MOOCs: Usefully middlebrow



I was having lunch with a brilliant, hip colleague in the digital humanities when the question of MOOCs came up. \”MOOCs are over,\” she said. \”Administrators haven\’t figured it out yet, but everyone else knows.\” My tech-savviest administrator friend agreed. Having taken two or three online courses to check them out, he admitted it: \”MOOCs are a sideshow.\”

The problems endemic to MOOCs are well known: the high dropout rate, the variable quality of the offerings, evaluation methods that make educators roll their eyes, stale lectures, and tests that make you remember why high school was such a bad idea. And with their failures, the way in which they\’ve been sold by credulous columnists like Thomas Friedman and the self-serving entrepreneurs whose arguments he parrots—that is, as a replacement for traditional brick-and-mortar universities—is looking increasingly tenuous. Always one step ahead of the curve, the godfather of the massive open online course, Sebastian Thrun (who notoriously proclaimed that in 50 years, there might be only 10 universities left in the world) has thrown in the towel. He\’s announced that, following a disastrous trial run at San Jose State University and plagued by ridiculously low completion rates, his start-up, Udacity, would henceforth focus on vocational training.

It is true that MOOCs are useful for learning certain delimited subjects—my administrator friend enjoyed his MOOC on statistics in everyday life, for example—or for brushing up on the latest information in a specific area. MOOCs also satisfy a vast and deserving market: the millions, if not billions, of people in the global South whose access to educational institutions is severely limited. But the dream of a MOOC U. fades with each empirical study showing their ineffectiveness, despite—or perhaps because of—a constant inflow of dollars from governments and universities.

Perhaps the greatest testimony to the aspirations and flaws of the MOOC U. movement is a comment by Bill Gates. In an interview, Gates was asked if, as a Harvard dropout, he\’d consider returning to college:

\”I don\’t know. I take a lot of college courses. The online free stuff has gotten very good in these new MOOCs, where Harvard is doing edX and there\’s Coursera, Udacity, the Learning Company DVDs. … Meteorology, biology, geology—I highly recommend. I just took oceanography last month. … It\’s kind of ironic that I\’m a dropout. I love college courses probably as much as anyone around.\”

Gates\’s shallowness is impressive: Hey! I took oceanography last month. Next week I\’ll master phenomenology! But his words also suggest why MOOCs, for all their many and obvious failings, are with us to stay. They speak to the deeply ingrained American concept of learning as practical, manageable, bite-size (hence byte-size). Knowledge becomes a commodity you can buy rather than a product of a process that takes time, effort, and patience to master. Gates\’s words speak to a view of cultural attainments that we call middlebrow.

As the excellent scholarship of Joan Shelley Rubin and Janice Radway has shown, the United States has long been a fertile home to popular, middle-class enthusiasm for knowledge offered in an easy-to-digest format. The lyceum movement of the early to mid-19th century gave Emerson and Thoreau a chance to address broad audiences outside of New England. Later the Chautauqua movement brought lectures on literature, art, and practical sciences (as well as moral instruction and Christian optimism) to rural communities in the American heartland. In the postwar period, middlebrow went mass-market, with such phenomena as the Information Please quiz show and Mortimer Adler\’s Great Books of the Western World project.

It\’s easy to dismiss middlebrow culture. William James visited the Chautauqua Institute in 1896 and wrote that \”the middle-class paradise\” was \”too tame, this culture too second-rate, this goodness too uninspiring.\” Virginia Woolf waxed vitriolic: \”If any human being, woman, man, dog, cat, or half-crushed worm dares call me \’middlebrow\’ I will take my pen and stab him, dead.\” Intellectuals and academics have been whaling on middlebrow culture since Dwight Macdonald\’s 1960 essay \”Masscult and Midcult.\”

The ambivalence is understandable. There is a dumbing down that\’s intrinsic to middlebrow efforts. Real scholarship, criticism, or commentary is slow, detailed, and difficult, even in the hands of the clearest teacher or smoothest writer, and very few of us are those. Middlebrow culture offers lists, hooks, easy handles, formulas in the place of getting to know a text, working through a problem, mastering a difficult philosophic chain of reasoning.

