Peter Onuf on MOOCs

OnufPeter Onuf’s interview at The Junto blog struck a chord with me, and I want to use it to address some things that are implied in his remarks.

(Just to be clear, none of what follows is meant to disparage Onuf in any way. Although I don’t know him personally, I respect his scholarship and his position as the dean of Jeffersonian studies. His interview simply offered me the opportunity to address some attitudes toward MOOCs that continue to bother me.)

The first is Onuf’s identification of one of the oxymorons of MOOCs: lecture vs. interaction. On the one hand, he argues, “I think the performance level among academics is abysmally low, and that more people ought to develop lecturing skills that would merit being, you know, MOOC’ed.” Later, he suggests, “But let’s not make believe that having a bunch of lectures in the can is the sovereign solution to all of our problems in higher education today. My solution, having lots of seminar-tutorial contact, is very expensive, it’s labor-intensive.” And then, near the end, “That people will hold onto the idea that a lecture is some kind of sacred thing—that it’s the essence of our teaching and learning experience—that’s got to be nonsense! I mean, it’s not! And so we have to get over that.” Maybe it’s the structure of the interview, but it appears that he is saying grad students and junior faculty should learn to lecture better in order to contribute to MOOCs, which need to be more like seminars (a contradiction, to say the least).

The tension between lecturing vs. interaction is a major problem that MOOCs have so far failed to address in any meaningful way. Onuf admits that he stayed away from the discussion boards because “it’s embarrassing—it’s about me.” I can imagine that anyone would feel that way, but for a student in a face-to-face course, interaction with the professor is crucial. How much more so for a MOOC, where you are one of hundreds, thousands, or tens of thousands? If a student truly wanted to receive the full benefit of the course, s/he would need to have access to the professor. It’s one thing to lecture, even lecture well–it’s quite another to lead discussions, answer questions, moderate debates, and hold office hours. MOOCs seem inadequate for all of those necessities of a quality education. (For opposing views on peer evaluation, the backbone of MOOC “interaction,” read Jonathan Rees* and Ben Wiggins).

That brings me to the second point about Onuf’s post. He alludes to the threat that MOOCs pose to future professors, including his own grad students. The reality is, MOOCs, as they are conceived by venture capitalists and administrators, are meant to be taught, not by junior faculty who have great performance skills, but by the faculty Rees calls “superprofessors.” In his post, “Every Man His Own Superprofessor,” Rees notes,

what happens to the professors who get left behind? Every man cannot be their own super professor. The world will run out of students first. And as online classes get scaled up and MOOCs get scaled down, all the rest of us will be left as ministers without portfolios.

(See also Rees’ post on the ways in which superprofessors undermine the rest of academia.)

The point is that esteemed history faculty such as Onuf, Jeremy Adelman, and others have the name recognition and the elite-university appointments and resources to produce either full-blown or “boutique” MOOCs. Their jobs are not at stake, either because of where they hold their appointment or, in Onuf’s case, because he is retired.

Most of us don’t have that luxury. We teach at institutions that depend on declining enrollment and languishing endowments to keep the doors open and maintain current faculty lines. Our institutions don’t have the resources to develop a MOOC, which, by Onuf’s estimation, cost at least $100,000 for a short course. Many of us also don’t have the job security that Onuf et al. possess/ed, either because we are adjuncts, we work at institutions without tenure, or our jobs are dependent on financial factors beyond our control. Add to those circumstances the very real threat to future academic employment posed by MOOCs as currently conceived, and it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to see them as anything other than a threat to higher education.

One last point, which seems appropos given Onuf’s Jeffersonian bent: how do MOOCs benefit the less powerful in a democratic society? Historiann had a guest post on this last May, which is worth reading in its entirety for its examination of the ways in which MOOCs contain assumptions about women, racial and ethnic minorities, and the economically disadvantaged. And lest you think this is hyperbole, consider the comment of Daphne Koller, cofounder and co-CEO of MOOC-provider Coursera, last year:

We’re moving into a world where knowledge, base content, is a commodity, which allows anyone who is smart and motivated and passionate to make something of themselves and open doors to opportunity. But at the same time, the much deeper cognitive skills that are taught in the face-to-face interaction—they’re still going to be a differentiator. The best place to acquire those is by coming and getting an education at the best universities.

