Howdy, friends–Historiann here. I’m knee deep in research papers and final exams and have no time for posting, so thank goodness someone out there is writing for the non-peer reviewed world wide timewasting web. Today’s guest post is by two senior history professors who attended last week’s Annual Meeting of the American Council of Learned Societies: Susan Amussen, an early modern British historian in the School of Social Sciences, Humanities, and Arts at the University of California, Merced, and Allyson Poska, an early modern Spanish historian in the History and American Studies Department at the University of Mary Washington. They both attended the panel on MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), and came away wanting to talk about something thing no one in MOOC-world seems to want to talk about: power. So of course, they came to me and asked if they could talk to all of you.
Amussen and Poska ask a number of provocative questions: Why in spite of the hype do MOOCs appear to be merely a digitalized version of the “sage on the stage” style of lecturing familiar to those of us in the United States and Commonwealth countries 100 (and more) years ago? Why do MOOC-world advocates appear totally ignorant of feminist pedagogy, which disrupted this model of education going on 50 years ago? What does it say about MOOC-world’s vision of the future of higher education that the Lords of MOOC Creation are overwhelmingly white, male, and U.S. American professors at highly exclusive universities? (And for the Lords of MOOC Creation, is this a bug, or a feature? Friends, I’ll let you be the judges.)
MOOCs: Gender, Class and Empire
Much of the discussion of MOOCs has focused on (alternately) their promise of providing “the best teachers” to students around the world, and presenting cheap quality education to the masses; or the threat they pose to education, in replacing face to face contact with potted lectures, further deskilling and de-professionalizing those of us who teach at less elite universities. We want to argue that MOOCs raise broader questions than those usually mentioned. In the course of listening to a discussion of MOOCs at the recent meeting of the ACLS (American Council of Learned Societies), we realized that MOOCs must be analyzed in the context of the U.S. American discourse of gender, class, and empire.
One aspect of MOOCs is that the stars are (almost) all men. At one website only 9 of 56 History MOOCS were presented by women. Without a doubt, the model of the MOOC – of the authoritative talking head – is one that privileges cultural perceptions of men and male control over certain types of knowledge. The gendered nature of the hierarchy of knowledge transmission that takes place is clear in the MOOC model of education. Although “students” are invited to respond at different points, to a large extent, the presenter controls the topic, the vocabulary, and the trajectory of whatever “dialogue” might take place. In recent stories on MOOCs at Princeton and Harvard, the instructors (all men) are described by their reputation as charismatic teachers.
MOOCs have also created new excitement among the mostly male presenters about the possibilities of the flipped classroom. Of course, there is no pedagogical innovation happening here; feminist scholars have flipped the classroom for years. What is flipped is usually the use of class time, not authority. After all, a MOOC is centered on lectures, which are now given in front of a camera with no students present, thus denying any opportunity for response or interaction from the listener. The instructor remains the sole purveyor of information and the students remain the passive consumers; with pre-recorded lectures, the instructor controls the content even more than is usually case, and it is more difficult to adapt to individual student needs. Ostensibly, the time previously devoted to classroom lectures was now used for greater interaction with the students both in his classroom and around the world; however, such reallocation of time does not, in and of itself, alter the class hierarchy or the passive reception of knowledge by students. Ironically, it may even re-inscribe that hierarchy: most teachers, even when lecturing, engage with their students and will stop, go back, or re-examine an issue to ensure comprehension and to respond to student questions and challenges.
At the moment, the classism of the MOOCs is most clear in the central unexamined assumption – that the “best” teachers are at the “best” universities. Now, it is true that the most prominent scholars tend to teach at the most prominent universities, but the skills of teaching are widely distributed – and the difficult job market of the last thirty years has ensured that there are outstanding scholars at many colleges and universities around the country. Indeed, those who teach students who arrive at college or university with less preparation have often spent more time honing their pedagogical skills in order to engage their students and address the challenges that their diverse backgrounds, socio-economic levels, and intellectual strengths present. However, the high cost of developing MOOCS means that only faculty at America’s most elite universities have the opportunity to employ those technologies. The wealthy and powerful thus become the purveyors of knowledge and culture to those less privileged across America and around the world. MOOCs are not, in fact, cheap, but the money goes to technical staff at the elite university, rather than to instructors at less resourced ones.
The third aspect of MOOCs that has been less frequently observed is the imperialist nature of MOOCs: not only is expertise the province of white men at elite universities, it is the province of (mostly) white men at elite U. S. universities. Certainly, the rhetoric surrounding the expansion of MOOCs sounds uncomfortably akin to the enthusiasm of nineteenth-century missionaries who whole-heartedly believed that they were best positioned to bring both Christianity and Western culture to the rest of the world. Moreover, like missionaries of centuries past, the presenters of MOOCs seem to be blithely unaware of the broader cultural implications of their evangelization efforts. They do not acknowledge that, like the few eager converts who wandered into missionary compounds, there is a high degree of self-selection in the type of people of join their classes. They are, by nature, those who are attracted to both this type of provision of education and to Western (and American) viewpoints. Those involved in the globalization debate hem and haw about how McDonalds homogenizes foodways around the world, but the debates about MOOCs have (surprisingly) lacked any similar discussion about the homogenization of knowledge and perspective. While this might be less of an issue when the subject of the MOOC is a topic in computer programming, it can be quite serious when MOOCs turn their attention to the humanities and descriptive social sciences. For instance, to talk about World History from a U. S. perspective and present that view as a definitive narrative obscures the power relations between American scholars and scholars in the rest of the world, and makes it even more difficult to construct counter-narratives to American hegemony and Western dominance.
These dimensions of MOOCs, while rarely articulated, are important considerations for our universities as they consider how to join the bandwagon of mass teaching. Before we rush into the massive open classroom, we need to consider whether we want to be so closely connected to sexism, classism, and imperialism.
Right on! I might ask too that we consider who among us is really resisting change–is it those of us who are MOOC skeptics because we believe in the value of face-to-face teaching from diverse perspectives, or is it in fact the purveyors of and investors in MOOC-world who are selling a product that looks like the face of higher education in the nineteenth century? Furthermore, does anyone truly believe that the Lords of MOOC Creation would be thrilled to have their children and grandchildren enrolled in online universities with an inaccessible Professor Hologram to guide them and peers to evaluate their work? Say it in the comments below.