The Season of the MOOC

Justin J. Roberts and Jim O'Loughlin

The Massive Open Online Course, or MOOC, first received widespread attention in 2011 when Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig of Stanford University decided to offer a course in artificial intelligence that would be open to anyone who wished to participate in it. With an in-class enrollment of 200, their artificial intelligence class was one of the largest offered at Stanford. Thurn and Norvig prepared to teach a physical class at Stanford for tuition-paying Stanford students, and they opened a parallel and free online version of the course. The MOOC version of the course included lecture videos and online discussion forums, and online participants were encouraged to take the same exams as students. MOOC members would receive recognition for their work though no academic credit. Thrun and Norvig noted that advance interest in the class was high (Zou).

As it turned out, 160,000 people enrolled in the course (DeSantis).

This scale of interest immediately caught the attention of educators as well as entrepreneurs. For-profit companies such as edX, Coursera, and Udacity emerged to work with universities to provide MOOCs in a variety of fields. They joined already-established non-profit groups like the Khan Academy in using online tools to offer university-level instruction to non-tuition paying individuals.
Many leading universities have spearheaded or signed on to these initiatives, and in the matter of a few short years, MOOC courses could be found in almost every field of study. Recently, even established proprietary online education companies like Blackboard (a provider for UNI) and Instructure have announced they will begin using their software to provide free instruction (Azevedo, “Course”).

The scale of MOOCs is, at first blush, incredible. The first two edX courses enrolled over 100,000 people. Udacity claims 740,000 registrants for its online MOOCs (Stewart). At last count, Coursera had served 2.4 million students with 214 courses from 33 different universities (Friedman). It should come as no surprise that The New York Times has deemed 2012 “The Year of the MOOC” (Pappano).
MOOCs have garnered a great deal of interest both inside and outside of academic circles. They have the possibility to greatly transform higher education. Or not. It is also possible that MOOCs represent a kind of fad that may impact higher education on its margins without fundamentally affecting how most campuses deliver education to students. As an emergent educational tool, discussions of MOOCs tend to attract either evangelists who believe it will fundamentally alter education or critics who wholly dismiss the phenomenon.

This article aims to provide a measured overview of MOOCs, considering their strengths and well as their weaknesses, and paying particular attention to their applicability within the Humanities. We offer a cautionary comparison of MOOCs with the online delivery of news and the impact of that innovation on the field of journalism. However, we also caution against those who instinctively reject the potential of MOOCs without considering how they might enhance educational opportunities and outreach. The season of the MOOC is upon us, and it may be a very long season indeed. The task for educators is to figure out how to have a role in defining what MOOCs are and how they are used.

The MOOC Experience

MOOCs differ from traditional classroom experiences in two ways: they happen exclusively online and they have an open enrollment. However, MOOCs tend to run parallel to existing on-campus courses, so that a significantly similar intellectual experience is offered both to in-class, tuition-paying students as to online-only, non-tuition MOOC participants.

The primary way this is accomplished is through videotaping and streaming course lectures. Such lectures are made available to MOOC students online through web-based interfaces run by one of the various MOOC-provider companies. Typically, some type of ungraded quiz is embedded into the video lecture to allow students to check to see if they have adequately absorbed the materials.

MOOC students are encouraged to do the same reading as in-class students, and they are often allowed to complete the same assignments. However, it would be impossible for thousands of students to ask questions of an individual professor. The technological fix for this has been to create online forums where students can ask questions of one another. In some cases, students vote for the best questions by their peers, and the professor responds to the top choices in a later lecture. In the case of assignments, multiple-choice exams can be taken online and graded by computer. The solution for longer writing assignments has been harder to find. In some cases, students grade each other’s work. However, even in the non-credit world of the MOOC, plagiarized work has crept into their forums.

Students who complete MOOCs do not typically receive credit for their work, though in some cases certificates of completion or “badges,” a non-credit form of recognition, are offered for students who have completed the assigned work for the class. Currently, a series of for-credit experiments are taking place. In some instances, schools are offering the equivalent of transfer credit for students who have completed a MOOC (New). Other schools are attempting to use MOOCs as a way to encourage individuals to consider becoming tuition-paying students (Kolowich, “Universities”).

In a relatively short time, MOOCs have succeeded in capturing attention and in drawing interest. It is not as clear what they are accomplishing. Are they for spreading educational opportunities to people who could never attend a university? Are they a means to lure future students to a particular school? Are they to supplement or replace traditional instruction?

