A MOOC Delusion: Why Visions to Educate the World Are Absurd

The following is a guest post by Ghanashyam Sharma, an assistant professor in writing and rhetoric at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.

Computer-globeAs The Chronicle recently reported, perhaps the most prominent motivation among professors at prestigious universities for teaching massively open online courses, or MOOCs, is “altruism—a desire to increase access to higher education worldwide.”

In itself, the desire to increase access to quality education for millions across the world is a laudable one. After seven years of being within American academe, first as a graduate student and now as an instructor, I share that desire. I wish to make my teaching available for students around the world who aspire to learn from knowledgeable educators regardless of national borders.

But I don’t share the delusion that seems to be the basis for the excitement over MOOCs among my colleagues here in the United States. There is a dire need for some healthy skepticism among educators about the idea that MOOCs are a wonderful means to go global in order to do good. For our desire to educate the whole world from the convenience of our laptops to be translated into any meaningful effect, we need more research about how students learn in massive open online platforms, and a better understanding of how students from different academic, cultural, social, and national backgrounds fare in such spaces.

Let me explain why I used such a strong word as “delusion” with the help of a brief personal story. When I joined the graduate program in English at the University of Louisville, I had been a teacher of English for more than a decade in Nepal. I had taught English language, literature, linguistics, literary criticism, critical theory, and intellectual history of the West starting from elementary school all the way up to the university. That extensive teaching experience gave me confidence both in the subject matter and in my teaching skills. Even though my speech and writing had a slight South Asian “accent,” I did not consider language proficiency a challenge.

However, all that confidence disappeared when I thought about entering the classroom and facing a roomful of bright students in a strikingly different academic system. I started having nightmares of American students asking me questions involving academic terms or concepts that I did not know. Luckily, because the university had a program for training teaching assistants, I had some time to prepare and overcome some of the anxiety. During the first year, I also went to a mini-library in a basement where there were copies of college-writing textbooks from various publishers. There, I started working on a secret project. I began by reading books that contained the most basic ideas and exercises about academic writing and worked my way up. It took me several months (and using a variety of other types of resources) before I gained some confidence in my knowledge of the terms and concepts, activities and assignments, assumptions, and values that characterized the discipline of writing studies, as well as those of higher education in general in the United States.

Academic disciplines and teaching/learning environments (or, put simply, courses) are almost always highly specialized and situated in local academic systems and cultures. That is why I had to start with the materials for Writing 101 down in the basement. It took several years of training for me to gain the ability and confidence to teach the type of more advanced courses that I had already taught in a different country and academic system. In fact, even in the case of the more context- and culture-neutral subjects like the natural sciences, the local begins to trump the universal very quickly in terms of language used, references made, applications shown, and so on. As Bakary Diallo, a professor from the African Virtual University, reportedly remarked at a recent meeting among international educators at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, students in other parts of the world have their “own realities,” their “own context and culture.” It would be absurd to ignore how significantly those realities shape students’ participation in our virtual classrooms.

So, notwithstanding the inherent goodness of altruism, it is sad to see how educators who see MOOCs as a means of educating students across the world also seem to lack the willingness to consider seriously what happens when thousands of students constituting a vast spectrum of proficiency levels and academic backgrounds try to catch up with one’s attempt to educate the world primarily through video-recorded lectures. This problem is evident in the design and delivery of any MOOC in almost any discipline at this time.

As companies advertising their products, providers of MOOC platforms make grandiose claims and present themselves as visionary leaders of a new mode of higher education. As Coursera says in its “Our Vision” section, these leaders, “envision a future where everyone has access to a world-class education that has so far been available to a select few.” Even more puzzling is the fact that when it comes to the “global” side of the argument, even serious educators seem to easily buy into the hype, perhaps because they are inspired (I almost said “blinded”) by altruism. That is, on general issues of teaching and learning—including curricular design and delivery, student participation and retention, and peer review and assessment—the academic conversation about MOOCs is now extremely rich, critical, and increasingly productive. But the excitement about the unprecedented access that people around the world now have to education from places like Harvard and MIT overshadows what should have been a topic of serious conversation: the intellectual barrier in spite of technological access. The elephant in the room is still invisible.

There has been some conversation about this in venues like The Chronicle. One recent Chronicle blog post discussed the “McDonaldization of Higher Education” and an article on InsideHigherEd summarized a few principled objections by researchers of international education. But among academics, there seems to be as yet nothing but the consideration of students around the world as statistical figures. As cited in the latter article, scholars of international education have always warned against “a one-way transfer of educational materials from the rich north to the poor south will amount to a wave of ‘intellectual neo-colonialism.’” But, again, because the MOOC movement is dominated by providers eyeing the world “market” for education, whatever they proclaim to be their motive, their attempts to make MOOCs “accessible” to international learners goes to show that they are either ignorant or unwilling to acknowledge geopolitical dynamics that shape learning experience on a global scale.

Just to be clear, I am not trying to argue that MOOCs can never benefit transnational participants. I believe that it is possible to tackle the problems—if they are first acknowledged and taken seriously. For instance, one way to enhance the experience of the nonlocal majority of MOOC students would be to encourage them to start by taking courses on the fundamentals, including terms, concepts, cultures, practices, and worldviews underlying the broader education system in which they want to participate. Serious MOOC instructors can draw on existing research, best practices, and resources on how to teach cross-culturally. But the design of the platforms must accommodate the design and delivery of courses on the basis of better understanding of cross-cultural learning. While some MOOC instructors seem to be aware of the issue, there is no indication that MOOC providers are interested in thinking beyond how to attract more students worldwide.

In fact, MOOC providers admit that they are interested in “international expansion” rather than in making “learning” accessible for international participants. As The New York Times reported recently, Coursera “plans to invest in international expansion, through localization, translation and distribution partnerships, and techniques for blended learning.” No matter how much hype is generated or money is invested in accessing learners worldwide, the “massive” component and the lack of student-teacher interaction will continue to plague this mode of online education for non-American learners.

At this time, the challenge to educators who want to focus on serious challenges seriously is that designers of the platforms seem unwilling to go beyond “efficient” but disingenuous solutions such as literal translation of course materials, analysis of “big data” for understanding students’ experience, and machine and/or outsourced grading. And yet, to the extent that it is possible, it is for professors to design and deliver courses by paying much more attention to learners from different backgrounds than they are now.

Let me conclude by asking any serious educator to consider this for a moment: If you were to land today in a small town in India, Argentina, or South Dakota and have to start teaching one of your courses tomorrow morning, how well do you think you would do?

If I may assume that most of us would say that it is hard to teach well in that situation, what magical powers do the MOOC platforms or our personal computers provide us that make all the challenges of facing students across the world simply disappear?

[Wikimedia Creative commons image by DTR]


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