The introduction of massive open online courses (MOOCs) has been cause for great excitement and optimism for those of us who are interested in lower-cost or free higher education and learning resources, as well as the increased democratization of education that might be created by greater access to higher ed.
But like all good educators, policy analysts, and students, we need to sit back and think about what we’ve learned in the past few years.For example, are MOOCs really going to help solve some of our more pressing education concerns? The jury is still out on that. Many other questions have been asked about best practices for managing MOOCs and helping students reap the most benefits from them. For example, many websites catalog various issues facing MOOC development.
But I think there are at least four over-arching issues surrounding MOOCs that have not yet been fully examined, and bear significant consideration when we try to evaluate the usefulness and benefits of MOOCs:
1. The McDonaldization of Education: Jason Lane and Kevin Kinser recently wrote in The Chronicle of Higher Education about their fears that MOOCs will result in the “McDonaldization” of higher education, and will influence other cultures in negative ways. They wrote,
To be clear and to set aside a straw-man argument, we don’t believe that MOOCs were established with global engagement in mind. These entities are mostly about access. However, they have become popular in overseas markets (for example, 61.5 percent of Coursera’s enrollments come from outside the United States). This development has led some to view MOOC’s as a possible alternative to other forms of global expansion, and to question the relevance of colleges’ establishing physical presences overseas.
In other words, will American educational standards take over those of other countries, potentially destroying their original cultures and values? This is called cultural hegemony, and its an important consideration given the modern university’s commitment to multiculturalism and pluralism.
2. Cheating and Plagiarism: One of the most frequent topics of discussion regarding all online learning, and recently a particular concern about MOOCs, is the frequency of cheating and plagiarism. The system established in a MOOC is rooted in individual work. But that relies on an honor code, and just this summer Coursera was accused of permitting extensive plagiarism. Many argue that because most MOOCs do not offer academic credit, cheating and plagiarism is a non-issue. Students are not evaluated on their work as part of a degree program, for example. But this position sidesteps the real issue, which is that learning should be taking place in a MOOC. Students who cheat are not actually demonstrating that they’ve learned anything, except perhaps how to cheat.
3. The Value of Peer Grading: As an instructor, I’ve always had a problem with peer grading. I’m not alone in this: Audrey Watters recently covered the topic of peer grading issues in Coursera. There are a number of reasons why I am leery of peer grading, and I find that my reasons dovetail with concerns about peer grading in MOOCs. Primarily, students in college have not paid tuition just for content. They have paid for the expertise and reflections provided by the instructor, who has presumably dedicated years to study and evaluation. By contrast, peer grading relies on the peer’s mastery of the course content — and whether or not a student has mastered the course content is a crapshoot. MOOCs buy into the argument that a professor is dispensable, that anyone can be an “expert”-or at least expert enough to evaluate someone else’s work. That is simply not true.
Also, it’s the instructor’s job to link course content to a larger framework, whether that be career-based or something different. The best feedback I ever got as a student was from professors who could point me toward a new direction. I remember, for example, my poetry professor at the University of Connecticut advising me to read the work of the Greek poet Catullus because, he said, my own style was reminiscent of his. To my delight, I discovered a new, simpatico role model for my writing. I doubt that the average undergraduate student has the breadth and depth of knowledge that would allow them to be helpful on that level.
4. No individual distinctions: Professor David Youngberg of Bethany College has raised an important problem with MOOCs, which he realized when he took a course offered through Udacity himself: “star students can’t shine.” He worried about the ramifications this has for a student’s future: “In traditional academe, I know my best students well enough to write recommendations describing their personalities and accomplishments in detail. Online anonymity results in references that mean virtually nothing.” This is certainly an important consideration, because MOOCs are often promoted as ways for employees to gain more knowledge, but I also think that MOOCs present problems for students who rely on outside motivation and require ongoing feedback and positive encouragement. There is not as much chance for this in a MOOC as there is in a traditional course. This may be why MOOCs have such a high drop-out rate. MOOCs might do better if there was a mechanism in place to reward students for their achievements.
These issues are not as straightforward as some of the other problems facing MOOCs, such as technical managementdifficulties, effective course design, etc. Rather, these issues present us with questions about what we want higher education to be, what students really need, and who will benefit from it.
Do you have any solutions to these problems? Suggest them here!