MOOCs, like virtually all technological and social developments, have both strengths and weaknesses. MOOCs are part of a young field of educational instruction and, thus, have much growing, changing, and adapting to do, but there is promise inherent within the infrastructure and ideology of these courses and their mode of educational delivery. Due to the relative freshness of MOOCs, little objective analysis has been made of them.

Strengths of MOOCs

One of the big, most heralded strengths of MOOCs is evidenced partly in the name, that these are “Massive Open Online Courses.” MOOCs are university level educational courses designed to inform all interested parties on some academic topic. The course material is distributed online, taking advantage of the advances in technological distribution and the worldwide connectivity the internet has managed to provide. These courses, through their mass connection, attempt “to redefine learning . . . and to deliver a learning theory for the digital age” (F. Bell 104). The courses attempt to cater to a new, global community, and the individuals who are part of this new world. Not only is the material presented through a readily available means, but it also is distributed with little or no additional cost; as long as an individual has an internet connection, he/she is able to access the course material and benefit from collegiate instruction. MOOCs work to realize the ideology of equal education opportunities for all individuals, regardless of race, creed, class, income, location, work, hobbies, obligations, etc. They have no caps on enrollment, so no one who desires to take an active part in his/her education will be denied the opportunity to enroll in further classes and pursue new or continuing higher education.

A second strength of MOOCs is that an individual will be able to, for the most part, work at his/her own pace. Within the MOOC structure, enrolled students watch video lectures, complete quizzes and other assignments, and engage in online conversation forums and chat groups as their own schedules allow, fitting in courses around work, family, and other hobbies. However, the courses are still conducted along a set time frame and within a limited span, usually a few months. Students are provided a set of deadlines and goals to complete within certain spans, such as a week, the work done when and where they are able within these relatively loose constraints. This allows for great freedom, each student in charge of his or her own education schedule, within the constraints of the class form. They are given certain deadlines to force a schedule on those who need these set goals and time constraints to arouse the necessary motivation, but students are allowed freedom to choose their own hours, using time when and where they find it without needing to set aside a certain time each week; MOOCs are structured to recognize that “a big difference between learning informally, both away from an educational institution and within one, is the level of intrinsic motivation that the learner has” (Kop 22). MOOCs leave things up to the students for control and motivation. In such a structure, should emergencies or other unforeseen obligations arise, the student is not penalized; he/she merely needs to find a chance to complete the work at another time in the week.

Along with this personal setting of course pace is a setting of individual lesson pace. If one week presents tough subjects a student is having difficulty with the first time around, he/she can watch the video lecture, or portions of it, repeatedly, reviewing the material until confident about it. Students can also pause a MOOC video lecture unobtrusively to allow themselves time to catch up and organize existing material to get the most out of the continued lesson – something which cannot be said for students who “pause” a live lecture. Students have continual access to the “classroom” lecture and learning materials, which allows for constant review to help students approach the material several times and, possibly, from several approaches, which unlocks the potential for greater learning. This “micro” structure of MOOCs, with the videos typically ranging from 10-15 minutes, allows for instructors to do some tailoring while the course is in progress, as well as using prior experience to provide additional videos on areas which may provide trouble for students. As one MOOC instructor explains, “the great thing about online courses is that they allow me to home in on areas where students might be having difficulty rather than concepts they easily understand on their own” (H. Bell). Although students do not actually experience personal contact time with the instructor, a well-designed course can provide videos which address certain issues of difficulty, allowing students to select which more focused videos they need to watch based on their comprehension and “performance” in related, larger lesson videos.

