Education Opinion

Is a MOOC a Textbook or a Course?

By Justin Reich — May 19, 2013 4 min read
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What exactly is a MOOC? Like most interesting things in this world, the term avoids simple definition.

For instance, what constitutes a course? A particular body of knowledge to be delivered? Except maybe in the case of skill-based classes, like a writer’s workshop. A start and end date? Except maybe in the case of self-paced, on-demand online courses. Interactions between students and instructors? Except maybe in the case of entirely computer-mediated courses or older correspondence courses. Certification or recognition of completion? Except in courses that don’t offer them. A learning experience? That must be too broad, or sitting here reading this post would constitute a course.

If we can’t even define exactly what a course is, how can we possibly hope to provide a clear sense of what constitutes a Massive Open Online Course?

One thing that people then do, in the ambiguous space left by our inadequate ability to precisely define, is to use analogies. We define things by comparing them to other things.

In popular discourse of MOOCs, two dominant analogies seem to have emerged in making sense of MOOCs: MOOCs as textbooks and MOOCs as courses. Consider the open letter to Harvard professor Michael Sandel published by the San Jose State University Philosophy Department. The letter explains why the philosophy department refuses to pilot Sandel’s JusticeX course.

When trying to explain the threat that JusticeX poses to undergraduate education at San Jose State University and in public higher education more broadly, the philosophers describe JusticeX as a course: “When a university such as ours purchases a course from an outside vendor, the faculty cannot control the design or content of the course; therefore we cannot develop and teach content that fits with our overall curriculum and is based on both our highly developed and continuously renewed competence and our direct experience of our students’ needs and abilities.” Here the course is defined as whole and integral, an experience designed as a complete substitute, fixed in its boundaries and uneditable.

In other places, when explaining some of the inadequacies of MOOCs, the SJSU philosophers analogize JusticeX to a textbook: “In addition, purchasing a series of lectures does not provide anything over and above assigning a book to read.” Of course, to call a MOOC, “just a book” defangs the entity in a double-edged way. If it’s not much more useful than a book, then it shouldn’t be much more threatening than a book. The MOOC as textbook analogy is what Sandel adopts in response to the open letter, “My goal is simply to make an educational resource freely available--a resource that faculty colleagues should be free to us in whole or in part, or not at all, as they see fit.”

In pointing out this discrepancy, I’m not necessarily saying that the SJSU philosophers are being inconsistent. Reading between the lines, the fear is that JusticeX will be introduced by administrators as a textbook—modular, optional, supplementary and incomplete, but will later be used by administrators as a course—a complete substitute for the work of a faculty member and a fully acceptable learning experience for students.

Sandel also borrows from both analogies in his letter. Consider his conclusion: “The worry that the widespread use of online courses will damage departments in public universities facing budgetary pressures is a legitimate concern that deserves serious debate, at edX and throughout higher education. The last thing I want is for my online lectures to be used to undermine faculty colleagues at other institutions.” When describing the looming threat, Sandel discusses “online courses.” When shifting to discuss his own efforts, he returns to the less threatening “online lectures.”

Should professors at Harvard or other elite institutions produce “talking textbooks?” The answer there seems to me to be very simple: an unqualified yes. Universities produce knowledge, and they should produce knowledge accessible broadly to the public.

Should professors at Harvard create collections of educational experiences that could be used as a substitute for courses offered at other institutions, at the risk of undermining faculty at other institutions? As Sandel notes, that is a more complicated question and worthy of further debate. (A good place to start this further debate is with a recent post by Harry Lewis, former Dean of Harvard College, on Harvard’s ethical responsibilities here.) As these debates continue, it will be useful to track how people exploring this terrain frame the debate using analogies, metaphors, and other rhetorical tools.

As a final point, I should disclose here, that starting on June 3rd, I’ll begin a position as the Richard L. Menschel HarvardX Research Fellow, working for HarvardX from Harvard’s Office of the President and Provost. Certainly this appointment will shape my writing on the topic, though of course this space remains the preserve of my personal opinion. My hope, in both writing here and in accepting the position at Harvard, is to see if I can be of service in thinking about how emerging technologies can expand our collective capacity to create the kinds of rich, participatory, challenging, caring learning environments, similar to those that I have been very fortunate to enjoy in my own privileged life.

For regular updates, follow me on Twitter at @bjfr and for my publications, C.V., and online portfolio, visit EdTechResearcher.

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