Not Mere Tools part II – MOOCs and their discontents

I’m one day away from leaving for my first Wellesley College reunion, and as I pack my bags, I keep thinking about Janet Stemwedel’s (Class of ’89) decision to no longer donate to our Alma Mater.  Stemwedel was reacting to a recent “Call to Action” document released by the President’s Office of her employer, San Jose State University, that calls for sweeping changes in the way that introductory science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) classes are taught…or in the language of the report, “reengineer…educational delivery systems” and “enhance flexibility and risk-taking” by incorporating “open courseware modules” designed by companies like edX*. These “modules” are what are usually referred to as massively open online courses (MOOCs)**.

Wellesley enters the fray because of their 2012 decision to put 4 courses online through edX, making it the first liberal-arts college to join the not for profit collaborative. At the time, President of the College Kim Bottomly said that Wellesley would approach the project as an experiment. For educators like Stemwedel, the results of the experiment are in and the unintended consequences of the project have proved too dangerous to continue.


wellesley college logoedx San-Jose-State-University

Stemwedel points out that the availability of these pre-packaged courses for purchase by universities (like SJSU), who’re stuck between the rock of rising costs of education and the hard place of drastically reduced state and federal funding for public universities, is a seductive technological fix to reduce costs and streamline the process of educating students. Since turning to outside providers for MOOCs is a grand educational experiment, the results of which we’re only beginning to see, I’m going to make an analogy to another kind of social experiment, the results of which are now well-known, to illustrate the potential consequences of these kinds of decisions.

The decision to use pre-packaged MOOCs for intro STEM courses is akin to a parent deciding to feed a busy teenager exclusively from the 24 hour McDonald’s drive through***.  Between a million after school activities and hours of homework, the McDonald’s drive-through is the cheapest and most efficient way of delivering calories into your teen’s body, in service to the larger end of getting them through high school and into a good job or onto college. As a growing body of research indicates, the availability of options like this has had (and will continue to have) serious negative long-term consequences for people’s health.

We also know that people make decisions like this one under significant structural constraints – their job may not leave them time or energy to cook at home, or they might lack skills, knowledge or a stove. Given all of these constraints, the choice to feed one’s kids like this can’t meaningfully be described as a “choice” at all, and has been wake-up call for policy-makers, employers, and researchers to start understanding and transforming the constraints that limit people’s ability to feed themselves and their kids in a way that fosters lifelong health.

In the same way, decisions like that made by SJSU are a symptom of the structural constraints that public universities face in the current economic climate. Using MOOCs to boost the enrollment and graduation of STEM majors is a band-aid to the issues the California public university system faces. Temporary fixes like this are useful; like McDonalds, they can provide a cheaper way to deliver some semblance of an education in tough times. But, as Stemwedel points out, experimenting with the educations of students who are already marginalized in other ways seems like the repetition of a cruel historical legacy that we should’ve moved beyond.

However, acknowledging the structural constraints of institutions doesn’t release the “innovators” from the responsibility of considering the consequences of their platforms. Just as McDonalds should be held accountable for the health effects of its products, so should the providers of MOOCs be held accountable for the unintended consequences of their products. Technological solutions, like MOOCs, may provide temporary relief, but they don’t exist in a political vacuum. MOOCs are not value-neutral “tools” that universities can contribute to or implement with a clean conscience. The existence of solutions like this makes more prolonged, ambitious, and long-lasting reform projects a much harder sell.  These technologies shape the very framework by which we imagine, discuss and reform our institutions. In this spirit, I join Stemwedel in calling for Wellesley to consider the results of this experiment and deliberate about the consequences of their participation in edX.

We need to move the discussion about technology and teaching in higher education beyond both assignations of blame for problems whose tentacles are embedded in all levels of our institutions, and the empty and superficial “innovation” and “disruption” speak that has suffused discussions of new education technologies. Instead, we should recognize the ways that technologies like MOOCs, even when created with the best intentions by dedicated liberal arts educators, can have unintended results that may hinder the development of long-term sustainable reforms in our colleges and universities.

* “Call to Action”, see pgs 9-12

** “MOOC” is a diverse category of educational products. The kind of MOOCs I’m referring to here are the kind offered through edX which use video lectures, discussion forums, and automatically or peer-graded assignments.

*** I’m not the first to draw this analogy – the McDonaldization of Higher Education has been used to de-bunk the “global engagement” aspect of the MOOC mythology, and to broadly critique the measures, beyond MOOCs, that universities are taking to cut costs and boost graduate rates.



4 thoughts on “Not Mere Tools part II – MOOCs and their discontents

  1. Great post! I want to wander a little further into your analogy with McDonalds. You suggest that McDonalds is responsible for the health consequences of its food products. My immediate reaction to that statement was “No—people can choose not to eat there. Consumers are responsible for their buying choices.” But, as you point to, many structural constraints might lead to Micky D’s as your choice for dinner. In addition, as we know, in some economically disadvantaged areas there are not healthier choices available; the USDA calls these areas “food desserts” (see link below). What will happen when in education there is no choice but to be educated in the virtual MOOC classroom? Once the disadvantages of MOOCs are more widely realized, will a two-tiered system develop where only those with greater resources can access a real-life professor and university staff?

  2. Pingback: Wellesley, MOOCs, and Educational Inequalities – A Response to Julia (and Janet Stemwedel) | The Fifth Floor

  3. UPDATE: After a few conversations with alums during reunion, I’m both more and less concerned about this –

    1. Less concerned because SJSU’s use of a HarvardX course was protested by both HarvardX and Michael Sandel (prof of the course that was supposed to replace an intro philosophy course). But, I haven’t been able to find online documentation of these statements.

    2. More concerned because, as a condition of being able to take these courses for free, students are required to allow their learning behaviors to be monitored and used for EdXs research, which falls under murky IRB oversight.

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