This aspect of pace leads into a third strength, that of extensive help and “tutoring” resources. If, after repeated viewing of a lecture video, the student is still struggling with the course content, he/she can turn to his/her peers as a reference source. Due to the highly connected contemporary world of social networks and other internet connections, MOOCs have spawned hundreds of internet communities and discussion forums – some formal, some informal. Although one professor cannot respond to each individual question raised by any one of the thousands of enrolled students, even with an army of teaching assistants, students within MOOCs are not left on their own to puzzle out any unclear areas of the topic. Instead, the forums fill with questions raised by students about comprehension of the featured topic, students with understanding of the area quick to respond, trying to explain the material in ways fellow students may understand. The access to courses and materials available within the courses work to realize “the belief that resources in a MOOC should be freely accessible to all. The freedom participants ha[ve] to make their own decisions is illustrated by their ability to choose which tools they [will] use to disseminate or capture their thoughts about the course. The freedom and self-reference both reveal the MOOC as a self-organizing system” (deWaard et al. 99). A recent study noted that “some young people who may not always be high achievers at school are willing to invest a significant amount of time in learning and teaching skills online within informal networks and communities” (F. Bell 109). This social aspect realizes that, in education, learning is not a linear process; it is a continued iteration which links to prior knowledge. That knowledge can then be modified after evaluating the new information and integrating it. As such, learning and knowledge are in a constant state of flux. This fluctuating state of knowledge is even more emphasized in informal learning for the learner is taking his or her own interpretation and testing it against the ideas of other participants. (deWaard et. al. 110) MOOCs, through their individualized structure and self-constructed community, realize educational goals of individual synthesis and comprehension. This allows for multiple voices to be heard on a subject, opening up the breadth of material covered; “one of the key reasons for creating an open course is to bring a wide variety of perspectives to bear on a given topic” (Cormier and Siemens 34). With more students participating in discussion and more opinions being made known, all students benefit from the expanded knowledge and experience pool.

MOOCs also have the advantage of often being highly tailored, specialized courses. Instead of needing to cover a breadth of material, MOOCs are able to function in a far more focused area – sort-of like taking the Graduate Seminar idea and applying it to an introductory course. By designing an introductory course with such a limited purview, instructors are able to focus their instruction to specific interests and expertise. In this respect, MOOC courses function, to some degree, similar to technical or trade school courses, set on teaching students a very specific set of skills and focused knowledge. In many cases, “most students simply want a qualification to gain employment and have little interest in education per se” (Latchem et al. 232). Additionally, this structure allows “learners to participate in the creation of their own curriculum [that] becomes increasingly realistic. The move away from standard class structure and toward a lifelong learning model also . . . allows learners with different interests and needs to create their own flavor of a course within the course” (Cormier and Siemens 35). Students are able to, in part, design their own courses to fulfill their particular occupational and/or educational niche. MOOCs are able to provide desired specific career training, imparting very specialized skills and knowledge sets upon students.

This acquisition of select skill sets and knowledge has its benefits, but the transmission of them through MOOCs presents a unique hurdle to both those offering the courses and those students who manage to complete the courses, allegedly mastering the concepts and rudiments of the field. Although most actual MOOCs – as opposed to the informal education videos of the “Khan Academy” and the TEDtalks which preceded them – are offered by university professors working through an academic institute – often a prestigious school – until recently very few universities agreed to offer actual academic credit for completion of the courses. Some, such as the University of Washington, have begun offering the possibility for transfer credit on the condition of adequate test scores, students who complete the MOOC taking proctored tests at local test locations, but this type of credit system is relatively rare. This presents the question of what academically “marketable” skill or sort of recognition an individual should receive for successful completion of a MOOC. Many MOOCs offer certificates of completion for those students who have seen all of the videos and completed all of the required work to satisfaction. But, the question remains, what do these certificates actually prove or demonstrate? How can/should universities and/or employers interpret the presence of these certificates? What can be learned by the presence of these certificates on a resume or some sort of transcript?

Given the highly specialized nature of most MOOCs, many have said that completion of a MOOC represents the acquisition of a skill and select expertise, one which is demonstrable and valuable. Many employers and educational facilities look at educational background and areas of study, assuming certain levels of knowledge and skills based on courses taken and the grades earned/awarded for those courses. Although this is the standard interpretation, those in education know that this assumption is inadequate, each course, regardless of title, subject to an almost infinite number of variables which could impact not just skills and knowledge learned, but even skills and knowledge transmitted. MOOCs have looked at this challenge and worked to devise means of advertising exactly what skills and knowledge successful students have acquired. One option has been the aforementioned certificates, which advertise clearly what the course was and what concrete skills have been learned through completion of the course. However, this has raised further questions as to how an individual represents this in professional materials, such as resumes.

A solution to these problems arose, appropriately enough, through the technological environment which enabled the rise of MOOCs in the first place. This new way of recognition is the awarding of “badges” which prove which skills have been gained. In a sense, it is similar to the process long used by the Boy Scouts of America and merit badges. Although the Boy Scouts set the precedent, the awarding and earning of badges has gained increased relevance and significance in the electronic age. As online gaming grew, the need for recognition arose, leading to the introduction of in-game achievements and badges which were awarded for the completion of certain tasks and other occurrences which players can display, showing off specific gaming skills. MOOCs have seen this online desire, now looking at and experimenting with the awarding of badges to prove just what skills have been mastered through the completion of the courses and required projects.

