MOOC is, let’s face it, an ugly acronym. As almost everyone in the world of higher education learned this past academic year, it stands for Massive Open Online Course.
Despite its inelegance, the word has gained a life of its own — a (not always positive) conjuring power on the lips of pundits, administrators, and activists. The MOOCs are coming! They’re threatening to pillage the faculty club, or promising to liberate our students from non-superstar local faculty (who in her right mind could bear to take a course on Justice not taught by Michael Sandel?), or giving everyone the tools to do more interesting things in the classroom, thereby increasing the efficiency of university instruction. It depends who you ask.
The Rise of the MOOC has become an occasion for the continuation of a far larger, in my view more important debate: about the future of affordable, high-quality public education, the imperiled working conditions of faculty, the unhappy job prospects of graduate students and contingent labor, and the purpose of higher education in a winner-take-all market economy, (not to mention the justification for the massive debt students take on to acquire this education).
The Los Angeles Review of Books has just posted two parts of a roundtable on MOOCs and the humanities (part one is here and part two is here), featuring thoughtful contributions by Al Filreis, Cathy Davidson, Ray Schroeder, and Ian Bogost. (It includes a brief introduction by Yours Truly.)
Our goal in organizing the debate was to focus special attention on how MOOCs — and online learning more broadly — might affect the humanities. What special opportunities or problems arise in online classes that teach literature, the arts, or other humanistic subjects? How should we understand the forces that are pushing for the rapid adoption of MOOCs? Are MOOCs in any serious sense a "tsunami” or a perfectly ordinary, practically dull question, easily addressed by thoughtful faculty governance? What relation, if any, can we discern between particular online classes and the what Aaron Bady has called “the MOOC phenomenon.” How might online teaching democratize knowledge or commodify it?
We’ve already succeeded in drawing interesting comments, including a number from David Palumbo-Liu (who is going to be offering a collaborative course with Cathy Davidson at Duke). I invite you to visit the LARB’s site, to contribute to the debate, or to comment here.