MOOCs and the Future of the Humanities: A Roundtable (Part 1)

MOOCs and the Future of the Humanities: A Roundtable (Part 1)

(For Part 2 of the MOOC Roundtable, click here.)

IN LITTLE MORE THAN A YEAR, discussion of the role of online learning in higher education has undergone a qualitative shift. With the launch of for-profit educational start-ups such as Coursera, Udacity, and the MIT and Harvard-founded nonprofit platform edX, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) have moved from obscure experiment to major initiative. MOOCs are online classes, generally composed of short lectures, that allow for open, often free enrollments (thousands can easily enroll in a single course), assessing students through periodic quizzes and discussion forums. With astonishing rapidity, these systems have captured the imaginations of administrators, professors, trustees, and pundits, but not always in a positive way. If commentators are to be believed, MOOCs are likely to radically disrupt traditional curricular models, academic organizational structures, as well as accreditation schemes, threatening (or promising) to do nothing less than, in the words of Alan Jacobs, “unbundle” the university in much the same way that the internet has been systematically unbundling journalism.

To date, few discussions of what Aaron Bady has called “the MOOC moment” have focused specifically on how new models of online learning may impact the humanities. The Los Angeles Review of Books invited four distinguished professors, some of whom have experience teaching online, to reflect on the risks and opportunities MOOCs present for the humanities. Our goal is not to offer any sort of final word on the phenomenon, but rather to inspire further debate and reflection.

Our discussion comes in two parts. Today, we publish four initial position papers by our contributors. Tomorrow, we will publish further discussion of these initial essays. We encourage our readers to continue the discussion in the comments section as well.

– Lee Konstantinou


Al Filreis
(University of Pennsylvania)

I have taught a course on modern and contemporary American poetry (English 88) for 30 years. Perhaps not surprisingly, given the repetition, I have gotten better at teaching it. By now I am relaxed, and I know the material and the flow of the course so well that I get upset with myself when I begin to lecture, when I can’t help myself and begin talking. I know what I have to say, and can seem to be definitive, but the poems in my course are experimental and open (as to meaning and form) and I prefer to hear my students discuss them and work through the problems they present. This Emily Dickinson poem or that William Carlos Williams poem has incited decades of scholarly and critical debate and disagreement, so why should I present just one or two of those many views, implying a limit on meaning-making that is actually a limit function of a class session? During the students’ collective close reading of a poem, I will add my interpretations here and there, but these offerings are only part of the discussion. The interactive, collaboration-based mode of the course has emerged from the material — “naturally,”  as it were — and about 20 years ago I stopped lecturing entirely.

At the same time I began teaching various online versions of the course. At first I taught it (then and later, always for free) to the families of my current students; that is to say, students properly enrolled in English 88 took the course, face to face, in the room, while volunteers from among their parents (and siblings and grandparents) interacted with me and the students through a simple email listserv. I realized, when leading a discussion of Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall” with these two groups, that the generational differences made for distinct interpretations and produced an intensely lively discussion, such as I’d never witnessed in teaching the poem only to 18–22 year olds. 

Next I made English 88 available, again for free, to alumni of my university. One hundred fifty adults “enrolled” for a month-long discussion in which we — again by listserv, with poems posted to the web — did collaborative close readings of short modern poems; when the month was up they demanded that the discussion continue. “Alumverse,” as we called it, went on for a year (1995–96). I held “office” hours in a MOO (a pre-graphical chat space). After that, I opened the course to anyone with an interest in the Kelly Writers House, a center for writers that I and others had founded on Penn’s campus. I began offering free live webcasts from the Writers House, one webcast per poem. Although the Kelly Writers House is an actual 14-room cottage, the founders of the project never defined membership or affiliation as requiring physical presence: anyone can participate, either from afar (by webcast, for instance) or by stopping in and participating in person, or both. I saw such versions of English 88 — free, noncredit, ungraded, open to all — as a means of outreach.