These badges are explicit about what they are awarded for, clearly advertising the acquired, marketable skills for those who earned them. The badges “certify skills and abilities” and “denote areas employers might look for” (Young). Building off of the gaming community, “many of the new digital badges are easy to attain – intentionally so – to keep students motivated, while others signal mastery of fine-grained skills that are not formally recognized in a traditional classroom” (Young, “‘Badges’”). Participants are able to find inspiration to continue and stick to the course, as well as promote certain achievement. Badges also help with the marketability of MOOC course completion; as Young explains, “Employers might prefer a world of badges to the current system. After all, traditional college diplomas . . . contain very little detail about what the recipient learned. Students . . . might display dozens or even hundreds of merit badges on their online resumes detailing what they studied.” Students can display these badges on personal websites and other social network web pages which they can show to potential employers as signs of skills and knowledge.

Limitations of MOOCs

In many cases, the limitations of MOOCs are inherent in the very conditions that make their strengths. However, there are also aspects of MOOCs which compare poorly with traditional instructional models.
One limitation of MOOCs is their reliance on the internet. As discussed above, MOOCs are trying to achieve the goal of free educational opportunities for everyone, regardless of any existing limitations, but certain things, namely available income and resources, cannot be overcome. MOOCs depend on certain connectivity, something many worldwide would not have the opportunity to access, regardless of personal desire and motivation. Education is still confined by geopolitical and socioeconomic boundaries. Additionally, even in an increasingly connected and technological world, instructors cannot expect high levels of computer and internet proficiency, something which often seems linked to MOOC success. Instructors can get carried away with the new abilities enabled by MOOCs, letting the technology and computer proficiency demands overwhelm the courses. This can cause issues for students: “a major concern is that because people need to aggregate information and resources autonomously, either by (RSS) feeds or through the use of human filters, they require a high level of critical analysis skills to be able to do so effectively,” MOOCs assuming a rather large breadth of existing knowledge and skills from the outset, limiting appeal and effectiveness, especially for introductory courses (Kop 23). As an early survey of MOOC students notes, “despite the abundance of tools that were proposed by the instructors as a metaphor for the course itself and as opportunities for building networks (Siemens, 2009), it seems that a more traditional approach is preferred” (Fini 21). Although students may like the departure from the traditional education structure, they still rely, at least in part, on long tested and mostly proven methods of delivery.

A second limitation is the pacing of the courses. Although students are able to complete specific lessons at their own pace, there is still a structure and certain deadlines, hurdles which prove insurmountable to many. Most individuals who start taking a MOOC course do it in addition to working full time, taking part in a family, taking more traditional courses, and/or engaging in other community and/or personal activities, among a plethora of other things. MOOCs demand dedication while trying to remain inconspicuous, causing a loss in precedence within the lives of many enrolled students. As an early MOOC study noted, “it seems that informal learning experiences . . . compete with other activities for personal time allotment. Learners, in the absence of a stronger motivations, attend only partially” (Fini 8). This has caused some extremely low retention rates; although statistics vary depending on the MOOC, on average, only between 10-25% of enrolled students actually complete a MOOC. These retention rates would cause a traditional university to blanch, an obstacle which could not be overcome in the current educational system. With nothing on the line and nothing tangible gained, students do not view the courses as priority obligations. The positives and negatives mix together in this aspect of the courses; “People learning on open networks could have access to knowledgeable others to support them, might find videos to inspire their thought processes, and could also self-regulate and organize their learning. This would, however, require a high level of self-direction by the learner” (Kop et al. 78). The responsibility is wholly on the students, and without some sort of investment, many students are unwilling to make the MOOC a priority, causing the rapid deterioration in active enrollment and low completion numbers.