Still, I can\’t find it in me to dismiss the middlebrow. I vividly recall my mother, an underemployed Ph.D., frantically preparing to give a presentation to a book club on War and Peace, or rushing home from school to hear my father\’s lectures on world literature broadcast on WSUI, the radio station of the University of Iowa. Limited though it may be, the middlebrow enterprise is as inspiring as it is troubling. It is democracy at its best and its worst.

MOOCs are just the latest incarnation of bringing watered-down versions of culture, knowledge, and learning to a mass audience. What we see as the courses\’ flaws may well be their strengths, and they have the potential to carry those strengths to a broader audience than ever before. Problems arise only when we think of MOOCs as university courses rather than as learning for the masses.

Yes, the vulgarians who run Coursera and Udacity deserve to be swept into the dustbin of history, and the fact that they seem not to have figured out how to profit from their enterprises suggests that they\’ll soon be hoist by their own capitalist petard. When they are, the real action can begin. As the history professor Jonathan Rees puts it, the fast-­approaching post-corporate-MOOC world \”will almost certainly be a period of real pedagogical innovation conducted by people who are more interested in actual education than they are in becoming famous or just making a quick buck.\”

That pedagogical innovation might well happen within the academy. Cathy Davidson, at Duke University, is conducting a meta-MOOC, designed to use the format to interrogate the past, present, and future of the academy. But hers is intended for mature audiences only—it\’s not for college students, but about them.

Speaking as a parent of two near-university-age kids, I think that people like myself will hesitate to spend tuition money to see our children shoved in front of a computer rather than interacting with faculty members in a classroom. As public forums at my university have suggested, students, as well as professors, are apprehensive about the changes in the college classroom that MOOCs may bring about. They already feel starved for contact with faculty; lessening that contact further, they fear, will only further diminish the quality of the education their parents are paying for. Colleges need to emphasize human connection in the classroom, as it is their sole—but not inconsiderable—advantage in the put-everything-online future that MOOCs foreshadow.

In a post-Coursera world, MOOCs can still be valuable. They could reconnect universities to the public at large, delivering the difficult-to-explain goods of research at a high pitch of complexity and specialization. Instilling in the public a taste for culture and imparting scientific and social-scientific knowledge beyond the classroom was once part of the university\’s mission.

The early professors of literature, for example, included figures like A.J. Armstrong, who not only lectured throughout Texas on Victorian literature but also, in the 1910s and 20s, persuaded oil millionaires to help him acquire Robert Browning\’s personal library for Baylor University. The poetry-loving popularizer Hiram Corson taught generations of Cornell students to read aloud and also brought his declamations to the public while writing popular guides to poetry and literature. Even though German models of scientific professionalism soon contested and replaced such public outreach, there remained vestiges of this sense of mission in the postwar era. State universities (and even some private ones) saw themselves as incubators of culture for an entire region, as the broadcasting of my father\’s lectures at WSUI suggest.

This agenda has not been fully lost or privatized. On our local cable TV, I can see lectures by colleagues in a number of departments, ranging from my own through the social and even hard sciences. Many universities make lectures by their best faculty members available free on YouTube. iTunes U provides lectures and course contents online, without the razzmatazz of the MOOC movement. None of these programs seek to supplant the classroom; they simply make some of what goes on inside universities available to those on the outside.

This sense of public purpose can carry over to the offering of university-sponsored MOOCs. Instead of seeking to make a profit and cut faculty lines, universities should support the making of MOOCs for the public. These can be thought of as part of the university\’s contribution to society as a whole, serving as a form of adult education.

Professors, at the very least, might be more interested in participating in a program that does some social good than in one that screws their graduate students, or themselves, and has no discernible goal except the profit of a few wealthy universities in California and some particularly rapacious entrepreneurs.

I could easily see adapting my large film-and-American-culture lecture class to a MOOC format, and would be happy to do so, as long as no one involved in the enterprise confused it with a real college course, complete with student questions, comments, and even occasional murmurs of boredom. I\’d be even happier to think that Bill Gates might take it—he could learn a thing or two from a critical account of the American past.

Author: Jonathan Freedman is a professor of English and American culture at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.