Changing Higher Education to Change the World

What remains from a MOOC after the final video has ended and the last paper has been peer-assessed? The most exciting part of my recent MOOC on the “History and Future of (Mostly) Higher Education” was the spirited exchanges among the participants. So that is the question. How can a MOOC be more than a “one off”? What remains for the participants after the MOOC is over? What infrastructure is required beyond the MOOC platform to turn a massive learning experience into a movement in the real world?

Before I address this movement, I should mention that I had two quite different kinds of motivations for signing up to teach a MOOC offered by my university, Duke, on the Coursera platform. First, I have so many reservations about MOOCs as pedagogy and as business model that I wanted to learn more about how they worked and didn’t work for myself, away from the obsessive MOOC hype and hysteria. Second, I wanted to see if it was possible to use the “massive” aspect of MOOCs to galvanize a significant movement on behalf of educational change.

That first set of issues will be addressed subsequently in a research paper on which I am now working, but, because the economic implications of MOOCs drown out so many other discussions, I want to say, bluntly and simply here, that, as presently conceived, MOOCs are not a “solution” to the problem of rising costs at American universities today. The Coursera data indicate the primary audience of MOOCs isn’t the traditional college-bound student. The typical MOOC participant is a 30-year-old with a college or even a postbaccalaureate degree. Two-thirds live outside the United States.

The class map. Students added markers for their own location. Built with ZeeMaps.

Nor are MOOCs the cause of all problems facing American universities today. MOOCs did not create our adjunct crisis, our overstuffed lecture halls, or our crushing faculty workloads. The distress in higher education is a product of 50 years of neoliberalism, both the actual defunding of public higher education by state legislatures and the magical thinking that corporate administrators can run universities more cost-effectively than faculty members. They don’t. The major push to “corporatize” higher education has coincided with a rise, not a decrease, in costs. The greedy, corporate brutality of far too many contemporary universities is reminiscent of medieval monasteries of old. Let’s call it “turf and serf”: real-estate land grabs, exploitation of faculty labor, and burdening of students with crushing debt. MOOCs may be a manifestation of the problem, but they are hardly its cause. We addressed those harsh, overarching economic realities directly in “The History and Future of (Mostly) Higher Education.”

The second motivation behind my creating this MOOC is just as important. We at Hastac wanted to see if the 18,000-plus participants who ended up registering for the course could help galvanize a movement on behalf of educational changes that any professor, department, or school could begin to carry out today. The short answer (surprise, surprise!) is that it takes infrastructure, planning, and human labor to make real change. I believe parts of this could be replicated by anyone wishing to create a real-world movement from a MOOC.

First was laying the conceptual groundwork. I made it clear that there was an activist purpose behind my retelling the story of the 19th-century transformation of the liberal-arts college into the modern research university to train people for the standardized, Taylorized, specialized, hierarchical Industrial Age. I urged participants to be part of a public movement to recreate the Industrial Age university we had inherited for the world we all live in now. The “future” portion of my MOOC posed conceptual and practical ways of rethinking curriculum, pedagogy, assessment, and institutional structures for an interactive, do-it-yourself information-heavy world and invited MOOC participants to contribute their own ideas.

Week 3 videos summary in a mindmap, by a MOOC participant, Vahid Masrour (available here).

Not everyone in this MOOC ended up liking the activist dimension of the course, but, for those who did, it provided a place for deep dialogue. Individual participants often took the lead with astonishing generosity. For example, a learning designer from Ecuador, Vahid Masrour, created a beautiful, inspiring mindmap summarizing the ideas and connections across my four or five videos each week and put them up on Google+ for others who were not in the MOOC to share. More collectively, over 70 courses, reading groups, workshops, or conferences were organized directly or loosely as spinoffs, some organized before the MOOC began and some during the course of the MOOC.

Here’s where the Hastac #FutureEd Initiative provided supplementary infrastructure that contributed to the real-world impact. We built a platform where anyone could list their contribution, and we sent out a newsletter twice a month highlighting models of successful change. Among the many notable examples are the 20 to 25 people who met weekly at Fordham to discuss the MOOC and and who are now working toward a future digital-literacy program. There’s a Friday lunch group at the City University of New York Graduate Center sponsored by Just Publics; Provost Terry Brown’s faculty working group at the State University of New York at Fredonia is looking toward curricular change; and the Ocelot Scholars at Schoolcraft, a community college in Livonia, Mich., led by Professor Steven Berg, run digital-literacy competitions, classes, blogging events, and conferences alongside the MOOC. At least two participants, Professor Katie King (University of Maryland) and the educational consultant Robin Heyden, ran topical discussions in Second Life, while the online journal Hybrid Pedagogy ran an irreverent weekly Twitter “MOOC MOOC” to stir the pot. The 240 graduate students in the Hastac Scholars program are blogging daily as part of “The Pedagogy Project.” Finally, three wikis on continue to collect community-sourced bibliography, classroom innovations, and models of successful institutional change.

That’s a lot. And it was not easy. The costs were larger in terms of human labor, time, and actual costs. Because it was a learning experiment for me and an add-on to my regular Duke duties, I put the $10,000 I was paid to create the MOOC into an account that funded #FutureEd—teaching assistants, meals for our classes about the MOOC, travel to conferences for the students, research agendas, equipment, and so forth. We ended up with a MOOC team of nearly 20 people working on this effort—students, colleagues, and Hastac administrative staff members. All held office hours, participated in MOOC discussions, answered questions, and communicated ideas beyond the MOOC both through twice-weekly blog posts to this publication and on


Will the stirring, rich debates in “The History and Future of (Mostly) Higher Education” continue? If the participants in the MOOC have their say, the answer is yes. They may live in different countries, thousands of miles apart, but they share a zeal that could become a movement. As one participant noted, “The learners who signed up for this course obviously have a passion for learning and changing education. I only hope that each of us will try to do something to change our learning culture; perhaps as a movement or perhaps as an individual. The rewards would be worth it.” Or, in the inspiring words of another: “If every student in this class did only one thing to change the tide of education, we’d have a tidal wave!”

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