MOOCs: The Little Engine That Couldn’t

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Train wreck at Montparnasse 1895

I repeat: “Whoo whoo!”

Just 11 months ago, I chose the visual metaphor to the right to be juxtaposed against the title for a post: “All aboard the MOOC train!” – wherein I expressed some reservations about the MOOC euphoria that was then gripping the nation, having just ended the so-called “Year of the MOOC” in 2012.

Well, it seems my reservations were shared by a critical mass of folks in higher education, because 2013 is shaping up to be the “Year of the Backlash.” The early philosophical critiques by faculty across the US are starting to be validated by a few studies that show MOOCs really aren’t living up to even a little bit of the revolutionary claims their progenitors were making a mere year ago. So the train has indeed left the station, but…well, you know.

Even one of the early public cheerleaders for MOOC craze, Sebastian Thrun, has recently said that “we have a lousy product” and is shifting his company’s platform and approach to corporate/vocational training, away from higher education. But while it’s easy for me to gloat and say “I told you so,” there is something worth considering in the Inside Higher Ed. post above: The MOOC backlash may actually end up hurting perceptions of online education more generally. And that is not a good thing.

As the IHE piece points out, online education in a general sense has been happening in various forms for over two decades. Even at EMU, our seminary has been doing online delivery since 1997. While many people in higher ed know this, the MOOC backlash that’s been mounting over the past year seems to be confusing various stakeholders – faculty, administrators, potential students – about the nature of online education. “MOOC,” then, has unfortunately started to become more synonymous in peoples’ minds with “online education,” and the latter ends up getting the bad rap for the former.

At EMU we have what I would call a relatively low-key commitment to online education at the institutional level. Most online delivery happens in the graduate programs, and there is diversity across those programs as to the level of online commitment (from zero online offerings, to an online course or two offered each semester, to a hybrid program that alternates weeks on-campus and online, to an entire degree program that is mostly online) and delivery (from asynchronous message boars to deeper, more time-intensive forms of real-time online engagement).

I have been proud to try and help EMU do online education well for the past year-and-a-half, in ways that look qualitatively different (and better) than the assembly line mentality of MOOCs. At EMU we have faculty saying things like “with some hard work, a professor can design an online course that is just as exciting, demanding, and rewarding as in-class settings,” and online cohorts whose students report experiencing a “human-touch component” despite being online.

No, online education is no substitute for a face-to-face higher education experience. But it certainly doesn’t have to be the wasteland void of human contact and relationships that many have either experienced it to be elsewhere or think it is generally, and MOOCs have only exacerbated this misconception. It’s my hope that EMU can continue pushing further into innovative territory in online education, while still maintaining the commitment to embodiment and community that is found across our programs. It can be done…