On June 14-15, 2013, the LA Review of Books hosted a two-part roundtable on Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCS). Participants included me, Cathy N. Davidson, Al Filreis, and Ray Schroeder. Below is my contribution to part two, which included responses to the statements in part one (which you can find here; this response won’t make much sense unless you read the part one contributions first). Please visit the LARB website to read all contributions in both parts, and to participate in the discussion.

Discussions of polarizing topics tend to degrade into a caricature of deductive validity. “There are problems with X” elides into “All X are wicked” and thus elicits a response like “Here’s an X that’s not wicked! QED, sucker!” The fact that charged subjects are often discussed on the internet—hardly some great stronghold for calm reason and measured pause—certainly doesn’t help matters. And when the touchy subject also involves the internet and technology, well, that doesn’t help either.

Even if this conversation on MOOCs has remained refreshingly free of erroneous dualism, its shadow still looms over us. For example, Al Filreis offered an inspiring account of his work teaching a modern poetry MOOC, and Ray Schroeder related stories of his globally distributed students making work groups in wi-fi-enabled fast food joints. Filreis and Schroeder stop well short of making hasty generalizations or no-true-Scotsman claims about MOOCs—but that’s largely because they make no general claims whatsoever. If I had to summarize the common, implied conclusion in their contributions to the first round of this discussion, it would go something like this: “Our MOOCs seem like positive and gratifying contributions to humanities education, so MOOCs can’t be all bad.”

Even though they don’t do so explicitly, Filreis and Schroeder implicitly invoke the don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater demurral. They offer two seemingly virtuous, humanistically appealing examples of MOOCs as evidence that the entire enterprise of MOOCdom ought not be dismissed wholesale.

The problem with babies and bathwater is that they are metaphors. In the usual sense, this expression admits that the presumably spent, dirty bathwater might need to go, but not with such zeal that the baby therein meet a similar fate. But it also works in reverse: we can have such zeal or blindness for whatever issue is metaphorically related to the bath as a whole that we'd sooner throw out the baby and keep the bathwater than admit that the two might not be so easily separated. Put more plainly, MOOCs can be virtuous and innocuous and deplorable all at once, because they operate on multiple registers.

Cathy Davidson makes a similar case for an exceptional use of MOOCs, even if hers takes a quite different form from those of Filreis and Schroeder. Davidson rehearses her ongoing (and much needed) critique of a method of schooling invented for industrialization and laments the lack of affordable access to education. And, unlike Filreis and Schroeder, she openly admits that “MOOCs aren’t the answer” to these problems.

Yet Davidson doesn’t address the evidence suggesting that MOOCs may actually exacerbate such problems. For example, they reproduce rather than reform the lecture-based model Davidson laments; they are primarily pursued by students who have already completed the higher education to which Davidson wants to increase access; and they are overwhelmingly populated by white, male students whose privilege already helps them evade the downsides of low-contact learning situations.

Given these apparently fundamental incompatibilities, Davidson justifies her plans to teach a MOOC because she intends to go meta on it. She hopes her massive course “The History and Future of Higher Education” will unearth better approaches to future learning for those students excluded from higher education. Such an effort will probably produce interesting observations. But I can’t help but wonder if the excluded students Davidson hopes to help wouldn’t rather have access to affordable (even if “Taylorist”) state education instead of the opportunity to phone-in to an extravagant “storyboarding” session hosted by an immensely wealthy private university, some of whose faculty have told me that they “didn’t even register” the post-2008 financial apocalypse that forged the final nail in the coffin of educational access in the United States in particular.

Increasingly, I have the sense that many endorsements of MOOCs exemplify the politician’s syllogism, which goes like this:

1.  We must do something.
2.  This is something.
3.  Therefore, we must do this.

The Silicon Valley solutionist version of the politician’s syllogism assumes that the “something” of premise one is a problem addressable by technological change, and that the “something” of premise two is a technological solution. Such is one of the ways MOOCs are often presented.

When one refuses to accept this position at face value, it’s common to endure a response that rejects the validity of all concern: well, what’s your solution, then? No critique is deemed valid without a complete alternative program. Davidson is sensitive to this criticism, and her approach emphasizes her interest in defining such an alternative. But a valid response to a solutionist proposal may also involve rejecting the desirability of a particular solution, or observing that the problem it hopes to solve isn’t actually a problem in the first place. If MOOCs are necessarily bound up with an endorsement of increased austerity, privatization, and elitist exclusivity, then those features cannot simply be short-circuited by the isolated acts of well-intentioned agents.

I am not particularly interested in whether MOOCs are “good” or “bad” educational apparatuses, nor whether individual “positive” examples of the uses of MOOCs can be found to disprove wholesale rejections for the form. Rather, I’m interested in what MOOCs generally speaking do to the educational, technological, cultural, social, and economic landscape: in how they function at large. Individual examples of MOOCs illuminate a part of that picture, but not the whole of it. That whole picture is complex; MOOCs may function on many registers all at once, with interdependencies in-between. But, overall, MOOCs seem to function first and most powerfully as new instruments of fiscal and labor policy, rather than as educational technologies. It’s perhaps time we stopped talking about their value as instruments of learning, and started talking more about what choices they are making on our behalf while we are arguing on the internet about their educational potential.

published June 15, 2013