MOOCs: thinking about context

May 3, 2013 § Leave a comment

Recently, professors at a San Jose State refused to use a lecture series by Michael Sandel at their university: it’s well worth reading their explanation of this decision. After a long and somewhat frustrating discussion about this, I think it’s worth teasing out some of the issues surrounding MOOCs. Much of this draws on the conversation which I just had, but mostly because these views are representative of much more widely-held opinions.

Image of empty chairs in a lecture-room, overlaid with a network

Image courtesy of opensourceway

There’s the assumption that just because something is ‘open source’, it must be good. This is tied to other assumptions about what openness means, such as the assumption that ‘open source’ necessarily means more participatory and more accessible. While MOOCs certainly have the potential to make interesting, useful, learning material widely available so that students (and others) can enrich their learning, we do need to bear in mind the context in which they’re being developed. Context matters. ‘Open source’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘good’ in all contexts, because other considerations must be taken into account.

In this case, we need to remember that MOOCs are being developed in the context of cuts to university funding around the world, and in the context of university systems which tend to privilege publishing over teaching, with ever-increasing class sizes and workloads for lecturers. We’re seeing a massive casualisation of the workforce as we shift from full-time lecturers doing most of the teaching to the use of underpaid teaching assistants who are usually on short-term, precarious contracts. Funding for students is also limited, making it harder for students from disadvantaged backgrounds to get a university education (in the US far more than in Australia).

What does this mean for our evaluation of MOOCs? Firstly, we need to be aware of the probability that requests (or demands) that lecturers use content from MOOCs hosted at other universities are motivated more by a desire on the part of university management to cut costs than by a concern for quality teaching. Secondly, there is a strong chance that the use of lecture content from MOOCs will be used to justify further casualisation of the academic workforce on the basis that as the backbone of the unit is there, all that’s needed will be teaching assistants/tutors rather than full-time lecturers. Thirdly, this is likely to contribute to and reinforce the existing two-tier system (more so in the US than Australia): some students will have access to lecturers who develop units, have funding for research, and engage in hands-on teaching, while poorer students at under-resourced universities will get content developed elsewhere, taught by tutors who are unlikely to have the resources and support necessary to develop themselves as teachers and as researchers.

There’s also the issue of what we use as the standard. While I’m sure Sandel is an engaging lecturer with many valuable points to make, the outline for the ‘Justice’ unit which the San Jose professors declined to use states that, “principal readings for the course are texts by Aristotle, John Locke, Immanuel Kant, John Stuart Mill, and John Rawls.” In a unit covering “affirmative action, income distribution, same-sex marriage, the role of markets, debates about rights (human rights and property rights), arguments for and against equality, dilemmas of loyalty in public and private life”, it’s worth questioning whether a backbone consisting purely of dead white men is most appropriate.

Some of the books taught in Ethnic Studies units in Arizona – those usually left out of mainstream curricula.

Universities, and particularly the most prestigious and well-funded US universities, are still disproportionately accessible to privileged groups within society. If unit content is increasingly produced primarily by these universities, and then farmed out to other places, we are likely to hear a more and more narrow range of perspectives. The existing constraints on marginalised voices within academia will be reinforced: women and minority groups will, in all likelihood, be those who are pushed (further) into precarious employment as short-term teaching staff unable to create their own units.

I’m not against the idea of MOOCs. But we need to think about the broader context in which they’re developed, and take active steps to shape them in positive directions. We need to hold open spaces for participatory, accessible learning that values a diversity of voices – including those of both students and teachers. In order to do this, we can’t take the discourse of ‘openness’ associated with MOOCs at face value.

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