MOOCs and the Future of the Humanities: A Roundtable (Part 2)

A Roundtable (Part 2)

MOOCs and the Future of the Humanities: A Roundtable (Part 2)

(For Part 1 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.  

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. Yesterday, we published four initial position papers by our contributors. Today, our contributors respond to one another. We encourage our readers to continue the discussion in the comments section as well.

– Lee Konstantinou


Al Filreis
(University of Pennsylvania)

I agree with everything Cathy Davidson has written in the first round, word for word, and so I won’t take up my space to comment further, other than to encourage everyone to read or reread her short essay. I share her fears and find them counterbalanced by the promise of meaningful outreach to excluded populations of prospective learners. And I am moved by Ray Schroeder’s account of his career, his embrace of the changing campus, his willingness to eschew the “leisurely” life that emeritus status might otherwise confer, his excitement over the diversity of his far-flung online students, and, most of all, his positive memories of small, intimate seminars at Augustana College. These multiple lives we lead as professors need not make us inconsistent, nor incoherent. Ray is extraordinarily coherent. “Humanities will thrive online.” Yes, if we insist on being guided by the Augustana experience as we set up our new kinds of courses.

Ian Bogost’s commentary nicely complements the others. He leaves pedagogy aside and clearly lays out the non-educational issues, category by category. I don’t finally agree with most of his explicit and implicit perspectives, but I do believe these are the right topics for discussion, if one is to exclude the crucial matters of learning and teaching. Let me comment on just two of his points.

“MOOC researchers-turned-entrepreneurs Daphne Koller and Sebastian Thrun,” Ian writes, “assume that AI techniques can ‘solve’ the problems of education through computational automation.” If this is true, then I agree that it’s a wrong and bad assumption about many if not all fields of knowledge. Yet this is precisely why I as a humanist (on the arts end of the humanities) want to experiment in the MOOC mode: to create a course that attempts to leave things explicitly unsolved and largely unautomated; a pedagogical alternative that is at the same time open to all those who have been excluded (a difficult balance of goals); a community of learners in conversation, guided not by lectures but by models of collaborative close reading. I agree with Ian’s critique here, but I believe that a MOOC can be made to express the opposite pedagogy.

Ian also describes MOOCs as “a kind of entertainment media” and (tonally, if not explicitly) frowns upon “para-educationalism” in the form of TED Talks and the like. His assumption rests on a huge generalization about MOOCs, as if they are one thing, one mode — pedagogically inexorable. “MOOCs buttress this situation,” he says, “one in which the professor is meant to become an entertainer more than an educator.” My point is simply that such a course need not have these qualities. In an otherwise sober analysis, Ian makes some leaps here. There are as many kinds of MOOCs as there are MOOCs, just as there are as many kinds of courses as there are courses. We would never say that face-to-face courses convening on a university campus all “buttress” one trend or another. There is greater capacity for various tones, approaches, modes, professorial styles, and pedagogies in the various MOOC platforms than this sweeping logic credits. It’s early. Let’s please look at the particulars and the particular options, and when we politically or ethically prefer one option over another let’s encourage it. But the negative logic is sweeping and tenuous: [all, or most] MOOCs buttress a situation, in which the professor “is meant to become” something. In one course or another — be it large and open to all, or closed and enrolled by a few matriculated students — I as a teacher am meant to become someone passionate about the material and hopeful that others will come to share that passion.