Enter the MOOC. I now teach a free, ungraded, noncredit, 10-week version of the same interactive, no-lectures course, hosted by the Kelly Writers House at the University of Pennsylvania, using Coursera’s platform. We call this “ModPo.” I don’t lecture in ModPo, any more than I do in any other version of the course. I emphasize collective, collaborative close readings. The videos show me and a group of eight students beginning to grapple with one difficult modern poem each week, presenting a model for the further discussions. In ModPo, we emphasize all the interactive spaces one can imagine: the discussion forums, in which I and the student TAs actively participate; weekly live webcasts; four ungraded, peer-reviewed essays; several Facebook groups, created by participants; a robust Twitter feed; various face-to-face meet-ups; “office” hours in the forums; and a standing invitation for any ModPo’er who finds himself or herself in or near Philadelphia to visit me and the student TAs at the Writers House (many, indeed, have visited).

ModPo is not a textbook; it’s a course, having about it the sense of a course: a collective movement through material, in which one learns the material with teachers and learners working at roughly the same time. The discussion forums are so lively that they are roughly synchronous experiences of community-based interpretations of the material. The webcasts are, of course, synchronous. The 10-week experience of ModPo happens when it happens, during those 10 weeks, creating a sense that a course is being offered. Many ModPo students have described it, despite its size and despite the far-flung inhabitations of its members, as more “personal” than many huge auditorium-based lecture courses from their university days.

ModPo was, and is, the next step in a 30-year evolution of my course. My goal, as a reader of poetry, has always been to introduce poems and poets I admire to people who otherwise would not approach such difficult material on their own. My goal, as founder of the Writers House, is to do outreach as robustly and as inventively as possible. My goal as a teacher for the past 20 years has been to imply that the use of technology in teaching need not be impersonal.


Cathy N. Davidson
(Duke University)

Let’s start with the numbers. 4.1: That’s the grade point average of a high school student entering the University of California, Irvine this year. 450,000: students on the waiting list for community colleges in California alone. 74%: the percentage of students from the richest quartile of households enrolled at the top 150 colleges in the US — even though high-income students make up only a third of high-achieving high school graduates. While the G.I. Bill and the Great Society were founded on the principle of higher education as the ladder to the middle class, in 2013 state schools are so starved of funds, and private ones so expensive, that higher education is becoming the province of the high achieving and the wealthy global 1%.

I don’t want a society that massively excludes so many students, nor one where you have to be better than perfect to gain admission to your state university. For 20 years now, anyone with access to the internet has been able to publish ideas to anyone else in the world with an internet connection. That’s an amazing opportunity and a formidable responsibility. Yet our antiquated educational system rewards a hierarchical form of silo’d, standardized teaching and learning that was designed for the Taylorized Industrial Age. Our over-emphasis on standardized testing undermines the intellectual skills of critical thinking and productive contribution needed to thrive in our interactive Do-It-Yourself era.

It is in this context that I find MOOCs a useful goad toward educational experimentation that may lead to methods for educating more students and in ways more responsive to the connected world they inhabit everywhere except in school.

We can learn from the individualized problem-based online methods of, say, Carnegie Mellon’s famous pre-MOOC statistics courses, where a right answer generates tougher problems to solve, an effective method for teaching some STEM fields. We don’t yet have as good a model in the humanities and interpretive social sciences: the Doc on the Laptop is even worse than the Sage on the Stage when it comes to promoting dialogic thinking. But we’re starting to find one. This year, I’m using the forum tools of a Coursera course I’m designing on “The History and Future of Higher Education” to encourage participants worldwide, who can take the course for free and without entrance requirements, to share their ideas on what the future of higher education should be. I’m hoping to use a MOOC to promote the form of connected peer-to-peer knowledge-sharing that many of us have been exploring for more than a decade — well before the current MOOC-mania began.

Given the history of for-profits in the education arena, professors at brick-and-mortar institutions have reason to worry that MOOCs are being hyped by venture capitalists who have no real interest in learning. I share that fear. However, our justifiable worry about the future of the professoriate doesn’t help those students being excluded from higher education today. And even if we could wave a magic wand and make residential learning affordable and accessible, that would still not address the changes needed in the silo’d educational system that we’ve inherited. MOOCs aren’t the answer. But they may inspire educators to find more creative, connected, individualized, and global modes of learning together. 


