The MOOC Backlash -- A Response

As a cautious enthusiast, I'm thrilled that people like Professor Meisenhelder are around to reinforce the important lesson that just because Tom Friedman says something (including the MOOC) is the unstoppable wave of the future does not necessarily make it so.
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Some demanding Senior Year classes, coupled with a senior thesis I assigned myself, have kept me from posting here recently. But having started my Degree of Freedom One Year BA project in order to provide a student perspective to MOOC boosters ready to assault the walls of academia with little understanding of how well massive online courses were actually working, it's time to provide that same perspective to anti-MOOC zealots who have become a doppelganger of the under-informed MOOC champions they routinely decry.

A full response will probably take a few columns (which will run here this week and next), but for starters I'd like to address an article called "MOOC Mania" that was published in the most recent issue of Thought & Action, the Higher Education Journal published by the National Education Association (NEA).

In it the author, Susan Meisenhelder, Professor Emeritus of English at California State University of San Bernardino (and a fellow Huffpost blogger), lays out a pretty good summary of the academy's case against MOOCs as being unserious and unrigorous, a poor substitute for the traditional classroom, an over-hyped solution to inadequately defined problems, and a flim-flam akin to the subprime mortgage industry. Oh, and do you really want to trust your child's education to courses with a 90-95 percent drop-out rate (a record that would get any classroom educator fired on the spot, if not burned at the stake)?

What surprised me most when reading her piece was not that I disagreed with a whole lot (except, perhaps, her tone) but how much her complaints have become the mainstream talking points around massive online learning during the period between when she submitted the piece for publication (which I assume was many months ago) and when the Fall issue of Thought & Action was delivered to my mailbox.

Regarding one of the key points in this mainstream indictment against MOOCs, Meisenhelder claims that "Although they are rarely mentioned by MOOC supporters, drop-out rates in these courses hover at 90%." Now while I consider myself a cautious enthusiast over what MOOCs might become vs. an out-and-out "MOOC supporter," I don't think I've talked to a single unalloyed MOOC champion (including the leaders of Coursera and edX) who hasn't brought up the issue of high drop-out rates unprompted.

To be fair to Meisenhelder and other critics, "MOOC supporters" often bring such percentages up to contextualize them or declare it a priority to increase the number of course completers. But contextualization does not necessarily mean minimization. For instance, now that we have more data regarding what is actually going on when people sign up and begin participating in a MOOC, it's clear that discussion of 90%+ attrition rates represents a misunderstanding of who is and who is not really "enrolled" in a course. My next piece will focus on MOOC drop-out statistics in more detail, but for now if MOOC critics want to continue using numbers to bolster their case, they would be on sturdier ground if they simply challenged claims of 100,000+ genuine course enrollments vs. continuing to dwell on high drop-out rates that we are now in a position to talk about more accurately.

Regarding complaints that MOOCs contain little more than video recorded sage-on-stage lectures followed by weak multiple-choice quizzes, this is another critique I hear on a regular basis -- especially when interviewing those who are creating a new generation of MOOC classes based on what they have learned from the experience of those came before them.

And as much as I've railed against crappy quizzes and boring video lectures that alternate between a professor's face and his PowerPoint slides, that's nothing compared to the tirades I've heard from professors working tirelessly on MOOC classes that are trying to create a new visual language for this new learning medium or looking for alternatives to measure performance beyond the multiple-choice test (some of which actually try to turn class size to their advantage).

While I could run through the rest of the critiques that make up her manifesto, I think the underlying problem I have with such charge lists (which nicely synthesize all of the points hurled against MOOCs during the backlash that's been taking place over the last six months) is that they assume MOOCs are one big unchanging thing. But in just the short year that I've been taking too many of them, I've seen innovations and experimentation -- some promising, some not -- that demonstrate a development in educational technology more dynamic than anything I can remember.

Now it may turn out that MOOCs end up some kind of transitional technology, or perhaps they will lead to a dead end. But given that they have already transformed many colleges and universities from places where educational content was locked up into institutions rushing to share their best classes with the world, one could make the case that MOOCs have already had a positive impact on the academy's relationship with the public. And the popularity of MOOCs has also led to increased emphasis on teaching vs. research when assigning "rock star" status to professors (a trend one hopes will eventually extend to rewards such as tenure decisions).

As a cautious enthusiast, I'm thrilled that people like Professor Meisenhelder are around to reinforce the important lesson that just because Tom Friedman says something (including the MOOC) is the unstoppable wave of the future does not necessarily make it so. But, at least for now, I prefer to see all the flaws in this new educational project as representing either a problem that might possibly be solvable, or an irresolvable issue that will lay bare what is still special about the residential college learning experience. For those reasons alone, the MOOC experiment should be allowed to continue.

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