The annual Computing Research Association conference is taking place this week at Snowbird in Utah, and one of today's plenaries is about online eduction and Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs). Reading the description of the session, I noticed two common positions on MOOCs that I think are rhetorically effective yet misleading.
The "massive" numbers of "students"
Citing enormous enrollment numbers against very small numbers of instructors and instructional support personnel is a common way to justify the promise of MOOCs ("Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs) with 100,000+ students" is the line in the Snowbird session description). Yet, we also know that these courses also exhibit very high attrition rates, possibly as high as 97%.
Proponents argue that this doesn't really matter, that even a student who enrolls in such a course and simply learns something about the area is benefitting in some way. This is probably true, but such a feat can be accomplished in any number of ways, from blogs to books to lectures to "ordinary" web videos. There's something "massive" going on, perhaps, but let's be clear about what it is. If it's publicity for more traditional courses of study, even in the very long-term, so be it. If it's the size of the potential audience for such longitudinal messages, so be it.
Likewise, to call the participants "students" suggests that something akin to learning is going on for all of them. But that doesn't seem to be the case, at least not yet. They're more like potential students, or would-be students, or interested bystanders, or, at worst, just the people who filled out a sign-up form. In ordinary web-service businesses, they're called "users," and it's interesting to note that MOOC proponents have so carefully avoided that sort of dehumanizing, instrumentalist language.
In any case, to call the participants involved "massive" numbers of "students" is misleading. Would you call an interstitial web ad for a new car a "massive online open road?" Probably not.
The "flipped classroom"
Another common adage in MOOC mania is the idea of a "flipped classroom." The idea is that MOOCs allow an instructor to assign the lectures as homework, making more involved discussion and hands-on work possible in the classroom.
The hilarious irony of this position has gone largely unnoticed: this is exactly how the "traditional" classroom is supposed to work. Students partake of materials outside of class, often readings but also other materials, and then spend time in class getting clarification, partaking of discussions, and so forth. Of course, nobody does the readings, and the assignments are often completed only to meet the letter of having completed them.
Why should this be any different just because the homework comes in the form of web videos instead of ink on paper? Sure, we can have a discussion about learning styles or the preference for online media, or whatever, but at the end of the day, there's nothing flipped about the MOOC classroom at all; it's just overloaded the primary materials that once comprised homework into the lectures, which are then compressed again into homework. As Will Oremus has argued, MOOCs are more like a proposed replacement for textbooks. Such a gesture might be welcome in general, and in any case necessary to make the material palatable to a very large audience (one unmotivated to read long or dense material on a topic they may only have a curiosity about), but to present such an act as some kind of massive reinvention of the classroom is presumptuous. If the lecture was such a bad format in the industrial age, why does it suddenly get celebrated once digitized and streamed into a web browser in the information age?
The answer might be as simple as novelty. And chasing novelty remains the commonest qualm among MOOC-skeptics. After all, most of the purported innovations of current Silicon Valley technolibertarianism involve keeping us all distracted long enough to flip our aggregate attention value into financial instruments. MOOCs will be no exception. In fact, if we want to talk about flipping the classroom or reinterpreting the role of students, we'd do well to acknowledge the likeliest secret future name for MOOC participants: the product of MOOC startups.