Ray Schroeder
(University of Illinois Springfield)

Very nearly half a century ago I launched my higher education journey at a small liberal arts college. Augustana College, nestled along the Illinois side of the Mississippi River, boasted half the number of students of my high school in the suburbs of Chicago. That small campus held a hundred safe and comfortable places for intimate intellectual engagement and enlightenment that invited deep reflection at what I must now describe as a leisurely pace. The humanities lived there in the tiny classrooms where we recited Shakespeare and in the ancient library with 10- foot ceilings and windows that slid open wide in the summer and rattled in the winter storms.  History, English, philosophy, art, music, theater and religion were staples. They were taught in classes of a dozen or two and deeply learned in small groups and in moments of individual reflection in the shade of oaks that were casting shorter shadows in the days when Abraham Lincoln rode the nearby Eighth Circuit. 

I have taught at the university level now for more than 40 years, beginning as an instructor on the Urbana campus of the University of Illinois, now an emeritus professor on the Springfield campus. “Leisurely” has all but abandoned my vocabulary and life in recent decades. Life in this century is far more fully filled, accelerating toward uncertain ends; it is alive and vibrant at a frenetic pace. I fancy that I accomplish more — and certainly touch more lives — every single year than I did in the span of a decade in the past.

Over the past decade, I have taught only online. Students in my classes are far-flung — two from Alaska this term among the others from the lower 48. In the past, I have had students from assorted countries; they bring a diversity, a richness of perspectives to classes that I never experienced previously. I taught eduMOOC in the summer of 2011; we had students in 70 countries. Engagement and interaction came through “meet-ups,” such as the group in Christchurch New Zealand who met weekly at the McDonalds (free wi-fi, don't you know) to engage and discuss the future of learning. Brazilians tolerated our English language panel discussions and then met in their Portuguese language wikis. Still others engaged in Google Hangouts. The social constructivist principles of what scholars of education call the “community of inquiry” thrive online through teaching presence, social presence, and cognitive presence. Those are the very same principles that led to success the liberal arts college experience decades ago.

The campus has changed. We are now learning on a global scale for a myriad of reasons, not the least of which are the imperatives of the economy, the affordances of the technology, and the need to globalize our learning experience. There is no turning back. The social compact for funding higher education is forever changed. Fortunately, learning is no less online. MOOCs plant their seeds worldwide. Humanities will thrive online through yet another century. 


Ian Bogost
(Georgia Institute of Technology)

MOOCs are often discussed as an educational technology, as a new way of teaching. This is true to some extent, even if these courses look far less “disruptive” when understood in relation to the long tradition of online and distance learning. Will Oremus has offered a convincing (and deflationary) account of MOOCs’ potential as course material, suggesting that they are best understood as a replacement for traditional textbooks.

Even if MOOCs do sometimes function as courses (or as textbooks), a minority of their effects arises from their status as educational experiences. Other, less obvious aspects of MOOCs exert far more influence on contemporary life. Here are some different but important ways of understanding what MOOCs are and what they do.

MOOCs are a type of marketing. They allow academic institutions to signal that they are with-it and progressive, in tune with the contemporary technological climate. They make an institution’s administration appear to be doing novel work on “the future of higher education,” and they offer professors an opportunity to reach a large number of students who might also spread their ideas, buy their books, or otherwise publicize their professional practice. Less cynically, MOOCs can help deliver a taste of on-campus offerings to future students, parents, or the general public — although this latter function is hardly novel; iTunes U has distributed free lectures for years.

MOOCs are a financial policy for higher education. They exemplify what Naomi Klein has called “disaster capitalism”: policy guilefully initiated in the wake of upheaval.  The need to teach more students with fewer resources is a complex situation. It’s partly caused by hubris, especially the blind search for higher institutional status through research programs, and it’s exacerbated by the tax base crises of the ongoing and seemingly permanent Great Recession. MOOCs offer the next logical step in this process of “cost containment.” But those who would call current funding models “unviable” and offer MOOCs as a convenient alternative fail to admit that the very need for an alternative presumes that we want to abandon public education in favor of a corporate-owned infrastructure in the first place.

