MOOCs: Massive Open Online Courses.  These generally free, multi-thousand student, online college courses, come in a variety of forms (typically differentiated as xMOOCs and cMOOCs), and have become the fertile ground for debates about the future of higher education. Such debates exploded last week when the San Jose State University (SJSU) Philosophy Department published an open letter to Dr. Michael Sandel, explaining to the the Harvard University Professor why they refused to enter into a contract that requires them to incorporate his MOOC on Justice into their curriculum.

The letter from SJSU and the formal and informal responses to it, highlight key tensions expressed by the academic community with regard to MOOCs. The letter itself captures many larger concerns, as professors worry about prioritization of the ‘bottom line,’ lack of interactivity, loss of professorial autonomy, and the perpetuation of class/power/resource hierarchies as students at a few select schools engage in a rich classroom environment, while everyone else views educational videos that were made for someone else, do not account for their needs, and do not incorporate their voices or experiences. The following is an excerpt from the original letter:

 …[W]e fear that two classes of universities will be created: one, well- funded colleges and universities in which privileged students get their own real professor; the other,financially stressed private and public universities in which students watch a bunch of video-taped lectures and interact, if indeed any interaction is available on their home campuses, with a professor that this model of education has turned into a glorified teaching assistant.

At the same time, scholars and educators can’t deny that the bottom line *does* matter, as funding cuts threaten to make access to higher education increasingly less attainable. Moreover, universities fear obsolescence.  Once a technology exists, there is no going back. MOOCs are here, and schools want to avoid the embarrassment of  dusty educational formats. Nobody wants to get stuck holding a floppy disk in a cloud computing era. As stated by a commenter on an article discussing the SJSU case: “The 21st century is the era of digital collaboration. Get out of the way if you can’t lend a hand.

This tension I’ve just described, between access and innovation on one hand, and richness and depth on the other, is well worn. Concerns are rooted fully in the interests of students, learning, and the larger social good. I argue further, however, that there is a second tension. One less often (if ever) articulated. Another source of worry and discomfort as MOOCs make their way more emphatically onto the educational landscape. Namely, it is the tension between accessible education for all, and a loss of identity, coupled with a shifting path in the life course, one which potentially does away with that liminal time-out space currently occupied by 4-5 undergraduate years. This is a discomfort born out of the decentralization and disbursement of knowledge in ways that no longer necessarily require physical co-presence or tightly woven institutions.


Perhaps this first point is particularly sharp for me, as I attend a school (Texas A&M) in which school pride and Aggie identification is about as loud and proud as it gets. However, one need only look at the language with which students from all colleges and universities describe themselves. One may be a “Virginia Tech Hokie,” an “Oregon Duck,” or a “Florida Gator.” Where one went to school sits at the top of the CV or resume. Students, alumni, and their families purchase clothing, bumper stickers, and other displayable identity markers with the university name and logo. Colleges and universities are not simply a means to an end (i.e. the route to knowledge and a degree), but part of who a person is, personally and professionally. If that same degree can be obtained without singular institutional affiliation, if the institution itself ceases to matter, what of the identities of those who did, do, or in the future might, attend?

In addition to identity, the MOOC threatens the liminal space currently held by colleges and universities within the life course. College is not just somewhere people go to learn, it is where they go to find themselves. They join clubs. They drink too much. They make terrible decisions that later make for great stories. (Traditional) students are kind of on their own, but with a net. This has become a strong part of the American Life Course Narrative. It is a moment of experimentation and growth before settling in for the long haul of adulthood. If one need not attend a physical university, what happens to this life course moment?

These are, of course, discomforts rooted deeply in privilege, as access for all threatens not just the status of a degree, but the identity meanings and life narratives specifically of upper-middle class Americans. These are their privileges to lose. For many, a life course time-out and university identification were never possible. For them, there is nothing to mourn. However, it is rarely (if ever) the voices of those with nothing to lose that pervade public discourse.

Importantly, these tensions apply uniquely to MOOCs that operate, in some way, as credentializers—either through certificates, or, as is the case at SJSU and several other universities, as part and parcel of an accredited university curriculum. Many MOOCs are simply educational gifts, if you will, provided for the intellectually curious, as means of knowledge sharing in the purest sense.  The waters get murkier—and more anxiety producing—however, when these MOOCs become legitimate means of bestowing credentials. In this latter circumstance, the structure and boundaries of higher education are breached, shaking the foundation and laying bare myriad paths to intellectual accomplishment.


Jenny has signed up for several, but never actually completed a MOOC. She’s probably too busy posting weekly for Cyborgology and Tweeting @Jup83.


Pic Creds in order: