Understanding What Has Been Understood: Arts Agrees to MOOC “Games”?

This is how the item of greatest interest at last Thursday’s meeting of the Arts Faculty Council at the University of Alberta appeared on the agenda:

The agenda item suggested (to this reader, at any rate) that Arts Council was to be a forum for a discussion of the particular concerns that arise for the Faculty of Arts in relation to the University’s signing of a Memorandum of Understanding with Udacity last month. It also seemed that this was to be a discussion coming before the Faculty took any positions or decisions in regard to MOOCs. But as it turned out item 5 on the agenda was in fact a news item: Professor Sean Gouglas (Humanities Computing/Department of History and Classics) was there to announce that of 5 pilot MOOCs that are to be developed in light of the signing of the MOU with Udacity one of them is to hail from Arts. The Dean rushed to add that there is no guarantee that these courses will all actually in the end be hosted as Udacity courses, as Udacity’s standards are, we were told, very high. But the course that Professor Gouglas is developing as a prospective Udacity course from the Faculty of Arts is “The History of Computer Games.”

Arts has reached the decision to offer this prospective MOOC as a matter of a conversation between the Dean of Science and the Dean of Arts, and the significance of the understanding that has been reached between them was downplayed. At her Town Hall at 16 November 2012, University President Indira Samarasekera suggested that there wasn’t really anything new about MOOCs. Online learning has already existed in other forms for some time; MOOCs are just the latest incarnation of this phenomenon. We heard pretty much the same thing at Arts Council. You think a Trojan Horse is slipping in through the gate? Not to worry: it’s really just an old donkey with a new saddle and bridle.

At the same time, Professor Gouglas used the already hackneyed metaphor that what confronts us, in MOOCs, is a “tidal wave” whose force we cannot deny and cannot refuse. The question of whether the Faculty of Arts at the University of Alberta will be MOOCing having already, startlingly, been settled, it was time, we heard, for us to consider subsidiary questions.

Prominent among these: How can machine learning help us develop evaluative techniques that would get us around the small problem that in Arts we ask students to think critically and to express their critical thought in written forms that machines may not be able to grade? (Again, not to worry: computer scientists, we were told, like solving problems of this kind.) 

It was however noted that some difficulties might arise around the question of on what basis students might have to pay for the courses.

Hang on!

At his presentation at the University on 21 September 2012, Sebastian Thrun of Udacity claimed that his project is an altruistic one: MOOCs, he argued, are about bringing post-secondary education to the world for free. Those of us who were at the talk appear to have heard Thrun say different things when he was pressed on his business model. Professor Gouglas recalls Thrun having declared that he was “for profit.” Another colleague remembers Thrun saying that “being for profit doesn’t mean you need to make a profit.”

What is clear is that nowhere does the MOU declare that the project is about bringing postsecondary education to the world for free; the MOU may not be specific — in fact, it is terribly vague — but it is quite clear that the goal here is gain of one kind or another for the Parties involved, with altruistic urges (if there are indeed any) being artfully obscured. 

The Understanding reached by the Parties Udacity and University is, in short, that they will collaborate “to innovate and implement disruptive change in higher education.” The various “monetization models” that will permit the Parties to wreak this change will be worked out as the Parties deem appropriate. (The money will, after all, have to come from somewhere.) As it stands, the flow of money will be from University to Udacity: University will pay Udacity for the production of each course, and for the hosting of the courses on its server. 

From there the courses will be provided to University’s students at no cost (or rather at no direct cost). The MOU does not indicate how or on what basis others might have to pay for the courses that University will produce in order to play its Disruptive role. Even when those “monetization models” are worked out it may not be clear who precisely is paying for what, and how the Parties (or which one of them) will benefit, as the arrangements will be subject to non-disclosure agreements. (One cannot help but hope that David Lodge will rouse himself to put all of this material to work in a new novel.) Professor Gouglas informed us, however, that there has been a recent development — one he declared a “sea change” — that has confirmed that, at least for the companies running MOOCs, there will be money to be made.

Just last month, he said, Coursera sold its first MOOC to a university that will charge its students tuition for the course, with part of their tuition going to Coursera. Gouglas couldn’t remember the title of the course or the university in question, and I haven’t been able to find a pertinent news report, but the point is clear: MOOCs are already proving their potential to produce. Give that bouncing new Commodity a kiss on the cheek! What excitement there must be from those who care very much for Commodities, and don’t really give a fig what purpose the Commodity is intended to serve. And what a rush there will be now to create more babies of this kind, to be sold on the Education Market. (Never mind that Education was never supposed to be a Market, and that its status as such contradicts the mission of an education in the liberal arts.)