A third limitation of MOOCs is the content they can present given the current formats. Many MOOCs are based on computers and other technological systems which contain “lab work” which can be easily completed in student homes. Some professors have experimented with humanities courses online, but these are primarily literature or other reading intensive courses, which leave the work up to the individual students, synthesis of information from lectures combining with the readings occurring in online forums. Students are, in general, left to their own devices, writing discussion posts and engaging in their own online discussions using the dedicated course forums. Although there is promise and ability to do such courses in the online structure, the range of courses which can manageably be taught in this manner is limited. For instance, writing intensive courses would require a massive reworking within the system to work. Existing MOOCs which have tried implementing essays as a part of the core coursework have removed the bulk of the grading from the professor, instead turning the evaluation over to the students. There are several approaches used within this system, but the most prominent and immediately promising is having students take test essay evaluations; if they match the instructor’s evaluation score, they are given the power to grade student essays. These courses take the idea of peer review to a new level, the professor turning over control of essay evaluation to the students, a system which allows for thousands of students to compose and submit essays for evaluation without overwhelming the instructor.

This system of essay evaluation presents its own limitations, such as requiring a certain level of existing compositional knowledge and the ability to balance critique of content and critique of style. This complication lays bare a huge limitation with the MOOC system for certain courses, such as freshman composition. These courses almost always contain a wide range of skills and present unique challenges to instructors, requiring a balance of teaching rudimentary skills and advanced techniques, as well as assessing student writing to help each student hone his/her craft, recognize his/her own weakness, and improve on an individual basis. In cases such as this, the peer review will almost certainly prove inadequate; freshman composition students are trying to learn the necessary skills for successful, correct academic written communication. An instructor who can read and comment upon the individual student writing is necessary, and the sheer size of enrollment numbers for MOOCs make this type of attention logistically and practically impossible. Although many traditional composition courses utilize peer review, it is not to replace instructor feedback, instead working to supplement existing instruction and class structure.

Another limitation is the assessment for course completion, which is tied into the awarding of credit or other recognition for completion. Due to the massive nature of MOOCs, professors rarely, if ever, have a chance to come into anything other than cursory online contact with students, and if even that, are unable to establish meaningful relationships with students due to the enormous enrollment numbers. Although this is not very different from the system of introductory courses within large universities, there is still the possibility for social interaction if the student works at it and continues in the field. In MOOCs, it is largely a “one off” deal, the professor never knowing anything about a student except maybe his/her online name.

This lack of a personal relationship ties into another MOOC limitation, that of the enormous enrollment numbers. Many MOOC pioneers, such as Sebastian Thrun and Andrew Ng, get excited by the enrollment numbers, eager to boast about the huge number of initially enrolled students, keeping their interest even with the relatively low completion numbers because they are larger than those which they would ever experience within traditional educational settings. However, what the completion numbers prove remains to be seen. Although these students have completed the courses, the amount of learning is subjective. Many MOOCs employ some form of embedded quizzes and tests to assess student learning as the course progresses, but that does not prove any true understanding or application of knowledge – a concern in traditional education as well, but a special case in MOOCs. The grading system for MOOCs is severely limited by almost complete reliance on the digital platforms which allow for such large enrollment numbers and student demands in these courses. Student learning cannot be accurately assessed due to limitations of technology and required enrollment and completion; students who want to do well can try everything repeatedly – sometimes using multiple accounts – to get the percentage they want for completion, which contributes to the course “grades:” “It’s an awkward secret of online education: People who crave an A can use multiple accounts to learn so much about course design that they can masquerade as geniuses when finally retaking the course under their own names” (Anders). Of course, these grades are vague; without any credit awarding system, the grades mean little or nothing, aside from completion. The crediting and recognition process is difficult; as has been pointed out even by those involved in promoting MOOCs, “It’s quite possible that in an open course, a learner would start or even complete a course before engaging in a formal accreditation process. If the assessment model is a combination of peer review, participation, and formative/portfolio assessment, the accreditation could be entirely separate from the running of the course” (Cormeir and Siemens 38). Although a high percentage may be beneficial if a student is planning to advertise course completion, it means practically nothing. With no reliable system of accreditation and reward, MOOCs continue to suffer from a lack of clear, marketable point – which to some is the purpose of education.

