Initial Reflections on MOOCs and the College Curriculum

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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:

http://www.diigo.com/user/cplong/MOOC

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.

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