I happen to like Onuf’s approach to the Jefferson MOOC. He saw it as a way to target adults interested in learning more about Jefferson, not as a replacement for a course on Jefferson. That type of MOOC is a great idea and would require the performance skills that he notes are important. I also agree with his view that historians should be engaging not just each other or our students but the public as well.

The problem, of course, is that Onuf’s situation is not the norm. Administrators don’t want to focus on “boutique” MOOCs–they want MOOCs that will allow them to cut labor costs and increase tuition revenue, all to the detriment of the vast majority of faculty. For all of their rhetoric about democratizing education and saving the world, venture capitalists are interested in making money and/or exercising power, the cost to faculty be damned. That’s what is really at stake.

Fortunately, the MOOC revolution appears to be losing steam, so Luddites like me, who use social media to interact with the public, students, and the profession and instructional technology to help bring knowledge into the classroom, appear to be winning.

* If you haven’t read Rees’ blog, you should. He has been the most consistent faculty advocate, and he provides lots of links to other voices, both pro-MOOC and anti-MOOC.

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14 Replies to “Peter Onuf on MOOCs”

  1. I took this MOOC. I liked Peter Onuf’s lectures. However, as an educator working in a community college as a history instructor and working on my Ed.D in College Teaching and Learning, there is no question in my mind that MOOCs fail on multiple levels when it comes to actual student learning. Students need interaction. I have taught both online and ground courses. I question students and not just my own on what they need in any course. The number one desire they have is interaction with the instructor.

    When you ask students what their biggest problem is with an online course, the percentage saying instructor interaction jumps even higher. MOOCs have next to no instructor interaction. That is where they save money, but yet that is their greatest failure. Students need guidance and feedback in order to help them learn. They do not get that with a MOOC.

    What we as instructors are supposed to be doing is getting our students to learn. MOOCs are a complete failure in that regard. I had about 15 other people sign up with me to take that MOOC. All were from a history society at a university. Some had MAs, some were working on a MA, and some were near the end of their BA. I am the only one who finished the course. These things have a horrible completion rate.

    The forums were ridiculous. I saw no feedback from the instructor or any assistant. Discussions wandered all over and no one was there to provide guidance or make corrections to erroneous opinions. The forums take the place of the student/teacher interaction for the most part in online teaching. If there is no interaction, there is next to no learning.

    In the end, all this MOOC did was convey some of what Peter Onuf thought about Thomas Jefferson to us. It was in no way the equal of any college credit whatsoever even with his excellent lectures. If any administrator thinks for a second these things will replace instructors then those people need to be thrown out of higher ed…make that all kinds of education at any level. They want a shortcut, a cheap way to educate students. It does not exist. There is no substitute for a trained teacher and their interaction with students in creating a learning environment.

  2. Thanks for a great post! I think you are onto something about the lecture vs. interaction. I often chafe at the characterization of lectures as solely content delivery. They DO deliver content, without a doubt, but the best lecturers are the ones who ALSO essay an argument to students, demonstrating historical thinking and (if they are good, IMHO) provide students something to interrogate. Picking apart a lecture in the discussion and question and answers can be done at many levels, and perhaps in a MOOC, but I think students learn more and become more empowered learners when they can devise evidence-based counterarguments — often with the evidence that I, the professor, provide — to challenge the arguments I make.

    It all comes back to the fact that we need to “sell” the skills that students get from humanities courses. They need to be able to recognize when they are being handed an argument and not straight “fact,” and to think about whether or not the agree with it, and what evidence they would use to contradict, clarify, add to, or otherwise engage with ideas. Does a MOOC deliver these intangibles? The jury is out, I think.

    1. I think a lot of people still think of lecturing as someone standing there and talking for the entire length of the class period. I had those types of professors, but most professors who lectured had some type of interaction with the students. Even though I’ve tried to move away from lecturing more, I still stop periodically in a lecture and challenge students with questions or ask them to analyze text or images. None of that is possible in a MOOC, which, as Michael noted earlier, are more comparable to a textbook than anything.

  3. Thanks so much for this insightful response, Mark–precisely the type of conversation I was hoping to prod on by getting Onuf to sit down for an interview.

    I think you’re right to point to the contradictions in his statements about performance and classroom interaction. I took away a few things from his comments in that vein, which seem to add up to a pretty ambivalent stance about the current state of things plus a willingness to experiment. He’s clearly firm on the point that if you’re going to lecture, you should lecture well. And he seems convinced that lecturing via MOOC is a good way to reach the general audience that, for example, so many of our books strive for but rarely obtain. So I think he’s glad to have had the opportunity to do this thing as a kind of capstone to his lecturing career.

