Thinking Deeply about MOOCs

Once again, technology is being hailed as the solution to all our problems. Entrepreneurs of internet companies—like the advocates of radio and television before them—are touting the transformative potential of technology to educate the masses. Many politicians and pundits are touting the presumed cost-saving benefits of online education.

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), these promoters suggest, will revolutionize higher education by providing cheap, efficient instruction to students worldwide.

Professors and instructors at universities and colleges around the world are beginning to realize how MOOCs could potential threaten facutly-student interaction, academic freedom, curricular design, faculty governance, university autonomy. While certain individual professors have profited greatly from developing their own online courses, sometimes even becoming online celebrities as their courses go viral, other teachers and researchers are becoming increasingly wary about the dangers of embracing MOOCs.


The New Yorker provides a lengthy report on many of the positive and negative aspects of the current development of MOOCs, focusing particularly on Harvard University as one of the main universities experimenting with MOOCs.

This article is especially interesting for historians, since several professors of history are interviewed. The applicability of MOOCs (or lack thereof) for history and humanities instruction is one of the key dimensions of the debate. Many humanities classrooms arguably have long been “flipped”—focusing on discussion rather than lecture.

The debate over MOOCs frequently misconstrues the discussion of “flipping” classrooms, though, suggesting that MOOCs would somehow improve lectures and open up more classroom time for discussion. MOOCs instead offer videotaped lectures or video shows (akin to television shows) for “consumption” by students. What MOOCs are really offering is an out-of-class video experience that would presumably be used as a replacement for reading texts.

So, this model of education represents a reversion to pure reception learning, rather than active student learning through faculty-student interaction in the classroom.

Often lost in the debate is the relationship between teaching and research, especially at research universities. Faculty members at research universities have to “publish or perish”: they are both researchers and teachers. When they teach, these professors ideally bring their fresh research into the classroom in many ways. My colleagues at Northern Illinois University and I frequently update the course design, readings, lectures, discussions, pedagogical methodologies, and writing assignments in our courses each time we teach them.

Instead of offering fresh reflection on new research, MOOC videos, which are costly to develop and produce, will present gleaming digital versions of the old “yellow notes” of professors of the past.

MOOCs thus threaten to ossify higher education, as professors would be encouraged to rely on previously produced video and digital materials, rather than providing access to new research directions and findings through dynamic teaching methods.

Universities and colleges need to think deeply about the complex roles that the internet now plays in research and teaching. I would advocate increased financial support for faculty members and groups who wish to develop digital tools for research and learning. As an active participant in several digital humanities initiatives, I support using technologies including the internet in education, but it is important to have faculty play the central role in deciding how, when, and where digital technologies are relevant and useful in higher education.

Unfortunately, many promoters of MOOCs are closely aligned with corporations and political interest groups aiming to marginalize professors by seizing control of curricular development and instructional methods. Higher education, we must remember, is a multi-billion dollar industry in the United States that is rapidly globalizing.

I have posted previously on the growing debate over MOOCs.  See the categories of Digital Humanities, Humanities Education, and Information Management for related stories on MOOCs.

This entry was posted in Academic Freedom, Digital Humanities, Education Policy, History in the Media, Humanities Education, Information Management, The Past Alive: Teaching History, Undergraduate Work in History. Bookmark the permalink.

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