Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Peter Onuf on MOOCs

Peter Onuf
Forget about Hobby Lobby or the U.S. loss to Belgium in the World Cup.  It looks like recently retired University of Virginia historian Peter Onuf has reopened the MOOC debate.  

Here is the background:

Yesterday morning Michael Blaakman of The Junto published a post titled "'Let a thousand MOOCs bloom': An Interview with Peter Onuf." Onuf recently completed a MOOC ("massive open online course") for the online education company Coursera and the University of Virginia titled "The Age of Jefferson."  In the interview Onuf discusses his "dubious" feelings about teaching a MOOC, how his decision to teach the course was based on his "proprietary interest in Jefferson," the struggle of translating the humanities to the MOOC format, and the need to teach graduate students to be better lecturers.  In the end, Onuf encourages historians to embrace the MOOC. 

It was only a few hours after the Onuf interview appeared that historians began to hit the blogosphere with reactions to it.  First up was Mark Cheatham, the author of Jacksonian America blog. Cheathem offers several important critiques of the MOOC.  I encourage you to read his entire post.  It is filled with links that will get you up to speed on the way academic historians have been thinking about MOOCS over the past couple of years.  Here is a taste:

That brings me to the second point about Onuf’s post. He alludes to the threat that MOOCs pose to future professors, including his own grad students. The reality is, MOOCs, as they are conceived by venture capitalists and administrators, are meant to be taught, not by junior faculty who have great performance skills, but by the faculty [Jonathan Rees] calls “superprofessors....”

The point is that esteemed history faculty such as Onuf, Jeremy Adelman, and others have the name recognition and the elite-university appointments and resources to produce either full-blown or “boutique” MOOCs. Their jobs are not at stake, either because of where they hold their appointment or, in Onuf’s case, because he is retired.
Most of us don’t have that luxury. We teach at institutions that depend on declining enrollment and languishing endowments to keep the doors open and maintain current faculty lines. Our institutions don’t have the resources to develop a MOOC, which, by Onuf’s estimation, cost at least $100,000 for a short course. Many of us also don’t have the job security that Onuf et al. possess/ed, either because we are adjuncts, we work at institutions without tenure, or our jobs are dependent on financial factors beyond our control. Add to those circumstances the very real threat to future academic employmentposed by MOOCs as currently conceived, and it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to see them as anything other than a threat to higher education.
Shortly after Cheathem's post was published, Jonathan Rees, the most notorious opponent of MOOCS in the academic blogosphere, went to work.  Here is a taste of his Cheatham-affirming post:
If I remember the way that the History Guys get introduced on the radio these days, Onuf is retired – or at least retired from regular teaching. [Indeed, he notes later in the interview that Alan Taylor is his successor at the University of Virginia.] This means the cost of his being wrong about the intentions of his administration is exactly zero. Indeed, if you remember, it’s not the administration in Charlottesville who’s faith anyone there should worry about, the problem is higher up. On second thought, even administrations with good faith will do bad things when pressured from above, so really people there have a right to stay worried about everybody.
And so do people elsewhere. Onuf makes a common mistake among superprofessors when he assumes that the people running universities who produce MOOCs are the only people who’s faith he needs to measure. Nobody among us MOOC skeptics is arguing that Alan Taylor is going to be replaced by old Peter Onuf tapes. The people we’re worried about are the community college professors down the street or across the country. If you make a MOOC you have a responsibility to be sure that it is used wisely. Simply letting the chips fall where they may clearly demonstrates that you’ve left the real world far behind – the world of MOOC consumers rather than the world of MOOC producers.


Paul M. said...

I agree with many of Cheathem's points, but I can't shake the feeling that at least part of his critique suffers from the confusion of what is best for (future) college professors and the general well-being of higher education. It's the kind of reasoning that you get whenever a new technology or mode of production disrupts an established industry. You get that sense especially strongly in this paragraph: "Add to those circumstances the very real threat to future academic employment posed by MOOCs as currently conceived, and it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to see them as anything other than a threat to higher education."

Jimmy Dick said...

I took this MOOC. While Peter Onuf's lectures were good, they were not close to being what he would deliver in one semester. This was not a course worth college credit nor could it be. The things we do as history teachers were not in this course. Also, the forums had no feedback from the staff.

Many of the people taking the course had MAs or doctorates. Those people do not require the same amount of supervision and instructor time that an undergrad requires. The bottom line is that this was just not a college level class.

If we use MOOCs to share information and to supplement class lectures I think they can work, but for replacing actual college courses they just fail. We already have problems with students being able to take online courses. The MOOCs are more difficult due to the complete lack of instructor supervision. The idea of saving money with these courses falls short when you realize that you would have to hire TAs to work with the students. Otherwise, the failure rate is going to be ridiculous.

Also, I work with the principles of teaching and learning. MOOCs do not use those principles. Community college students for the most part need supervision and assistance, especially when it comes to history because many of them struggled with the course in high school. Students need instructor interaction and MOOCs just do not provide it.

John Fea said...

Great thoughts, Jimmy. I was unaware that these MOOCs were taken by so many folks with graduate degrees. They almost serve more as a kind of continuing education for teachers (like a Gilder-Lehrman seminar or a Teaching American History grant) than they do an actual college course.