My principal concern was partly broached by Professor Jeff Bisanz (Department of Psychology) who asked how MOOCs might alter our curriculum, and affect our sense of our pedagogical mission.

We certainly need to get further with the discussion than we did last Thursday, where we had only 30 minutes to hear Professor Gouglas’s announcement and respond. Here are two questions that didn’t get asked in Thursday’s too-brief discussion. 

1. What are the implications for Arts of our participation in MOOCs when pedagogy in the arts, the humanities, and much of the social sciences involves effervescent aspects, the direct product of direct engagement with students in real time and real space, that cannot possibly be offered in the form of a MOOC? What might we lose if the University directs resources into the creation of courses and perhaps entire curricula that do not reflect or manifest the forms of pedagogy in which those of us in Arts specialize?

2. Might it not be of greater benefit to the Faculty not to let ourselves be swept up in or along by a “tidal wave,” but rather to use MOOCs as a counterpoint in relation to which we more sharply define and more emphatically demonstrate the innovativeness of our pedagogy, which does not involve the relaying of information or knowledge but rather the cultivation in real time and real space of the dynamics of critical thinking? And what resources is the University, even as it directs resources to MOOCs, going to direct to Arts to support our experiments in pedagogy? 

As George Fallis, Professor of Economics and former Dean of Arts at York University, noted the next day at the Trudeau Foundation’s 9th annual conference at Edmonton’s Westin Hotel, we are already in a state in which liberal education, the kind of education through we shape what he called “citizen wisdom,” has “virtually disappeared” in this country. My sense is we had better find ways to reclaim the mission of that education, with whatever new forms will best support it, even as the Parties known as Udacity and University get up to their Disruption. Let them, if they must, pluck new babies out of old tubs; but let us ensure that the Party known as University directs to us what we require to replenish the bathwater.

Fallis, by the way, noted that the pragmatic measures through which “liberal education” might be saved would require universities to break out of the forms of organization that commit them too heavily to the specialization of knowledge. Specifically he proposed that 30% of the courses in any major — Biology featured as his example — should be courses in “liberal learning,” courses that enabled “interconnections” in knowledge. He also noted that the kind of forum in which such decisions should be taken will need to “transcend” not only departments but also Faculty councils.

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3 Responses to Understanding What Has Been Understood: Arts Agrees to MOOC “Games”?

  1. Bruce says:

    You can see which MOOC from one provider = an MOOC from another at:
    http://www.coursebuffet.com
    Easy to look up what is already available.

  2. Kathleen Lowrey says:

    I don’t understand the fee structure. The University will pay Udacity for the production of each course? Aren’t the courses in question being developed with the work and the knowledge of U of A professors? Why is the money going from our public institution to their private company? And how much money, exactly, are we talking about? It just seems like such a classic con: you pay me money *today*, and then — I promise! — we will share in a big! profit! down the road. This is particularly the case as no one seems to be able to articulate how exactly it is that MOOCs are going to make money.

    Alternatively, if MOOCs are fundamentally a charitable enterprise, why are we going through the for-profit filter of Udacity to provide them? We can put all of our lectures on YouTube and make our course notes and syllabi freely downloadable, if the University is convinced that’s the right thing to do. Of course, the part of the university experience that can’t be massively provided on-line, for free, is the evaluative part.

    It seems to me that the population of people who will want to pay to get pedagogical materials delivered to them on the internet, with no or minimal evaluative feedback, is about the same size as the population of people who buy “learn Italian in your spare time!” programs and they will be about as satisfied with, and successful in, their outcomes.

    One way that this could make money is by using the U of A’s existing students as a captive market: if you want to major in certain fields, you will be obliged to take certain courses in MOOC form. That’s not bringing the U of A experience to new places, but just substituting an on-line tutorial for a classroom experience. If you charge students the same price they are currently paying for classroom learning for on-line tutorials, conceivably there would be a margin of return that could be used to… pay whatever Udacity charges for hyping the idea to university administrations. I can imagine scenarios that make this deal attractive to Udacity (and at any rate, what have they got to lose? It doesn’t look like they are bringing any money to the table either way). What is not at all clear to me is how this is a good deal for the U of A.

  3. Kathleen Lowrey says:

    Coursera apparently has a 12% completion rate in its courses:

    http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2012/11/29/coursera-looks-harness-free-labor-its-devotees

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