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Initial Reflections on MOOCs and the College Curriculum

As the debate over Massively Open Online Courses, also known by their unfortunate acronym: MOOC, rages on, I thought I would begin by curating a few articles here:

The impetus for this little Diigo collection is the recent appearance of two articles, one skeptical of MOOCs, the other more sanguine about their transformative power.

In their December 17, 2012 article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “For Whom Is College Being Reinvented?,” Scott Carlson and Goldie Blumenstyk gather the skeptical voices who insist, as Peter Stokes of Northeastern University, puts it:

“The whole MOOC thing is mass psychosis,” a case of people “just throwing spaghetti against the wall” to see what sticks…

Of course, if the MOOC is psychosis, it is born of a deeper pathology; for as Robert Archibald of the College of William and Mary is quoted there as saying:

“At most institutions, students are in mostly large classes, listening to second-rate lecturers, with very little meaningful faculty student interaction. …Students are getting a fairly distant education even in a face-to-face setting.”

It is a response to this deeper pathology of contemporary Higher Education that seems to be at the root of Clay Shirky’s analogy between the MOOC and the MP3 file format.

Shirky’s Higher Education: Our MP3 is the MOOC is the second article to which I’d like to point as a way to begin thinking through the implications of the MOOC for higher education. Shirky’s argument is based on this analogy: 

mp3 : album : music industry :: MOOC : curriculum : higher education

Just as the mp3 file format, by making music accessible and sharing simple, unbundled individual songs from albums and transformed the music industry, so too will the MOOC, by making education accessible and massively open, unbundle courses from curricula and transform higher education.

Shirky presses the analogy further: just as the mp3 unbundled individual songs from the albums the record companies forced us to purchase, so too will the MOOC unbundle specific courses from the degrees for which institutions of higher education force students into debt.

Shirky emphasizes that the promise of MOOCs is that “the educational parts of education can be unbundled.” 

But that, of course, is a packed suggestion itself not so easily unbundled. For there is a difference between taking a course or series of them and being educated. 

Just as one swallow does not make a spring (Aristotle, Nic. Ethics, 1098a19), neither does a course divorced from a course of study make an education. The educational parts of education cannot be unbundled like a single from an album, for the education is both in the curriculum and the manner in which that curriculum is delivered.

The challenge the MOOC posses to institutions of higher education is that they will force us to re-imagine the curriculum into which we have placed our individual courses. And institutions of higher education have not historically been particularly nimble when it comes to creating and implementing innovative curricula responsive to new forms of literacy and public communication.

If our courses are not to be unbundled from the curriculum without perverting the education they together offer, then we in higher education will need to articulate and develop new, more coherent, well crafted, and, yes, even efficient curricula capable of enriching student lives and preparing them in a relevant way for a world in which many will have been taught, but fewer well educated.


  • Daniel Tripp says:

    Here's an article that responds to Shirky.

  • Puzzled says:

    The crux of your point seems to be:
    "The educational parts of education cannot be unbundled like a single from an album, for the education is both in the curriculum and the manner in which that curriculum is delivered."
    As a general rule I think your point would fail. Many curricula are designed to educate by exposing students to the breadth of a field, recognizing that depth of knowledge can often only come after long-term exposure to and implementation of the material (as examples, think computer science, engineering disciplines, among many others). So in those cases the degree to which a student can expand the breadth of their knowledge, then they have been educated. For example, to say that programmer who takes a MOOC to expand their knowledge of data structures hasn't been educated because the course content has been decoupled from a broader curriculum seems false.

  • Thanks, @Puzzled, for this comment. I should perhaps have been more explicit about the distinction between learning and education that was operating in my mind as I wrote the above post. Courses, be they MOOCs or not, can be taken haphazardly by anyone, independent of a coherent curriculum designed, as you say, to expose students to the breadth of a field or the depth of a tradition. No one would deny that learning can happen in such courses; and often that learning is transformative.
    But what I want to emphasize is that an excellent education is always rooted in a holistic and thoughtfully crafted curriculum in which individual courses build on one another and the student is drawn into a deeper understanding of the field. Many autodidacts craft curricula of their own, and to great effect.
    But part of the point I was trying to make in the post above is that universities and those of us who are faculty members are well positioned to transform haphazard learning into a coherent education by virtue of our ability to craft coherent, relevant and dynamic curricula.
    MOOCs challenge those of us in higher education to craft such curricula, even if those curricula might include MOOCs themselves. So I am denying neither that a MOOC can be a valuable learning experience nor that it can be an important part of a curriculum. But when we unbundle courses from the curriculum into which they are integrated, like a song from an album, the education our students receive is impoverished.

  • There is a parallel conversation developing on Facebook as well. Here is the link:

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  • It took me several days to read it because I’d read it in snippets, leave to do something else, and then come back to it.

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  • I think there is a lot to talk about how the system should be for better learning. I personally think that students should be taught to become explorers, to become hungry for information themselves and of course to become competitive with themselves.

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