If para-educationalism is generally unfortunate, we must nonetheless remember that it’s been something in which legendary academic stars have engaged for at least several generations. MOOCs hardly created such a problem, assuming it is a problem. In my discipline (literature), in response to the first wave of Culture Wars­-era attacks on the humanities, there was a movement, embraced unanimously in my department, to encourage faculty to take on when possible the role of “public intellectual,” in order to bespeak the values of humanistic learning to the public at large. Many so engaged, giving talks in public forums, saying yes to invitations from PBS affiliates and wide-circulation newspapers, and, a little later, going online to teach nontraditional students. The current form of outreach we are discussing follows in that tradition of openness and extension, and of course carries the same risks of reductiveness. But this effort is at best a small hedge against typical empty forms of contemporary contentless stardom, and, to be sure, sometimes will draw some of us away from lab and archive. But it doesn’t ipso facto diminish our purpose as educators. The college course that set me on a path toward graduate school was the most “entertaining” of all those I took, and that teacher was first and foremost an educator — rigorous, difficult, scholarly, but accessible.


Cathy N. Davidson
(Duke University)

I got it wrong in my original essay. When I said that we have some good methods for teaching problem-based learning online but haven’t yet designed a MOOC format that serves dialogic thinking in the humanities and social sciences, I hadn’t read about Professor Schroeder, in Springfield, Illinois, interacting with “eduMOOC” students meeting around the wi-fi at the McDonald’s in New Zealand. Nor had I read Professor Filreis’s account of parents and grandparents taking his modern poetry class online alongside his Penn students — way back in the mid-1990s. I was so charmed after spending time noodling around the materials for his Coursera MOOC that I signed up to be a ModPo student myself this Fall.

Schroeder is correct that the social constructivist principles of a true community of inquiry thrive in good online environments. He compares the online interchanges among his students to his own liberal arts education, 50 years ago, at Augustana College. In the peer-to-peer experiments I’ve conducted with Duke students over the past decade, where teams of students set the assignments and then the whole class debates ideas vigorously online before they come to class, the students’ passion, energy, and self-confidence take me back to my own liberal arts undergraduate education (at another Illinois school, Elmhurst College).

Yet it is precisely my concern for the fate of small, fine liberal arts colleges like Augustana or Elmhurst that makes me share many of Professor Bogost’s financial concerns. By one estimate, nearly 100 colleges have shut their doors in the last decade. A recent survey conducted by the American Association of University Professors indicates that already, even without the impact of MOOCs, 73 percent of college courses are taught by those without tenure.

Internet pioneer Jaron Lanier warns about the ways this Silicon Valley technological revolution is turning formerly middle-class jobs into contract labor that offers no benefits, security, or living wage. He points to fields such as music, journalism, legal research, accounting, computer programming, and tax preparation. With the rise of adjunct labor in universities, teachers are becoming another casualty to add to Lanier’s list.

The deplorable condition of higher education today is a social problem that preceded, and is far greater than, the rise of MOOCs. Instead of MOOC panic, now is a time to be thinking collectively and responsibly about three things that are not parallel but that are all equally crucial to the future of the university. First, how do we bring down the cost of private education? Second, how do we persuade taxpayers and policy makers that reinvesting in public education is necessary to a strong middle class and therefore the best investment in the future that they will ever make? Third, how do we take advantage of the tremendously exciting new ways of informal peer learning that we all indulge in outside of school in order to transform the archaic, hierarchical, silo’d apparatus of education that has been pumping along since the late 19th century, and that was designed for that past and not for our students’ future?

More than half of the world’s population is under the age of 25. By one estimate some 50 million qualified students do not now have access to the higher education they crave. To MOOC or not to MOOC? Neither panacea nor source of all evil, MOOCs evoke serious questions that deserve informed debate. As educators, we must ensure that we and our students are informed participants, not passive consumers of the technologies that shape our lives. We all need to be better, more generous, and more cautious citizens of this connected world we live in together.


Ray Schroeder
(University of Illinois Springfield)

I enjoyed reading the perspectives of our panel on MOOCs and the humanities. As it turns out, I also am in the process of writing a review for the Continuing Higher Education Review of William G. Bowen’s Higher Education in the Digital Age, based on the 2012 Tanner Lectures. Contemplating the range of perspectives in Bowen’s book and our postings leaves me a bit concerned that we all are being far too conservative in our comments. A revolution is taking place in the delivery of education. This revolution, I believe, is unstoppable and will remake higher education as completely as the internet remade newspapers, magazines, and book publishing. Yet, in this discussion, we seem to be thinking in terms of a full complement of colleges, courses, and degrees rather than the emerging free-ranging learning environment of badges and the disaggregation of education into opportunities outside the box of institutions and formal curricula.