The use of multiple accounts for desired completion percentage scores leads to an additional, highly controversial aspect of MOOCs, one that has plagued digital and analog courses seemingly from time immemorial: plagiarism. With everything taking place in digital environments, MOOCs provide almost complete anonymity for enrolled students, allowing them to cheat and plagiarize with virtual immunity. Creating multiple accounts is only one way that students work for their desired scores. In the limited sample of MOOCs which have recently been offered, students have been found using other online sources to copy material for online posts and discussions, double-dipping previous assignments from other courses for the MOOC, copying other student work for their own projects, and, in the few examples which have tried using essays of varying lengths, copying materials from other online sources and/or buying papers written by other students (Young, “Dozens,” “Coursera”; Cervini). Although some of these have proven themselves to be hurdles to education both in traditional and digital classrooms, the relative lack of control and checkpoints that are inherent within the digital classroom setting has provided students with a feeling of confidence in undetectable plagiarism. Institutions and professors who offer MOOCs are scrambling to implement anti-plagiarism software and interfaces to stem the flow of these assignments and students. Currently, MOOCs require enrolled students to “sign” a terms of use contract which expressly forbids plagiarism, but these contracts are online “Terms of Use” forms, much like those attached to almost all software and other online site use, which virtually no one actually reads, a user just scrolling to the bottom so he/she can click the box and continue online work. With a lack of personal investment, students also feel no strong obligation to maintain standards of academic integrity – or they may not realize what plagiarism is and the true ramifications of committing the academic infraction (this is especially true in cases of international students who were taught different approaches to research and scholarship where “intellectual property” is not treated the same as in the American/Western educational system). MOOC professors and providers are currently working to develop more rigid guidelines and explanations for plagiarism and software and/or partnerships for plagiarism prevention and detection.

A further limitation of MOOCs is the awarding of credit. Currently, less than a handful of universities are willing to offer college credit for MOOC completion. Additionally, the schools which have elected to offer credit for completion of MOOCs have given them the designation of “transfer credit,” as well as requiring certain scores in official, proctored tests offered at the conclusion of the course in testing centers across the nation (and, ideally, the world). As MOOC providers scramble to find worthwhile means of proving successful completion of a course, students try to find ways and/or reasons to advertise satisfactory completion of a MOOC. A MOOC is designed to provide knowledge and skills to individuals which, ideally, they can use in occupational and further educational endeavors. The hurdle to this is the question of academic rigor and integrity within the MOOC setting. Many MOOC providers are working on devising appropriate and accurate testing systems to prove satisfactory and/or exemplary completion of the courses, but these, like MOOCs themselves, as still in preliminary phases.

A final limitation of MOOCs is the way they impact and/or detract from the college experience. Many residential colleges recognize that being continually immersed in the college community has a positive, incomparable impact on students. Students who have positive on-campus living experiences also tend to have more positive classroom experiences and get more out of their collegiate experiences, both academically and socially (Curley 148-49). Classes are only part of what happens at a university. The opportunity to interact with professors and peers, to stumble across interesting extracurricular events, and to be within an ongoing intellectual community cannot be effectively duplicated online. Students in the satellite locations enabled by MOOCs are almost entirely severed from the academic setting, individual MOOCs unable to simulate this environment and depriving students of an inherent part of the educational process within higher education.

MOOCs in the Humanities

Most MOOCs that have thus far been implemented, largely with positive results, have been based in math and science – specifically computer science. The courses have been introductory courses, the type which would typically be conducted in large lectures within the traditional university system. In these types of courses, MOOCs have an advantage, allowing for much more personal, one-on-one type educational settings, which is more conducive to learning than the large, impersonal lecture hall. Additionally, these disciplines are based on the transmission of general information and putting the theories and ideas into practice, which mainly happens in personal practice regardless of the setting in which the information is transmitted. In courses such as these, MOOCs seem an ideal fit.

However, branching into the humanities, the MOOC structure shows its limitations. Many areas of the humanities rely on personal attention and feedback from both peers and instructors; although MOOCs allow for the first group, instructor feedback is severely limited by the enormous numbers in each MOOC. Additionally, humanities courses often revolve around discussions, which are guided and moderated by an instructor with expertise on the subject. There is great promise in this, as one MOOC experiment has demonstrated; in an ethics course, the instructors noted “when [students] are joined online in collaborative and deliberative tasks, a learning community can form that transcends geographical and temporal distances” (Seager and Selinger). This is, in part, what the humanities are all about, analyzing and understanding the universal human experience. However, these online communities also present a challenge. In MOOC discussions, instructors cannot reasonably monitor and moderate the discussions; students are left doing not just all the heavy lifting, but all of the work itself, which could cause discussions to devolve from the subject at hand to personal gossip or worse, as well as enable the spread of inaccurate information, to the detriment of most students. In academic discussions, a certain degree of control and structure is necessary, something that MOOCs as of yet do not possess. Instructors, even with a plethora of TAs, are unable to humanly manage the massive flow of discussion which occurs in the digital environment.

