Skip navigation

I received an email on March 29 from the University of Illinois Gradlinks service announcing “MOOC Monday is almost here,” which feels like it should have an exclamation point but doesn’t.

This strikes me as a bizarre thing to have as the kickoff event for “Grad Student Appreciation Week.” Grad students don’t teach MOOCs, not least since much of the selling point is having free (unfettered and unpaid) access to famous professors. Moreover, my understanding is that the “massive” and “open” parts mean there aren’t really grades and so grad students don’t TA for MOOCs either. And graduate students definitely don’t take MOOCs as students, since graduate education is not suitable for the format (I’ll come back to suitability later).

The email’s own explanation is that “with more and more online courses, future faculty will want to be well versed in the ins and outs of online teaching.” This collapse of all online teaching into MOOCs sounds a bit like a memorable post  from Academic Men Explain Things to Me, retweeted to me by I can’t remember who, in which “an older gentleman” mansplained to the poster that “although he had never taught nor taken an online class, he was quite sure that I was wrong…all online classes were MOOC.”

There is a chance that the title was chosen for alliteration (the others are Tax Tuesday, Work Wednesday, Thirsty Thursday, Fitness Friday, Skating Saturday), but the ways in which MOOC stood out to someone as a good idea because it’s a sexy buzzword should not be discounted.

And now for the part of the blog where I argue that seemingly disparate things are related and indicative of a broader phenomenon (I figure I should embrace being predictable). This arrived in the week after Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma introduced an amendment to a funding bill that would “prohibit the NSF [National Science Foundation] from funding political science research unless a project is certified as ‘promoting national security or the economic interests of the United States’” (Huffington Post).

Now, I’m agnostic on whether part of the motivation for Coburn’s amendment (and his apparent overall hatred for political science) is a desire to defund research that is potentially lefty and exposing of his party’s machinations. It’s an appealing theory, but I don’t have any basis to assess it. What I think is much more likely (and maybe the two operate in conjunction) is a fiscal conservative outrage at federal funding for research that seems not to benefit the nation.

And given that hunch about fiscal priorities, I think the MOOC-ification of education and the Coburn amendment (though later defeated) both speak to the same set of beliefs about what knowledge is valuable to teach or to discover, respectively.

This is a logic that values only knowledge that is tangible, immediately apparent as useful, and/or applied, at the expense of other sorts: knowledge for its own sake, knowledge that will be applied one day but whose applications are not yet apparent, and the thing I tend to teach my students—in the phrase of a University of Illinois INTERSECT project—“learning to see systems.”

Online courses in general, and massive, open ones in particular, seem to me to lend themselves only to the first sort of knowledge. They’re suitable, as I usually put it, to things that “have a right answer”: introductory math and science, history when the goal is to learn facts, skills-based learning like business or accounting or advertising.

I don’t think those kinds of subjects are unworthy of study (though, as often happens, this division is hierarchical and those practitioners may not extend me the same courtesy). I also don’t think online teaching is inherently bad. Certainly, the Chronicle of Higher Education piece on online courses I read a while back had suggestions for a successful class that aren’t so different than in person teaching: “Respond to all student queries within 24 hours”? I do that; “End with a post that sums up the conversation”? Not really different than summing up a class discussion; “constantly be on the prowl for YouTube clips, articles and essays, photos, and even online crossword puzzles that highlight and reinforce themes in your course”? Yep.

But the online course cannot substitute for the work of trying out frameworks of thought and asking “what if?” nor for laboratory or problem-solving activities, and this is the stuff of advanced technical subjects, studying society (contemporary or historical) as a structure, and philosophy/theory.

As Suzanne Scott noted in her comparison of SCMS as a “massively open online conference” to MOO-courses, “they can never fully replicate the social experience of a class, or the social dynamics of a class cohort” either. Of course, this kind of work is devalued in the “useful knowledge” paradigm that says anything that doesn’t teach students “skills” is a waste of tuition and tax dollars.

But it’s this definition of what constitutes a “benefit” to society or to an individual that I want to question. In terms of research, lots of things had unexpected benefits that weren’t planned when the research was done. Penicillin was discovered by accident (which is common enough knowledge to be a Google autocomplete option), etc. Shutting down legitimate, fundable research to only that which already has apparent uses prevents us from ever making those kinds of discoveries again.

Similarly, if we think of “benefit” in terms of teaching, I never learned any job skills in my undergraduate education, but my high-quality liberal arts education made me great at the “real” job that I had before coming back to academia. Because I knew to not take things at face value, but look at the bigger picture, I could ask whether there were better ways to do the work I was assigned. I streamlined processes and my efficiency was greatly appreciated by our clients, but it’s not anything I was taught in school directly so much as the outcome of learning to ask “why?” or “why not?” and “what if?”

It’s tempting, as with the suspicion of Coburn’s motives, to see this as some sort of class-demarcating move—the rank and file learn skills and not how to question (or rather, they don’t learn that they should question), so they will be docile underlings. The problem is that if this becomes the model, those managers will just learn “management” skills, and not broad thinking either. Moreover, after watching my supervisor at that office job struggle with the fact that the person who replaced me had no ability to problem-solve, having this sort of employee actually makes more work for management.

Ultimately, the MOOC-ification of education and the Coburn Amendment are both salvos in the battle over the meaning of education. And, while I will definitely argue that knowledge is worth learning—and worth paying for—even if it never has a practical application, I don’t even need to make that argument. Because the “squishy,” nebulous, allegedly useless topics without right answers are the key to personal and business success.

Now, if only we could get the powers that be to recognize it.

One Trackback/Pingback

  1. […] arguing for years that critical thinking and related skills are what make people good employees (one example), so I have to say that I’m glad to have my previous argument validated and to have some […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *