The Illusory Appeal of the UW-Madison MOOCs

February 21, 2013 | Blog

It was only a matter of time.  The anticipation was palpable when a group of about 50 concerned faculty, students, and staff from around UW-Madison gathered last summer to talk about the governance crisis at UVA.  The president of that flagship university had just been ousted for failing to quickly embrace MOOCs– a sign some UVA board members thought meant that she was failing to embrace the “disruptive innovation” that will purportedly transform higher education.  While President Teresa Sullivan was reinstated some weeks later, after a period of alumni outrage, the writing was on the wall.  MOOCs were established as an especially hot new trend with broad appeal among the powerful who find “shock and awe” scenarios the best way to promote change– and it wouldn’t be long before UW-Madison lept into the quicksand.

This morning UW-Madison is going public with the news that we’re joining with Coursera to offer four pilot MOOCs.  Our administrators have apparently decided MOOCs are “compelling”enough to jump on the bandwagon.

This is a pretty remarkable turn of events, for several reasons. Let’s set aside for a moment that relatively little open, public discussion of MOOCs has occurred on campus, especially discussion involving faculty and students.  But frankly, I can’t even pretend surprise about that anymore. As usual, the University Committee and “numerous” faculty were engaged in discussions with administrators, but obviously that’s small potatoes on a campus of 2,000+ professors.  If surveyed, I’m willing to bet that 50% or more of the professors at Madison don’t know what a MOOC is, despite the presence of this “thought piece” crafted “for considering if MOOCs are right for UW-Madison at this point in time” and placed on a website most faculty don’t know about.

Instead, I’m a little more surprised at the apparent willingness of the Madison administration to engage in the illusions/delusions of grandeur posed by the MOOC movement. Sure, this is just four courses, a small step forward, and it’s framed as a pilot effort to “learn by doing.”  It’s not as if the entire campus has gone for MOOC madness.  But “learning by doing” is often akin to a gateway drug–once you’ve done a little, you might as well do more– after all, you’ve already make the investment.  Furthermore, if you’re really learning by doing, you build in continuous assessment of both intended and unintended consequences– and the administration’s documents don’t mention of this sort of work at all. (Fingers crossed that the evaluation plan is among a detailed set of documents we’ll soon get to see.)

The rhetorical flourishes of MOOCs abound, with talk of great public service and institutional branding. But in some key areas, the reality seems far grimmer.  Consider this:

1. MOOCs cost money and apparently generate little in return. We are constantly told that financial resources are scarce on campus, and hard to come by.  But as Madison’s administrators know very well, MOOCs “require upfront investment without directly generating new revenue.”  The business model for MOOCs is simply unclear.  What even the administration suspects is that it likely threatens the employment of our teaching assistants.

2. MOOCs take faculty time. There’s rampant complaints of “overwork” among Madison faculty and yet at the same time demand by our students for access to more courses with us.  MOOCs require time to develop and teach.  If course releases are provided to do this, it pretty much has to come at a cost to UW-Madison students– or involve further overloading the faculty.  This leads me to wonder, why would we release our professors,  paid with state appropriations and student tuition, to teach students elsewhere?  While it’s grand and laudable, expanding their influence and potentially improving our rankings, how is this any different than funding a course release for a professor who flies off to teach at Harvard or in Shanghai?  We don’t do that, so why do this?  Professors can and do engage in such things on their own, but they aren’t paid by us for it. Why should this be different?

3. MOOCs don’t address the core problems we face as a state institution.  MOOCs will neither strengthen our relationships with the Wisconsin legislature or rural communities or help us deliver greater economic development returns to the state.  While these are not all we are tasked with doing, or have the ambition to do, by investing energy in MOOCs rather than those other activities, we are revealing our priorities.  There are opportunity costs to every effort, and this one is occupying our time.

4. Despite their name, there is little chance that MOOCs will serve the masses truly in need of free educational opportunities. The Madison document suggests that MOOCs will “improve lives” and increase “access to education” and thus help fulfill the Wisconsin Idea. This is the grandest claim of all, and yet it’s the most far-fetched.  There’s no evidence to suggest that the people taking advantage of learning from MOOCs are the under-educated– but rather they are the highly-educated seeking to learn a bit more in the process of lifelong learning. An assessment of one of Duke’s MOOCs found that just 11% of the MOOC enrollment came from students who hadn’t attended college– and the tiny percent of course completers usually held a BA or higher.  MOOCs aren’t a substitute for postsecondary education; they are a continuation of it.  They represent not our core mission but the “extras” that we hope to provide at Madison– if only we can afford to do so.

So let me conclude with this. I love UW-Madison and I love it when we try new things as a university.  Pushing the envelope is a sign of bravery, and our faculty are nothing if not fearless.  But jumping onto an already-moving train just because our peers are onboard, at a time when we have scarce resources and much to lose, well, it looks a bit insane.  And it’s really scary to think that some of our administrators subscribe to a shock doctrine approach to educational change, awaiting a “sufficient sense of urgency” to reach the campus to get it engaged in MOOCs.

Let’s really debate the MOOCs, sifting and winnowing our way through the process. Let’s talk about how to assess this pilot effort, and what sorts of outcomes must be measured.  Let’s figure out a plan to put an end to these pilots if they are costing us more than they’re worth.  As my colleague Kris Olds has put it, “There are political and economic machinations associated with the stirring of interest in, and coverage of, MOOCs. Given this, and given the stakes at hand, it is important to address the MOOCs phenomenon is a serious, sustained, and reflective way, not in a knee jerk fashion, one way or the other.”  Agreed. And now Olds is creating one of Madison’s 4 new MOOCs.

With that,  I invite you to a conversation about MOOCs taking place during ED TALKS Wisconsin, Friday March 15 at 7 pm at the School of Education.  Our keynote speaker is Anya Kamenetz, and Kris Olds will be responding to her, along with Chancellor of UW Colleges Ray Cross.  It should be a really good time– hope to see you there!

ps. Need a laugh? Check out what North Korea’s up to regarding MOOCs. (H/T Gary Rhoades)

1 Comment

  1. Reply

    Danielle Nielsen

    February 22, 2013

    Thank you so much for sharing your own concerns about the way MOOCs are impacting your campus. I've been considering these impacts, especially coverage, as well at my blog dnielsen2.blogspot.com.


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