‘UnderAcademy College’ Satirizes Massive Open Online Courses

A new provider of free online courses pokes fun at the growing trend of providing massive open online courses, or MOOC’s, and offers an alternative model of free online education.

Think of it as an anti-MOOC.

The logo for the online institution, called UnderAcademy College, is an upside-down pig, and its motto is “unaccredited since 2011.” Course offerings include such irreverent titles as “Grammar Porn” and “Underwater Procrastination and Advanced Desublimation Techniques.” Registration is now open for a batch of fall classes, which begin in October, and a call to sign up asks students to “rock-enroll.”

At first glance, UnderAcademy seems like performance art aimed simply at lampooning free courses being offered by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and other well-known institutions. And it does that, calling itself an “anti-degree institution.” But it is also offering serious content taught by professors at some well-known institutions. Unlike most MOOC’s, which seek to teach as large a group of students as possible, UnderAcademy caps enrollment in each course at 15, with the idea that students should shape the courses and have a more personal learning experience.  So far it has offered 32 courses, and around 70 students participated in the most-recent round, last spring.

“It’s satirical education that takes itself very seriously and does want to provoke critical discussion and engender a creative learning environment,” said Mark C. Marino, an associate professor of writing at the University of Southern California who just finished teaching a course for UnderAcademy.

The experimental college is the brainchild of Talan Memmott, a lecturer of digital culture and communication at Blekinge Institute of Technology, in Sweden, who serves as its “provisional provost and full digressor of undefined arts and sciences.” Mr. Memmott never finished his undergraduate education, and he took a variety of art and writing jobs before getting his doctorate at Malmö University, in Sweden. He has long been interested in alternative forms of education, so he decided last year to create his own institution.

UnderAcademy is an experimental alternative form of a MOOC that does a better job of delivering liberal-arts curriculum, Mr. Memmott argues. One faculty member jokes that UnderAcademy delivers “Micro Outrageous Online Courses.”

“One could argue that MOOC’s dehumanize the humanities,” Mr. Memmott said in an e-mail interview. And if liberal arts and the humanities “are being marginalized within traditional academic institutions, and the MOOC model doesn’t facilitate a liberal-arts education—another model must be sought, or invented. At its core, this is what UnderAcademy College is attempting to do.”

Unlike traditional institutions, UnderAcademy provides students with the opportunity to focus on the process of learning and control the courses themselves rather than worry  about an end product, Mr. Memmott said. “As long as they produce, they pass the class,” he said. “I give a lot of feedback, but it’s not necessarily instructing or correction.”

The original group of nine instructors—which the institution calls “fakulty”—has now expanded to 26 people with a mix of qualifications. One is a Ph.D. student, another is a high-school art teacher, another an editor for a science institute in Stockholm. “The assignment I gave them was, Come up with a class you would love to teach but couldn’t teach in an institution,” Mr. Memmott said of the instructors. “The idea was wacky.”

It worked for Mr. Marino. “Based on some spirit of humor that seemed to underlie everything, I assumed it was largely a joke,” he said. “But Talan would say that this project is research into alternative pedagogical practices that are collaborative, less hierarchical, and take place online. That piqued my interest.”

Mr. Marino, who had never taught an online course before, assembled his class, “Grammar Porn,” to “celebrate the deep syntactical lusts of grammar nerds.” While some of the 25 students who enrolled for free didn’t participate at all, others immersed themselves in the course and surprised him with a high level of engagement. Sonny Rae Tempest, the program’s honorary “(in)Valedictorian,” was known for his frequent participation—he has taken six courses at the college so far and plans to teach a course in the fall.

Mr. Tempest already has degrees from Florida State University and Thomas Edison State College, but he saw UnderAcademy as an opportunity to pursue his interest in digital literature. “At first I had no idea what it was, but I kind of rolled with it,” he said. “It turned out to be pretty much exactly what I was looking for.” He hopes the program will gain more traction, adding courses while keeping class sizes small.

A few of the college’s first instructors gave a presentation on its progress at the Electronic Literature Organization’s annual conference in West Virginia in June.

Mr. Memmott says he will soon look into grant support for UnderAcademy, though he doesn’t want to sacrifice his project’s flexibility. “There are already similar colleges online,” he said. “If these models reach any sort of number where they’re pulling students from institutions, it becomes a question of which degree is more valid.”

Though his institution reaches only a small number of students, he argues that its impact is no joke: “Even though we call our degree an anti-degree, they do have to work for this.”

Correction (9/17/2012, 9:46 a.m.): This article originally reported some incorrect biographical information about Mr. Memmott. He received his Ph.D. from Malmö University, not Brown University. He holds an M.F.A. from Brown. The article has been updated to reflect this correction.

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