MOOC criticism is warranted. It should also be encouraged. If the MOOC is going to be the disruptive technology that solves for the ills that plague higher education, critics play an integral role in pointing out the model’s inefficiencies and the consequences such a model will have outside of the educational structure (such as in theory, culture and policy). If the MOOC is not as disruptive as some have claimed, criticism is what can separate grounded research from marketing and public relations. While some MOOC criticism has ratcheted up hyperbole in lieu of tempered discussion, this is no different from MOOC proponents dressing their model in almost messianic terms. There’s a discussion to be had between all stakeholders, from those who see MOOCs as the start of much-needed change in higher education to those who view the four letters as standing for all that is wrong with the reform movement.
This is what makes James Mazoue’s recent address of MOOC criticism, Five Myths about MOOCs, such a disappointment. In a space such as Educause, a periodical dedicated to exploring the confluence of education, pedagogy and technology, Mazoue’s debunking of MOOC critique uses semantics and the trimmings of revolution to bolster his point while putting a period on criticism. Rather than view critique as the valid concern of education stakeholders, the piece views the arguments as misguided, ending any conversation before it could begin. He does this over five of what he calls the common myths critics trot out to disparage MOOCs:
- they are focused on profit
- they will create a tier-based education system
- they are inferior based on their structure
- they are too mechanical
- they will suffer the same fate as their technological forebears.
These are, in fact, criticisms of the MOOC model. To say they are the only ones, or the most important ones, however, is overly simplistic and serves his mission to tear down rather than actively engage.
I encourage you to read the article, but in each of these five myths he focuses on a slippery slope aspect of the problem rather than looking at the root of this problem he contends is a thorn in critic sides. One example, according to the article, is the obsession MOOC critics have with the for-profit aspect of the model. Mazoue states that the fear of critics is that teaching becomes a profession driven by science rather than panache: Hucksters who cut corners and attempt to fob off inferior learning on students will fail in competition against well-designed curricula that use a variety of strategies, both technological and human, to maximize learning effectiveness. This statement is both true and disingenuous, draping itself in rhetoric from reform efforts made famous by movies such as Waiting for Superman, where a mass of teachers are bound by institutional inertia or, better yet, are the cause of it.
The problem with Mazoue’s statement is that teaching is already driven by science. Education research is one of the largest research fields in academia, and there is a specific science to the teaching of material, pedagogy. Yes, there is an artistic element to pedagogy, but it’s easy to argue artistry is in fact contextualization. The fear of reform is not that computers will take jobs, but rather that the reform movement ignores the rich history of existing education research for the allure of learning analytics, which have been characterized as a solution in search of a problem. Willfully ignoring existing research does not produce a foundation of trust in the measures of the new science. Prior education reform, based on similar analytics and standardizations, have seen reformers stand to make a profit from their reforms. The result of education reform, as of 2013, is a K-12 public education system with a substantial focus on standardization and curricular capsules but with at best inconclusive evidence and at worst evidence showing no benefit despite the reform. The only clear benefit based on the reform movement at this point is a financial one for companies and content providers authorized to provide the standardized content.
It is easy to go down a rabbit hole with funding and find conspiracy theories with groups such as Pearson, but I have read a great deal of MOOC criticism and very little of it accuses higher education of cutting deals in wood-panel rooms, manipulating the system a la Ned Beatty in Network. There is concern about the amount of venture capital funding in some of these MOOC providers, and critics wonder how these groups will turn a profit in this manner of online education (an argument Mazoue makes to show the inefficiency of criticism). Most concern, however, is about the debate between education research as machine learning versus the history of education research. Critics also are concerned about the fast pace MOOCs have embarked on for adopting their system based on this science, science ignoring existing education science and science that has yet to prove successful, through either historical or AI-Machine Learning metrics.
There is a debate to be had between those who believe MOOCs can improve education while lowering costs, & those who believe MOOCs are focused on the wrong data, unaware of the history of education research littered with trials and tribulations of EdTech movements (not to mention methods for success in other tech-supportive environments such as blended learning). This is not a conversation Mazoue invites, but one he pushes away from by addressing criticism as ignorant and ineffective in light of the monster MOOC reform train charging through academe.
Especially troubling is Mazoue’s call to critics to provide sufficient reason for their transgressions:
Mischaracterizing MOOCs as pawns in the service of a neoliberal political agenda distorts the legitimacy of the challenge that MOOCs pose to conventional practices and misrepresents their potential as catalysts of pedagogical innovation. By deflecting attention away from a serious discussion of their own agenda’s merits, those who frame MOOCs in terms of socioeconomic class warfare are not serving their own cause well. Neither smug self-confidence nor playing the victim card will stave off a research agenda that is hot on the trail of understanding the conditions that more effectively enable learning.
What is the agenda Mazoue speaks of? It’s the well-worn luddite argument that teachers are complacent and inert professionals afraid of losing their place in a fast-moving world. This is a lazy argument, the same lazy argument trotted out in various education reform literature, most notably on the K-12 side of education with a focus on charter schools. Mazoue’s contention, that research is hot on the trail of understanding the mechanics of learning, discredits 60+ years of education research. Education research was not born when big data and learning analytics became catch-phrases. Were Mazoue to argue that the MOOC critics were overly skeptical of the role of learning analytics, AI and machine learning in the modeling of human learning environments, that would be a serious contention. But by deflecting attention away from reasonable criticisms, by trotting out tired tropes dripping in stereotype, and by marginalizing topics by focusing on a slippery slope (when in fact the criticism is valid regardless of any slippery slope), Mazoue’s article becomes that which it argues against — ideology dressed with citation to gain positive impression…but lacking any interest in honestly engaging the opposition.