No Space to Debate MOOCs

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.

10 thoughts on “No Space to Debate MOOCs

  1. enkerli

    On Twitter, I compared your role to the one Adam Greenfield took with regards to “Smart City” hype. Greenfield wrote a pamphlet which is not only thoughtful and insightful, but already having a positive impact in discussions about urban life prospectivism. I sincerely think your work does the same for MOOC hype and I wish you had a book out that I could send people (despite the fact that I don’t enjoy longform text, anymore).
    Upon first going through the five strawmen Mizoue builds and burns, I was tempted to make my own list of issues with MOOC hype. But, as your post shows, this would be counterproductive as it’d bring discussion of MOOCs into a tiresome debate, with very little room for critical thinking by diverse stakeholders. What Mizoue did was close to agenda-setting and I’m surprised as to how effective it could have been with me, if your post hadn’t opened my eyes.
    These days, several of my teaching activities revolve around facilitating open discussions, including public conversations through University of the Streets Café (a program created by Concordia University, where I teach). Something neat about those types of conversations is that the most frequent critiques do come out, but are quickly supplemented by more uncommon perspectives. A guest at such a conversation may have planned to respond to some specific forms of criticism, but those other views are typically the one which open new possibilities. In the end, you notice that it’s only a debate if you choose to make it into a debate, usually because you have your own “agenda”.

    With MOOCs, generally, I don’t have an agenda. In fact, I have much less of a stake than it might appear. Universities may think of MOOCs as ways to respond to some threats. I perceive MOOCs as deck chairs on the Titanic. And there are lifeboats of diverse models, for most people involved.
    MOOC hype does bother me, though. While I may not care much about the survival of course- and grade-focused learning, I do care a lot about the diversity of approaches to teaching. Hype tends to close down the conversation into a debate over the “pros and cons” of a particular solution. MOOC hype focuses people’s attention on a single model and those of us who don’t see it as the most disruptive force are still asked to discuss it.

    At this point, I may be finding new ways to deal with this issue. When people focus so much on MOOCs, I might get them to lay down the specific problems that MOOCs solve (typically, access). Then, we can either talk about some of the other issues not solved by MOOCs or, perhaps more appropriately, discuss other solutions to those allegedly MOOC-solved problems. I’ve had difficulty doing the latter because I often find issues affecting education to be much deeper and more pressing than the ones on which the MOOC hype focuses. But I now realize that I can’t go further in the discussion if people want to talk about a handful of problems they’re using their problem-solving skills to tackle.

    Yes, I’m thinking out loud, here. What this blogpost helped me do is change my perspective on those who appear to convey the MOOC hyperbole. I didn’t need Mizoue for this but I did need a Greenfield-equivalent.

    So, thanks!

    1. Rolin Moe Post author

      High praise! Much appreciated.

      Certainly I come at these things from a critical theory perspective, which by definition views all stakeholders in a situation. Often this means giving voice to marginalized populations, but I’ve seen in the MOOC debate that all ideological sides put lines in the sand in order to create their agendas. If those against MOOCs are going to evoke the neoliberal, we need a clear definition of neoliberal. If those on the side for MOOCs are going to discuss learning styles, we need to point out the mounds of research debunking learning styles. I guess my role has become to point out the hyperbole and ground the debate in history and theory. Thank you for showing me that =)

      And the hope is, once the dissertation is done, there is some sort of book-type publication, at least a few articles. That said, perhaps it’s time to do something digital. Thanks for the idea!

      1. enkerli

        Of course, it doesn’t have to be a full book. But I think it’s just about the right time to put out a position piece, whitepaper, Ignite/TEDx/YouTube, or pamphlet about the implications of MOOC debates. That might generate useful discussion, both online and off.
        You also made me realize a few things. For instance, what my issue with MOOC hype really is. It’s not about MOOCs and it’s not really about learning. It’s about distraction in a time of crisis.
        Been preparing a followup to my comment, in the form of a blogpost. Extending the Titanic metaphor, thinking further about lifeboats. Turns out, there’s some possibility I may help create an interesting lifeboat, if I get the government job for which I recently applied. Gives me hope.
        And my praises weren’t vain or empty. I’m grateful for your work, as I’m grateful for Greenfield’s (two days after Canadian Thanksgiving, expressing gratitude makes sense). Part of the reason is that it means I don’t have to do this kind of work, deflating the hype balloon.

        By the way, I haven’t heard from or met anyone who’s anti-MOOC. In my circle, I probably sound like I am, since I don’t perceive them as “all they’re cracked up to be”. But I don’t think MOOCs are worse than any other attempt at salvaging course-based education. In fact, I might enrol in a MOOC or even create a cMOOC. What bothers me, is that I haven’t heard from any other “side”. I’m wary of taking these things for granted.

        Anyhoo, thanks again for your work. Best of luck with your formal course of study.

      2. Rolin Moe Post author

        Part of the problem is this odd dichotomy of proMOOC and antiMOOC. Many of the people who would get labeled “antiMOOC” are folks with careers in distance education, online education and educational technology…based on prior “revolutionizing” models that floundered, based on the historical ignorance of those speaking at the front of the MOOCs, based on continued rhetoric casting developers as saviors against the inert and bloated institution of education. These people have been at the forefront of learning and technology through the discipline’s history, so to see a model that is theoretically stilted and boastful of such backward thinking is a frustration, never mind how those trumpeting the model speak in revolutionary tones. At the same time, these people dedicated their life to the intersection of learning and technology, so they really really want to support something. There are a lot of proMOOC people in a similar space who are aware of the problems but find activity in the existing model.

        I have delusions of grandeur with a book. Position piece might be the best way to go for now. I’m not new to academia but I am new to the publishing route, so I’m playing this out. And I will be sure to pass my dissertation research results along to you…I am rather proud of my lit review, currently in data collection.

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  5. Kellie O'Neill

    I am struggling here to understand WHY MOOCs are downcast in such a manner by individuals of moderate repute. If I understand correctly, MOOCs are free courses where individuals have the opportunity to engage in cooperative-esque learning environments that revolve around the interests of those individuals. Am I lost? What would make someone antiMOOC? Is the fear based in the idea that MOOCs will completely replace higher ed?

    1. Rolin Moe Post author

      There’s a lot of great writing on why people would seem anti-MOOC. I think the sentiment is mostly about how the MOOC model and subsequent discussion view learning (a content-based exercise on lecture and assessment) and the model trumpets that model and many people fall in line because developing that model for scale has benefits to many stakeholders, just not most learners.

      Some of my favorite writers from this perspective are Audrey Watters and Martin Weller. Aaron Bady has also written a few poignant pieces, but he goes more economic at times.


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