The annual Computing Research Association conference is taking place this week at Snowbird in Utah, and one of today’s plenaries is about online eduction and Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs). Reading the description of the session, I noticed two common positions on MOOCs that I think are rhetorically effective yet misleading.

The “massive” numbers of “students”

Citing enormous enrollment numbers against very small numbers of instructors and instructional support personnel is a common way to justify the promise of MOOCs (“Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs) with 100,000+ students” is the line in the Snowbird session description). Yet, we also know that these courses also exhibit very high attrition rates, possibly as high as 97%.

Proponents argue that this doesn’t really matter, that even a student who enrolls in such a course and simply learns something about the area is benefitting in some way. This is probably true, but such a feat can be accomplished in any number of ways, from blogs to books to lectures to “ordinary” web videos. There’s something “massive” going on, perhaps, but let’s be clear about what it is. If it’s publicity for more traditional courses of study, even in the very long-term, so be it. If it’s the size of the potential audience for such longitudinal messages, so be it.

Likewise, to call the participants “students” suggests that something akin to learning is going on for all of them. But that doesn’t seem to be the case, at least not yet. They’re more like potential students, or would-be students, or interested bystanders, or, at worst, just the people who filled out a sign-up form. In ordinary web-service businesses, they’re called “users,” and it’s interesting to note that MOOC proponents have so carefully avoided that sort of dehumanizing, instrumentalist language.

In any case, to call the participants involved “massive” numbers of “students” is misleading. Would you call an interstitial web ad for a new car a “massive online open road?” Probably not.

The “flipped classroom”

Another common adage in MOOC mania is the idea of a “flipped classroom.” The idea is that MOOCs allow an instructor to assign the lectures as homework, making more involved discussion and hands-on work possible in the classroom.

The hilarious irony of this position has gone largely unnoticed: this is exactly how the “traditional” classroom is supposed to work. Students partake of materials outside of class, often readings but also other materials, and then spend time in class getting clarification, partaking of discussions, and so forth. Of course, nobody does the readings, and the assignments are often completed only to meet the letter of having completed them.

Why should this be any different just because the homework comes in the form of web videos instead of ink on paper? Sure, we can have a discussion about learning styles or the preference for online media, or whatever, but at the end of the day, there’s nothing flipped about the MOOC classroom at all; it’s just overloaded the primary materials that once comprised homework into the lectures, which are then compressed again into homework. As Will Oremus has argued, MOOCs are more like a proposed replacement for textbooks. Such a gesture might be welcome in general, and in any case necessary to make the material palatable to a very large audience (one unmotivated to read long or dense material on a topic they may only have a curiosity about), but to present such an act as some kind of massive reinvention of the classroom is presumptuous. If the lecture was such a bad format in the industrial age, why does it suddenly get celebrated once digitized and streamed into a web browser in the information age?

The answer might be as simple as novelty. And chasing novelty remains the commonest qualm among MOOC-skeptics. After all, most of the purported innovations of current Silicon Valley technolibertarianism involve keeping us all distracted long enough to flip our aggregate attention value into financial instruments. MOOCs will be no exception. In fact, if we want to talk about flipping the classroom or reinterpreting the role of students, we’d do well to acknowledge the likeliest secret future name for MOOC participants: the product of MOOC startups.

published July 23, 2012


  1. Margaret Weigel

    Thank you for pointing out the irony of the ‘new’ flipped classroom approach. I also agree that no matter what form it takes — video, blog, whatever — homework is homework. It’s difficult to coax many educators from the dominant consumption model of education of reading books, and now watching videos. Tasks are still assigned primarily to individuals to complete alone, though the notion of working in isolation is challenged through all the digital networks a student has access to, from asking classmates to finding the answers online.

  2. Erdogan Sima

    To say the least, the MOOC phenomenon deserves an effective criticism, as opposed to a take down of some of its brand elements. This is not to deny a certain Borat effect is already attributed to â??massiveâ?, â??onlineâ?, â??openâ? & â??courseâ?. But no standalone semiotics of these terms could help to explain the actual lure of MOOCs. A demonstration that â??it is not what it says it isâ? is equally ineffective. Itâ??s not any more effective than questioning the â??open happinessâ? slogan in an attempt to undermine the market position of one particular carbonated drink. The lure, or â??maniaâ? as you say, is rather â??user-generatedâ?, and arguably it has to do more with the societal discourse at-large than a smug rhetoric bundled with a brand name. By the way the real unis are rushing in to link up with the unreal ones I think itâ??s safe to say that theyâ??re both subject to the same discursive framework. Letâ??s call it â??prestige tradeâ?. What the MOOCs are offering is incomparably worse than the good old higher education, and they are not real universities. Yet, they partake in the same set of assumptions as the really-existing universities. As they operate from inside the same economy of prestige, itâ??s not surprising to see them both converge towards an unforeseeable kind of â??educationalâ? model in a foreseeable race to the bottom. So hereâ??s the deal: MOOCs could be seen either as anomalous or as symptomatic of our times, and criticized as to its underlying assumptions. That we can easily shake off their promotional rhetoric should not obscure that we are cornered by the discourse that makes the MOOC phenomenon possible in the first place.

  3. Gilbert

    I suspect that potential is a strong factor for interest as well. It seems a lot of the interest is in the potential of MOOCs to be something more than they are right now. So the novelty is critical for creating a perception of not just progress or improvement, but more importantly of revolution and ‘disruption.’

    Perhaps there is a parallel with your comments on kickstarter.

  4. Colin

    One of the things that I think actually is “flipped” about the MOOC is the amount of organic growth and teaching that happens among students for some courses in discussion boards / comment areas.

    I’m not saying you’re entirely wrong by any means, but my point is that now extended learning beyond the initial presentation is better documented and grows. There’s plenty of times I remember not raising my hand in college for worry about being an idiot and opted to either figure it out later or poke someone next to me.

    One of the things that IS really powerful about MOOCs is not something that’s exclusive to them. It’s the ability to have students help teach each other. I noticed this in a programming course. Programming can be a bit of a pain when it comes down to an errant apostrophe or misplaced semicolon, but having stronger students helping solve problems was a pretty powerful thing to see.

    You’d also see a lot more discussion breaking off. Given, that’s not in a computer science course, but reading through what people were talking about in history or philosophy classes was really fun.

    Just a thought.. they’re not the second coming but they’re valuable, even if that means people are getting more educated little by little.

    Last thing: nit-picking over calling them students makes you seem overly critical and came off as annoying.