All aboard the MOOC train!

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Whoo whoo!

Many like Nathan Harden are saying that the MOOC signals “The End of the University as We Know It.” Free online higher education, Harden argues, is part of the shifting sands for established higher ed institutions in the U.S. If you put much stock in 20-30 year predictions (I don’t), schools like EMU run the risk of being crushed by “the unsentimental beast of progress.” Sounds terrifying!

Elsewhere, media theorist and video game designer, Ian Bogost warns against unfettered MOOC euphoria in his piece up at The Atlantic: Inequality in American Education Will Not Be Saved Online. Bogost argues that…

“Information” was never enough. Information is only intelligible given the proper knowledge, context, and opportunity. Likewise, knowledge is produced and shared within a complex infrastructure supported by a web of different agencies and organizations. Even if made cheap or free for consumers, that knowledge still requires other, more foundational knowledge, community affiliation, and economic freedom to convert into meaningful use.

This sociological insight that Bogost raises is a good check to the kind of starry-eyed optimisim that seems to accompany what I call “smashy smashy” pieces like Harden’s that paint traditional higher education institutions as being dead men walking. And unsentimental beasts of progress have a tendency to create some pretty terrible unintended consequences.

So what does that mean for Mennonite education? What are the contexts and opportunities that can take our educational offerings beyond mere information transfer for our learners? What complex infrastructure and diffuse web of agencies and organizations are (or aren’t) we drawing on to support and carry out our work?

One tactic, playing off the “beast” analogy, might be gleaned from the words of Jesus in Matthew 10: “I am sending you out like sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” On a practical level, I’m giving this a shot in the coming weeks by participating in the “Introduction to Philosophy” course being offered by The University of Edinburgh, via MOOC provider, Coursera. My intent here is to check out what all the fuss is about and “demystify” the MOOC, because I’m not convinced that they provide what Harden characterizes as a “full-blown interactive experience.”

Watching lecture videos and participating in online discussion forums is about half of what constitutes student activity in these courses. Simple quizzes and peer-reviewed reflections constitute the other half. In a course of thousands to tens of thousands of students, with such shallow activities, what kind of human connection and meaningful community-building is possible? Is this really the future of education? If it is, ew.

For one, human beings are not capable of swimming in ponds that large with any meaningful sense of belonging and connection, and education that transforms needs a lot more than cognitive/FYI bits with some robo-graded quizzes and internet chatter thrown in. All the studies that are cited to support MOOCs seem to center on information transfer and retention gauged by assessment scores, which assume the “brains on toothpicks” picture of the human person. There are a host of research disciplines that have helped us see that humans are lot more than walking brains. Learning theory has caught up on this, but teaching – and apparently online teaching at the dawn of the MOOC age – has not.

But what, if any, tricks can be gleaned from MOOCs? And not only the approach the courses take themselves but also the business model? It’s true that the cost of higher education is spiraling out of control and shows no signs of being reigned in. So there does seem to be a value in being able to reach a broader audience by lowering the barriers to entry in higher ed. How can Mennonite higher ed respond? What kind of broader audience might we be trying to reach? Bogost couches his piece in terms of addressing societal inequality in higher ed:

Education, particularly the education of populations that most need it to improve their lot, is tied up with a political and economic situation that is not sufficiently addressed by merely connecting some of its output to the Internet, or by abdicating public responsibility to do otherwise to the first salesman who offers a sort-of viable alternative…

As a tradition concerned with the plight of “the least of these,” what kind of network could be built between, say, tech-savvy Mennonite entrepreneurs and providers of Mennonite higher education to offer free/reduced cost courses, perhaps even entire programs? Could we look into badges or credentialing? Is there a “web of different (Mennonite) agencies and organizations” that could be marshaled to address these concerns of cost and access to higher education? Could we provide a more widely-accessible educational platform that outperforms MOOCs on the scale of interactivity and transformational education?