has an article commenting that MOOCs are transforming into a “middlebrow” culture that will continue to evolve.

He starts by criticizing the technology and referencing the interview with Sabastian Thrun (Udacity) wherein he commented “he has thrown in the towel”:

“The problems endemic to MOOCs are well known: the high dropout rate, the variable quality of the offerings, evaluation methods that make educators roll their eyes, stale lectures, and tests that make you remember why high school was such a bad idea. And with their failures, the way in which they’ve been sold by credulous columnists like Thomas Friedman and the self-serving entrepreneurs whose arguments he parrots—that is, as a replacement for traditional brick-and-mortar universities—is looking increasingly tenuous. Always one step ahead of the curve, the godfather of the massive open online course, Sebastian Thrun (who notoriously proclaimed that in 50 years, there might be only 10 universities left in the world) has thrown in the towel. He’s announced that, following a disastrous trial run at San Jose State University and plagued by ridiculously low completion rates, his start-up, Udacity, would henceforth focus on vocational training.”

Freedman then takes a shot at Bill Gates, a major funder of instructional technology including MOOCs, and uses it as a segue to his main theme:

“Perhaps the greatest testimony to the aspirations and flaws of the MOOC movement is a comment by Bill Gates. In an interview, Gates was asked if, as a Harvard dropout, he’d consider returning to college:

“I don’t know. I take a lot of college courses. The online free stuff has gotten very good in these new MOOCs, where Harvard is doing edX and there’s Coursera, Udacity, the Learning Company DVDs. … Meteorology, biology, geology—I highly recommend. I just took oceanography last month. … It’s kind of ironic that I’m a dropout. I love college courses probably as much as anyone around.”

Gates’s shallowness is impressive: Hey! I took oceanography last month. Next week I’ll master phenomenology! But his words also suggest why MOOCs, for all their many and obvious failings, are with us to stay. They speak to the deeply ingrained American concept of learning as practical, manageable, bite-size (hence byte-size). Knowledge becomes a commodity you can buy rather than a product of a process that takes time, effort, and patience to master. Gates’s words speak to a view of cultural attainments that we call middlebrow.”

He goes on:

“MOOCs are just the latest incarnation of bringing watered-down versions of culture, knowledge, and learning to a mass audience. What we see as the courses’ flaws may well be their strengths, and they have the potential to carry those strengths to a broader audience than ever before. Problems arise only when we think of MOOCs as university courses rather than as learning for the masses.

Yes, the vulgarians who run Coursera and Udacity deserve to be swept into the dustbin of history, and the fact that they seem not to have figured out how to profit from their enterprises suggests that they’ll soon be hoist by their own capitalist petard. When they are, the real action can begin. As the history professor Jonathan Rees puts it, the fast-­approaching post-corporate-MOOC world “will almost certainly be a period of real pedagogical innovation conducted by people who are more interested in actual education than they are in becoming famous or just making a quick buck.”

That pedagogical innovation might well happen within the academy.”

I agree with Freedman.  The evolution of MOOCs and online learning will be taken back by faculty and instructional designers whose aim is to improve instruction.  They will not be encumbered by return on investments and bottom lines.  It was faculty and instructional designers who were the leaders in  online learning from the early 1990s to the emergence of the MOOC providers in 2011.  However, I would not dismiss Coursera, edX, Udacity yet.  As I blogged last week, these companies have significant resources at their disposal and they will refine and develop online learning materials from which we all will likely be able to benefit.  I would surely look to evaluate what they do and to learn from their efforts.

Tony

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