MOOCs and the general education economy

Steve Krause writes that the recent EDC-MOOC (in which we both participated) was "meh." I agree. But you know what else was meh for me? School. K-12. Undergrad. Grad. meh. meh. meh. I was never very good at playing the role of the student. Obviously my grades were fine, so I could play the game well enough, but I never found coursework particulary interesting or relevant. I could offer you a litany of the mediocre experiences of my undergraduate education, but I doubt that would be of much interest. However, I will say that if a MOOC amounts to a curated list of readings, some lectures, a largely unsupervised discussion among students, and a testing mechanism, then this isn't really any different from what I had in most of my courses as an undergraduate. The only real difference would be that my unsupervised discussion happened FTF with friends I was taking the course with rather than 1000s of people online. I learned that I could get decent grades with a very minimal amount of investment. I didn't value school and hence it wasn't valuable to me. I can see that. But I can also see that I put my investment into other places, other kinds of environments. I learned a great deal working in a small business in the computer industry, composing music and building a recording studio, and writing independently of school.

So from my perspective, so what if MOOCs are meh? The whole enterprise is meh. There's no doubt that there are plenty of students who have been so heavily institutionalized that they can't succeed in a MOOC. They are like those lifers in prison who find themselves paroled and don't know how to live on the outside. And we know there's an economic element to this as kids from poor school districts get the most regimented, institutionalized education and are typically the most at-risk for success in college (and even moreso online or in a MOOC). The students who will be most successful in MOOCs are ones for whom school was only ever one learning site among many. They will be able to jump through the inane MOOC hoops and get on with their lives, confident that what one learns today in a MOOC doesn't really matter anyway. It's just a tiny part of a much vaster learning ecosystem. Of course that's hardly a ringing endorsement for MOOCs, but they don't have to be great. They're free. I have a daughter in high school now. Do I really want to pay for her to sit in general education courses for two or three semesters? Not really. I'll draw up a reading list and she can read it over the summer. If she has questions, she can find the answers online. And she'll learn much more on her own than she would sitting through some lectures and taking some bubble test. Maybe she can even take a MOOC. 

Clearly though, universities depend on general education courses to make their economic model go. Either they cram 100s of students into a room or they pay adjuncts minimal pay to teach the course. Or, like in English, they float their grad programs with TA-ships. None of those strategies are ringing endorsements from my perspective as the one paying the tuition dollars. And that's not to say that those adjuncts might not be better teachers than some of the professors. Few of these folks have ever received any pedagogical training. It's just to point out that universities seem to look the low costs of general education courses to balance out the high costs of other kinds of courses that are smaller in size, more technology intensive perhaps, and are taught by faculty earning more money, especially in the professional schools.  It's even more crucial from the perspective of the humanities. Without general education, humanities departments are tiny and lose the means to offer graduate students TAships, which means tiny grad programs as well. 

So it's not that MOOCs are great. Better-designed MOOCs might be on the horizon, but the ones we have already shine an uncomfortable light on general education. The basic premises of general education are that 1) every college student should have some baseline introductory knowledge that stretches from science and math to social science and humanities, and 2) a gen ed curriculum is the best way to deliver that knowledge. I don't know if either of those premises still works. Certainly #2 does not. Today it seems more relevant to teach the students how to fish rather than to give them the fish in a 50 minute lecture, especially since the 50-minute lecture is free online anyway.

The upshot of this is that the humanities need to start developing a new economic model, one that will not depend on 1000s of undergraduates taking composition or western civ or whatever. Could we create a better version of general education? Sure. I've talked about that before. But I'm not sure that even that will make a difference. The crucial thing we need to do is reinvent ourselves to connect with the values and concerns of our students and our culture. The MOOC, meh or not, means we can't imagine that we can just plod along as we always have.