Despite these limitations, there are still areas in which the humanities could use MOOCs successfully, utilizing the new mode to expand the reach of the classroom and bring certain courses to individuals who may not otherwise have the opportunity to take them. Given the digital discussion aspect of MOOCs, writing classes which focus on peer reviews and workshops, such as beginning fiction and poetry writing classes, could be effectively translated into MOOCs. In these types of classes, instructors can provide lecture videos to help address specific aspects of the writing class and process, as well as provide readings to help demonstrate certain points and showcase writing which exemplifies one or more characteristic of note. When the time comes for students to submit their own writing for peer review, criticism, and workshop, the online forums and other interfaces could be used to provide the specific feedback and discussion of a piece which would help the writer improve.

This peer review process has been experimented with in early MOOC humanities courses. One such course, “Internet History, Technology and Security” offered through the University of Michigan, tries using peer review for essay assignments; in this structure, “for every essay [participants] submit, students in the course have to read and evaluate four others written by their classmates” (Kolowich, “Learning”). The essays are thus reviewed by several individuals, a system which should, ideally, provide balanced and productive feedback. However, as Kolowich gathered from his interview subjects, this system does not work as well in practice as in theory. Due to the open, global nature of MOOCs, many participants have issues writing in English, which causes many writing errors and confusion. This has created a strange complication within the system, with some students unable to see past the technical aspects, and others completely ignoring general coherency to see if a single thought is followed. This is a problem which another MOOC humanities instructor, Eric Rabkin, also of the University of Michigan, who teaches a course in Fantasy and Science Fiction, has noted. When discussing the composition of his course participants and the required essays, he realizes “here is where the philosophy of MOOCs collides with the idea of certifiable achievement in a literature course: ‘If we’re going to keep this completely open . . . then no credential can have a well-understood meaning’” (Kolowich, “Learning”). MOOCs are, first and foremost, outlets for education, and, due to the desire for a global focus, are going to struggle with issues in assignments, which creates a snag in the crediting process. Although humanities courses can still benefit from MOOCs, the language barrier will likely keep them from serving as any sort of long term replacement.

MOOCs could also work well in those humanities courses that are almost exclusively lecture courses, such as many introductory level history and philosophy courses. In these courses, where the rote memorization of names, dates, and specific events and/or ideas is the norm, MOOCs could be effective means of transmitting the information. Within the MOOC setting, students would be able to continually review specific lectures and trouble spots until the ideas were understood and the terms committed to the student’s vocabulary. Although upper level courses in these disciplines would be difficult, if not impossible, given the current MOOC landscape, introductory courses could benefit from this new means of delivery and prospective comprehension.

Current MOOCs have also begun to experiment with literature courses; two specific, recent examples are Udemy’s “Poetry: What It is, and How to Understand It” and Coursera’s “Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World.” These courses are reading intensive, the professors presenting video lectures and notes regularly to help guide students to specific aspects of the genres to enrich and educate the reading experience, then turning things over to students, requiring them to complete intensive readings, then synthesize the information and demonstrate understanding and growth through online discussions. Given the success of these courses, it seems that there are ways to make literature courses work within the MOOC setting. However, they require a lot from the students, demanding extensive reading commitments and assignments, something virtually any literature professor will tell you is a constant battle – this likely explains part of the low retention rates, with MOOCs providing no penalties for non-completion. Literature MOOCs seem demanding, but they have promise in allowing only the most devoted to complete and meaningfully contribute to the discussion (of course, the possibility is there for disgruntled non-readers to stay on just to post rants and attacks, but that is a risk in any setting).

A benefit of MOOCs for the humanities is the freedom that MOOCs allow. MOOCs may provide a valuable educational opportunity for individuals who focused on more career-driven courses during their time in college. Since MOOCs are individual based, a student allowed to complete on his/her own time, an individual interested in humanity courses, such as literature or history courses which do not contribute to his/her immediate field of study and career goals, can work the courses into a new personal schedule. A student can encourage his/her personal interests and passions in art, literature, and history, learning and exploring in an academic setting, but within the time constraints of his/her professional and personal lives. In a sense, MOOCs are able to help students in our material-centric world realize the goals of the humanities, to expand and enrich lives, as well as examine the human experience.