MOOCs are an academic labor policy. As a consequence of the financial policy just described, MOOCs are amplifying the precarity long experienced by adjuncts and graduate student assistants, and helping to extend that precarity to the professoriate. MOOCs encourage an ad-hoc “freelancing” work regime among tenured faculty, many of whom will find the financial incentives for MOOC creation and deployment difficult to resist. This is particularly true of public institution faculty who have gone years without raises. Many institutions offer tens of thousands of dollars of direct compensation for MOOC development and teaching. And, in some cases, MOOCs offer direct access to student tuition and direct competition among faculty for those new resources, extending the “entrepreneurial” institutional politics of professional schools (and corporate life more generally) to all disciplines.

MOOCs are speculative financial instruments. The purpose of an educational institution is to educate, but the purpose of a startup is to convert itself into a financial instrument. The two major MOOC providers, Udacity and Coursera, are venture capital-funded startups, and therefore they are beholden to high leverage, rapid growth with an interest in a fast flip to a larger technology company or the financial market. The concepts of “disruption” and “innovation,” so commonly applied to MOOCs, come from the world of business. As for EdX, the MOOC consortium started by Harvard and MIT, it’s a nonprofit operating under the logic of speculation rather than as a public service. If anything, it will help the for-profits succeed even more by evangelizing their vision as compatible with elite nonprofit educational ideals.

MOOCs are an expression of Silicon Valley values. Today’s business practices privilege the accrual of value in the hands of a small number of network operators. Anything unable to be maximally leveraged isn’t worth doing. MOOCs subscribe to leverage as a primary value proposition (“massiveness”), implicitly rejecting the premise that some things benefit from “inefficiency.” MOOCs also evangelize the Silicon Valley ideology of technological salvation that Evgeny Morozov has called “solutionism,” and David Golumbia “computationalism.” Specifically MOOC researchers-turned-entrepreneurs Daphne Koller and Sebastian Thrun assume that AI techniques can “solve” the problems of education through computational automation.

MOOCs are a kind of entertainment media. We are living in an age of para-educationalism: TED Talks, “big idea” books, and the professional lecture circuit have reconfigured the place of ideas (of a certain kind) in the media mainstream. Flattery, attention, the appeal of celebrity, the aspiration to become a member of a certain community, and other triumphs of personality have become the currency of thinking, even as anti-intellectualism remains ascendant. MOOCs buttress this situation, one in which the professor is meant to become an entertainer more than an educator or a researcher. The fact that MOOC proponents have even toyed with the idea of hiring actors to present video lectures only underscores the degree to which MOOCs aspire to reinvent education as entertainment. 


(For Part 2 of the MOOC Roundtable, click here.)

LARB Contributors

Ian Bogost is an author and an award-winning game designer. He is Ivan Allen College Distinguished Chair in Media Studies and professor of Interactive Computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology, and a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is the author of Play Anything: The Pleasure of Limits, the Uses of Boredom, and the Secret of Games and other works.

Ray Schroeder is professor emeritus and associate vice chancellor for online learning at the University of Illinois Springfield and director of the new Center for Online Leadership and Strategy at the University Professional and Continuing Education Association. He has published the popular Online Learning Update and Educational Technology daily blogs for the past dozen years. You can follow him on Twitter @rayschroeder.

Cathy N. Davidson is a historian of technology and cultural change. She holds two distinguished chairs at Duke University, is cofounder of a 12,000 network member nonprofit Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Alliance and Collaboratory (, or “haystack”), and codirector of the HASTAC/MacArthur Foundation Digital Media and Learning Competitions. Her books include The Future of Thinking: Learning Institutions in a Digital Age (with HASTAC cofounder David Theo Goldberg; 2010) and Now You See It: How Technology and Brain Science Will Transform Schools and Business for the 21st Century (2011).

Al Filreis is Kelly Professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania, where he also serves as faculty director of the Kelly Writers House, director of the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing, co-director of PennSound, and publisher of Jacket2. His books include Modernism from Left to Right: Wallace Stevens, the Thirties, and Literary Radicalism (1994) and Counter-Revolution of the Word: The Conservative Attack on Modern Poetry, 1945-60 (2008). He has taught a massive open online course, “ModPo,” to 36,000 students.


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