    But on the other hand, he also seems pretty unconvinced of the actual pedagogical utility of lecturing in the context of non-MOOC higher ed. Having been an undergrad much more recently, I’m not sure I agree–but then again, nerds probably aren’t the best judges on that question. It almost seems he’d be okay eliminating lecturing from higher ed. altogether–or at least giving it far less curricular and pedagogical weight. So I don’t think he wants to make MOOCs more like seminars (and my apologies for any unclarity introduced by the structure of the interview). But I do think he’d be glad to move away from the lecture/discussion-section model of most college courses, sub in a really vast array of MOOC lectures delivered by experts at all levels (produced with who knows what money), paired with on-campus tutorials and seminar discussions. Seems eerily similar–minus the malicious vocabulary (and malicious intent?)–to the vision sketched in Koller’s comment.

    That said, if you strip Koller’s attempt to declare knowledge a “commodity,” if you drop the elitism and exclusion inherent in her ideas about “differentiators,” and if you replace “the best universities” with just “universities,” then I’m not sure it’s a terrible outcome. Who wouldn’t want to lecture better but less, and spend more time with students in the seminar room rather than only nominally face-to-face behind a lectern? A system like that, *properly funded,* might even combat rather than exacerbate unequal access to–and, more especially, outcomes of–higher education. But there’s the rub.

    1. One problem I see, Michael, is that professors at non-MOOC-producing become glorified teaching assistants. Or maybe not even glorified–simply teaching assistants, with universities paying them the abysmal rates that TAs typically receive (or did when I was one).

      Another problem for me is that I lose control over what is covered in the course. Right now, I choose what we discuss, read, analyze, etc. With the system you described, what happens to that autonomy? It disappears, maybe not completely, but to a large extent.

      MOOCs have their own inherent problems of assessment and engagement, but the larger issues are with the institutional administrations that see them as a solution to the problem of compensating faculty. And, yes, I do believe that many university administrators see faculty compensation as a problem that needs a solution.

      1. In terms of pedagogy and autonomy, I’m not sure I entirely share your fears about what that kind of system would look like, Mark; I think in that case the MOOC lectures would serve roughly the same purpose as a course textbook–and probably would do so more effectively, given what it takes to hold the attention of The Youths of Today. As for your concerns about administrators, casualization of labor, and compensation, though: absolutely, I share them.

  4. Great reflections, and important points for discussion. My fear is this – even if we like Onuf’s approach to how he designed the course (and I agree he’s marked it out as different from regular courses), is that something that the university should be spending $100k on? Will he be running it again? Will he get paid the same amount next time? Will his graduate student?

    I’d pay money to see Onuf give a series of lectures on Jefferson (I was lucky enough to be at Oxford when he was Harmsworth Professor and have learned an enormous amount about early American history from him). But this isn’t the same as a university course, and the expense of the MOOC compared to the broader mission of the university troubles me.

    1. That’s a great point, Ken. I suspect $100K at UVA isn’t that much, but for us, it would be a significant amount of our annual university budget. Regardless, whether it be better spent elsewhere is a good question.

  5. “Maybe it’s the structure of the interview, but it appears that he is saying grad students and junior faculty should learn to lecture better in order to contribute to MOOCs, which need to be more like seminars (a contradiction, to say the least).”

    Mark, I read this as implying that perhaps university courses should rely less on lecturing. By doing that, you could more clearly delineate between in-person courses and MOOCs and, hence, argue more forcefully for the continuing relevance and importance of the former. And that differentiation, I think, speaks to your two subsequent points. Onuf seems to me to be talking specifically about MOOCs aimed at a general audience, not those designed to be courses for undergraduate credits. Yes, the former are more likely to be done by those with resources, but he’s arguing that junior scholars should also be involved in this form of public outreach. Correct me if I’m wrong, but when he said the solution is more seminar-tutorial contact, he was referring to improving classroom-based courses not MOOCs. Finally, you’re absolutely right that universities are more interested in MOOCs as replacements for classroom-based courses, but I think you’re also right that the momentum for that appears to be dissipating.

    1. I’ll admit that your reading of his comments on lecturing may be more accurate than mine.

      Regarding MOOCs aimed at undergrads vs. those aimed at the public, the problem lies with administrators, who may have a different outcome in mind from that envisioned by the professor delivering the MOOC.

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