The key problem with MOOCs

Earlier this fall, in between writing for Thesis and teaching two community college classes, I enrolled in a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC): “Central Challenges in American National Security, Strategy, and the Press.” The urge, while mostly compulsive, was driven by the immediate, fluid state of the international climate (Syria had just crossed over the “red line” with its use of chemical weapons; Iran had just ushered in a new president, leading some to believe a recalculation of the nuclear discourse was on the horizon) and by a need to re-immerse myself in a collegiate-based discourse of political science, which I have missed since college. As an added bonus, the course would be taught by Graham T. Allison and David Sanger, heavyweights in the realm of American foreign policy, and the illustrious name of Harvard would be backing the entire course. The opportunity sounded ideal.

The topic of MOOCs has been repeatedly covered, and the problems are widely known: universities are having trouble turning the venture into revenue; no one has figured out a way to award college credit for successfully completed classes; dropout rates are incredibly high. But an even larger problem persists, and it has more to do with the limitations of virtual classrooms than with program access or course curricula.

When I applied for the Harvard MOOC, none of these issues bothered me. In fact, I had taught using online platforms in the past, so I knew ahead of time that keeping myself motivated and on-task were the two most important factors in getting the most out of the MOOC. My internal desire was to keep abreast of the world in a similar framework that college had provided, and I was fine with the idea that the experience would be just that: a learning experience minus accreditation. Even the course’s website said as much. “Looking to test your mettle? Participate in all of the course’s activities and abide by the edX Honor Code. If your work is satisfactory, you’ll receive a personalized certificate to showcase your achievement.” The website made it sound like a skydiving certificate or the “Panther’s #1” trophy I received at the end of fourth grade football, which I am fairly certain the Huskies, Eagles, and Broncos received as well. But that was fine.

In terms of materials provided, the course readings, combined with the video lectures by Allison and Sanger, covered both the current state and history of American foreign policy at depth. While the strength of course materials varies across the spectrum of MOOC offerings, there is no question that schools like MIT, Berkley, and Harvard have the resources to pack a course full of topflight information. If MOOCs existed solely to provide a wealth of information to the general public (like Wikipedia or the collegiate lecture videos found on YouTube), a lot of the questions around their sustainability and profitability would cease. But there is a question about their efficacy as well.

In a recent MIT report published in November, the school discussed a variety of ways MOOCs could possibly enable its students to reach out to a larger, more diverse world, while at the same time providing non-MIT students access to MIT resources and materials. But the notion that MOOCs are enabling those that are financially unable to access and learn from one of the most respected educational institutions in the world is misleading; the report found a majority of those that signed up for courses had either completed an undergraduate degree, professional degree, or were still in college. Providing information to the world is noble indeed – the more people that have access to more information only improves the understanding and thinking across cultures and nations – but what is the end goal? To improve the world, or to improve schools like MIT?

A very interesting critique on the issue was presented by Philip G. Altbach, who worries that Western and American-led teaching traditions are disseminating their own brand of education across the world instead of allowing MOOCs to provide a variety of cultural views. To use a political science term, the advancement of educational “soft power” certainly seems to be a goal of several schools involved, and the MIT report confirms MIT’s thinking. The school envisions the MOOC platform as a vehicle to connect with alumni, broaden the pool of MIT applicants, provide international internship-like experiences for its students, and extend the reach of its data analysis. Schools like MIT are keenly aware that global branding will only further enhance their stature and influence among educational institutions.

Furthermore, when one looks at certain MOOC courses, especially “Central Challenges in American National Security, Strategy, and the Press,” it is hard to see a way around the problem of pedagogical viewpoint. Both Professors Allison and Sanger are experts on U.S. foreign policy who are tasked with teaching America’s approach towards international politics. If nations are ultimately concerned with their own positioning and survival in the international system, how else should the subject be taught? One would think outside observers, in an effort to learn American policy motivations, would want to learn and understand the thinking that drives U.S. foreign policy, but this was not always on display in the MOOC I signed up for. Maybe it was the topic of American foreign policy that stirred up some students in my course, but the collision of educational soft power and the world was clearly on display.

A few students that participated in the MOOC forums (archaic-seeming community spaces that hark back to an already bygone internet era) were there for no other reason than to sound off on America’s international actions and positions. The participants who felt this way said they were from other countries, but how would anyone really know? I certainly never saw them; we never looked across the room at each other, sizing each other up. One of the more outspoken students in my MOOC could not believe the term P5+1 was being used (P5+1 being the general U.S. term for the 5 permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, plus Germany; it is widely known as the EU3+3 in Europe). Another classmate questioned why Iran should not be allowed to possess nuclear weapons when other “less-worthy nations,” as the student said, particularly “America/Western” were allowed to possess them. Several times a student shouted (as much as that action is possible online), “What is wrong with you people?” These students classified themselves as “foreign,” but the responses they sometimes received in turn was just as problematic; there were enough distrustful, negative, flippant comments to go around.

Essentially, MOOC forums are a form of “Twittucation” – without a centralized community, without the physical presence mediators or students, individuals are compelled to recklessly substitute passion, banter, or opinion for debate, discussion, and effective persuasion. Digital and internet-based classrooms are not adequately designed to create relationships between users, especially when the users cannot see each other. When you walk into a physical college classroom as a student, what do you initially look for? One of your friends; an ally; someone you may have sat next to last spring when you took “Post-Civil War Reconstruction.” Do you have to agree with this person on everything? No. And you shouldn’t. But at the heart of every classroom, students are bound by the fact that they are all Panthers, Huskies, Eagles, or Broncos from different states, countries, backgrounds and beliefs. No matter where you are from, you are connected by a spirit of learning and community.

The problem with MOOCs is not a lack of revenue. The problem is not the lack of an accreditation process. I dropped out of my MOOC because I was completely disconnected from the people learning with me. Should Americans refer to the P5+1 as the EU3+3? Perhaps. Is it wrong that the U.S. has nuclear weapons, yet denies them to other countries? I could certainly see the argument for that discussion. But these views were not expressed with an eye towards cooperation and better understanding; I certainly never got the opportunity because the MOOC structurally precludes such opportunities. These comments were expressed in a way similar to how people troll the bottom of news articles to find individuals willing to jump off-sides. It is the same reason so many people have to say they are sorry after posting something on Twitter.

People drop out of MOOCs because there is no investment in the process of communication (and maybe this is more important in liberal arts disciplines than it is technical courses). I did not get to know, see, or communicate effectively with the people in my class. Essentially, the MOOC experience was no more enriching than it would have been if I had sat down by myself and read all of the books, New York Times articles, and think tank reports that the Harvard syllabus outlined. If most people taking these undergraduate MOOC classes are predominantly college-educated people, the high dropout rate will likely continue; and with a case like mine, already having a background in political science, I was not driven by the notion that I was learning anything earth-shatteringly new. I was looking for an experience that only the brick walls can provide, and perhaps the desire to replicate the collegiate experience of learning was my own mistake.

Because MOOCs are open sources of information, people will continue to sign up. If users are willing to understand the platform’s limitations and design, MOOCs could help some users better understand topics on their own. But as a substitute for class-time, as an alternative to the brick and mortar, MOOCs will not be able to catch the historical need for personal interaction and a sense of community that physical learning spaces provide.

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