MOOCs and the Humanities

Watchmen ClockSo, there’s a lot of fuss about online and “flexible” learning, MOOCs, and the like these days. My posts on Eric Mazur and Coursera have drawn a fair amount of traffic to this otherwise rather neglected and sporadically updated blog. Welcome, new readers.

Another post on my blog

Let me make a couple of points clear:

1) I am not against technology, least of all online technology, in education. If anything I’m an early adopter. I’ve been using blogs in my courses for as long as I can remember. I was one of the first to use Wikipedia, in a rather successful project on the Latin American Dictator Novel. Indeed, a commenter over at “More or Less Bunk” very kindly said “The touchstone here is Jon Beasley-Murray’s Murder, Madness, and Mayhem class. In terms of exploiting the pedagogical potential of the web, nothing else even comes close.” He or she continues:

But MM&M did not turn Beasley-Murray into a global celebrity, nor has it inflamed the hearts of neoliberal university trustees–for the simple reason that, unlike the MOOC, it doesn’t feed into the techno-utopian fantasy of automating higher education and driving its price to zero.

Indeed. It is not technology that is at issue or at fault here. It is the shallow, decontextualized, and unthinking way in which it is presented and equally thoughtlessly lapped up by an institution that has apparently lost its way.

2) I’m not even particularly against MOOCs. In fact, I’m so not against MOOCs that I have spent much of this past year helping to start something that may turn out to be something of a DIY, home-grown MOOC. We’re calling it Arts One Digital.

But the challenge in all my experiments with technology in the classroom, and perhaps above all with Arts One Digital, is how to use it effectively in the Arts and Humanities.

Here at my institution, at least, the discussion (such as it is) about flexible learning and MOOCs has been dominated by the sciences. For instance, at the Coursera event, not one of the contributors to the debate came from the Arts or Humanities: not Koller herself, not the panel (which was chaired by the Dean of Sciences), not the introduction (by the Provost, a Chemist). All the questions from the floor were also by scientists, bar one from a member of the Faculty of Education (who asked about Coursera’s business model; subsequent discussion was quickly shut down). Concluding remarks came from a Vice President who is in the Arts, but an Economist (that “dismal science”). Even so, quite bizarrely, at one point the moderator felt the need to “put in a word for the sciences”! Yet most people I know in the Humanities weren’t even aware of the event, or the subsequent talk by Eric Mazur (a Physicist), introduced by the Academic Director of the Centre for Teaching and Learning Technology (also a Physicist).

Perhaps the oddest thing is that the Faculty of Education itself is barely present and certainly not officially represented on my university’s Flexible Learning Leadership Team or its Implementation Team (which comprises an Economist, a Physicist, a Zoologist, a Management Consultant, a Geologist, and yet another Management Consultant). If I were a member of that Faculty, I would be livid at the lack of faith the university places in the people it pays to be its experts on education. It’s astonishing. This strange marginalization of the real experts explains in part the shallowness of the thinking and knowledge on pedagogy that is repeatedly on display. At the end of the video of his talk, as he is taking off his microphone, you can hear Eric Mazur turning to the session chair and asking him if he had ever heard of Paulo Freire’s classic text, Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Sadly, we don’t hear the chair’s response.

What are the consequences of this sidelining of the Arts and Humanities? This has been discussed at length elsewhere, but I want to note a couple of points…

1) The model for online student learning and assessment is almost completely derived from the Sciences, particularly its dependence on multiple-choice tests. This has been perhaps the focus of critique of MOOCs from the Humanities, but it’s obvious enough that the kinds of thinking and response expected in the Humanities is very poorly assessed by multiple choice. There are alternatives, particularly peer grading, but these bring with them their own problems as anyone who has ever incorporated peer feedback into a Humanities course knows.

2) The model for conventional teaching practice is likewise completely derived from the Sciences, particularly its dependence on lectures. I was surprised by Mazur’s contention that we are subject to the “tyranny of the lecture” as though that were the only medium of instruction in the contemporary university. In my nine years at my current job, I have only ever given four formal lectures–all of which, incidentally, I gave in the past year. At least in my corner of the Humanities, we teach almost exclusively in a seminar format (and I never use a textbook). This doesn’t mean that my classes are tiny–this is a large state institution, and numbers range from about 15 to 50. My general rule of thumb for a seminar is that if the professor talks for more than ten minutes consecutively at any one time, then something is going wrong. I do break this rule, sometimes deliberately and sometimes because something is indeed going wrong. But I bear it in mind constantly. If that’s a “flipped classroom,” we have it already.

3) The model for the course curriculum is also, in turn, completely derived from the Sciences, particularly its basic continuity from year to year. My eyebrows were raised at Koller’s contention that lecturing was “easy” because all you do is dust down last year’s notes. Of the four lectures I have given at UBC, none had been given before; and I don’t expect ever to give them again. This is in large part precisely why I wanted them to be recorded and put on line. (See me lecture on Robinson Crusoe here and here. You won’t have another chance!) More generally (and I recognize that I may be slightly unusual here), I very seldom teach the same course twice, and when I do I try to avoid if at all possible setting the same texts again. The range of what I am paid to teach–generally, Latin American literature and culture–is so wide that I feel I should try to do as much justice as I can to that breadth and diversity. Equally importantly, I do not want to be stuck teaching (say) Gabriel García Márquez and Isabel Allende for the rest of my days. Even when I return to García Márquez, for instance, we’ll read a different one of his novels every year.

All of this is in addition to the fact that, when the Arts and Humanities are left out as they have been, almost all sense of history, politics, and culture is also elided. This is not to say that Science is apolitical (far from it) or that scientists are not political animals. It is merely to point out that some of us in the Arts and Humanities are paid (by the university) to teach and think about issues such as the history of education and educational reform, the politics of the institution and previous missions civilisatrices, and/or the cultural differences that a company such as Coursera wants so blandly to homogenize. So, for instance, I am paid to know a little about Latin America, which is why Koller’s unthinking condescension about Peru and Peruvians jumped out at me. But there are many other voices missing from the debate–so much so that it is barely even a debate, as any dissent is stifled in the name of efficiency and in the face of bewildered enthusiasm for what is (supposedly) new and shiny.

The Arts and Humanities should have a vital role, critical and self-reflexive, that would complicate current discussion of technology in the classroom, and more broadly enhance our understanding of the university’s many challenges and possibilities in a global, wired world. But what we get instead is kneejerk enthusiasm and self-defeating short-termism. This is not the fault of the Sciences themselves–they should clearly and obviously be part of the conversation, too. It is, rather, the fault of an administration and senior management that has for some reason lost faith in its own mission and its own values, and in the people that it itself employs to think about and even question that mission and those values.