The greatest potential for MOOCs within the educational system, specifically the humanities, is not as a replacement, but instead as a supplement. Instructors in traditional classrooms can use MOOCs as part of the course, encouraging outside-of-class learning through the online system while using class time to clarify difficult concepts and work with demanding materials. Many MOOCs, especially those conducted for college credit, “will probably continue to be ‘hybrid’, combining text-based, online, multimedia and face-to-face education in ways that provide quality learning for the largest number of students at the lowest cost” (Latchem et al. 229). At San Jose State University, a hybrid course on “Engineering Electronics and Circuits” was currently offered, in “competition” with traditional courses; when mid-term grades were released, the mixed course students had higher average scores than the traditional students (Azevedo, “San”). There is great promise in the use of MOOC video lectures as outside of class study, with classroom time devoted to discussion of the video concepts, something which could be quite valuable in the humanities and which has already been codified as part of the pedagogy known as the “flipped classroom” (“Flipped”)

MOOCs have the potential to further higher education and provide useful opportunities to students globally, across a wide range on disciplines, including the humanities. However, they are limited in the types of courses they can reasonably, effectively offer. Within the humanities, and the educational setting at large, they have the opportunity to bring enriching material to classes and enable more people to enjoy courses in the humanities who may not otherwise have the opportunity to take them. Humanities may be able to find a larger audience among those who do not feel they need to compromise their own professional goals to indulge their passions on their own time and on their own schedules. In this new landscape, the humanities can become pleasurable experiences for many who may have suffered in traditional classroom settings and time constraints, the analysis and explanation of the universal human experience which lies at the center of the field finally becoming truly universal – or at least global.

Conclusion: the cautionary tale of the newspaper industry

If one wishes to worry about where all of this may lead, look no further than the newspaper industry. When newspapers began embracing online delivery, they, like most universities using MOOCs, did so out of a fear of falling behind rather than with a clear financial plan for what would happen. As newspapers made their content available online for free over the past decade or so, many subscribers drifted away from print delivery, and print subscription rates plummeted in the news industry. Though online sources do make some revenue via advertising, it has not come close to replacing revenue lost from print sales. The result has been a crisis throughout the field of journalism that continues to this day.

The parallels to university education should be a cause for concern. MOOCs give away the content of courses for free, with the hope that added exposure could increase the reach and influence of the work of the university, and perhaps with some expectation that it will increase applications. But if potential students opt instead for the MOOC experience, universities will find themselves losing enrollment while giving away their courses. At a time when student debt loads have become a national concern, one must wonder if future MOOC participants will be like newspaper readers who opt for the free online version.
But there are also reasons why universities are unlikely to go down exactly the same path as newspapers. One driving factor of the current crisis in journalism is that despite being a less lucrative way of raising revenue, the online medium is superior in almost every way to print. It can be updated more frequently, delivered less expensively, and augmented with audio and video. With wireless devices such as iPads, news can also now be read on couches and with higher resolution. Newspapers may be superior to iPads for training house pets, but on most qualitative measures, online delivery wins out.

The same cannot be said for MOOCs vs. classrooms. The MOOC may be superior to large lectures, since students can pause a MOOC video lecture unobtrusively. But the type of interaction and individualized attention available in the smaller-enrollment university classroom is something that cannot be found in the large-enrollment MOOC. In MOOCs, professors cannot respond to individual students nor do students interact live during lectures. MOOCs have attempted to account for this lack through peer-graded assignments and an array of group discussion formats, but none of these can measure up to the intensity and integrity of a well-managed classroom discussion.

No university of note has attrition rates that come even close to resembling that of most MOOCs, and that is not simply a coincidence. Classes are only part of what happens at a university. Much of what makes the university experience unique takes students outside the classroom to interact with professors and peers, to attend events outside areas of study, or simply to participate in an intellectual community. Such experiences make a strong contribution to student success.

But the lasting strengths of the traditional classroom should not be a cause for smugness among educators. Consider in recent years how the rise of social networking technology has led to the online migration of large swatches of interpersonal experience. People have become willing to conduct online significant portions of their private lives that once would have happened face-to-face. Similarly, we should not be surprised if we find an emerging generation of digital native students who find online instruction a more familiar and more comfortable form of learning than the traditional classroom. Part of the reason MOOCs have caught on so quickly is that they are something we already, implicitly, understand. MOOCs can work; the question is can they work in a way that enhances rather than threatens the current system of higher education. The answer to that question can only be provided by those of us who administer, teach, and take classes in institutions of higher learning.


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