Clayton Christensen predicts that our future holds a higher education environment in which half the universities in existence today are bankrupt. Meantime, Google’s gurus predict we are moving toward more intimately integrating networking technology into our personal space, our very persons. These disruptions promise to merge into a much more personalized, far less institutionalized learning environment. MOOCs themselves are evolving before our eyes, day by day, week by week. The Georgia Tech announcement last month of a MOOC-delivered master’s degree in computer science surely will be followed by a myriad of iterations and modified models in the coming months.

The humanities remain a constant in this era of rapid change, disruption, and digital revolution. The humanities, themselves, give us the perspectives and insights of ages past. They have served as a thread of continuity and a beacon to maintain human perspectives across time. Certainly, the humanities have been a focal point for MOOCs. The leading MOOC aggregator site, Class Central, lists a couple of hundred MOOCs that are classified as “humanities.” Are these courses done well? Are the students learning? Are they touched by the passion of the topic? I am sure the results will vary. But I am equally sure that there will be many successes and that the humanities will survive as we all get better at mastering this delivery mode.

Perhaps more importantly, though: How do the humanities fit into the emerging new culture of higher education? How will disruption and technology affect the humanities? As the universities, degrees, and curricula are rewritten, the general education requirement of the study of humanities will fade away. We are already seeing major cutbacks in art, music, and social studies at the elementary and secondary level. I believe that our exposure to the humanities will no longer be forced in the form of required general education curricula; that will be both good and bad. But, the opportunity to study and advance the humanities will be bolstered by worldwide connections and collaborations. And, in the end, I still say the humanities will thrive online.


Ian Bogost
(Georgia Institute of Technology)

Discussions of polarizing topics tend to degrade into a caricature of deductive validity. “There are problems with X” elides into “All X are wicked” and thus elicits a response like “Here’s an X that’s not wicked! QED, sucker!” The fact that charged subjects are often discussed on the internet — hardly some great stronghold for calm reason and measured pause — certainly doesn’t help matters. And when the touchy subject also involves the internet and technology, well, that doesn’t help either.

Even if this conversation on MOOCs has remained refreshingly free of erroneous dualism, its shadow still looms over us. For example, Al Filreis offered an inspiring account of his work teaching a modern poetry MOOC, and Ray Schroeder related stories of his globally distributed students making work groups in wi-fi-enabled fast food joints. Filreis and Schroeder stop well short of making hasty generalizations or no-true-Scotsman claims about MOOCs — but that’s largely because they make no general claims whatsoever. If I had to summarize the common, implied conclusion in their contributions to the first round of this discussion, it would go something like this: “Our MOOCs seem like positive and gratifying contributions to humanities education, so MOOCs can’t be all bad.”

Even though they stop well short of saying so, Filreis and Schroeder implicitly invoke the don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater demurral. They offer two seemingly virtuous, humanistically appealing examples of MOOCs as evidence that the entire enterprise of MOOCdom ought not be dismissed wholesale.

The problem with babies and bathwater is that they are metaphors. In the usual sense, this expression admits that the presumably spent, dirty bathwater might need to go, but not with such zeal that the baby therein meet a similar fate. But it also works in reverse: we can have such zeal or blindness for whatever issue is metaphorically related to the bath as a whole that we'd sooner throw out the baby and keep the bathwater than admit that the two might not be so easily separated. Put more plainly, MOOCs can be virtuous and innocuous and deplorable all at once, because they operate on multiple registers.

Cathy Davidson makes a similar case for an exceptional use of MOOCs, even if hers takes a quite different form from those of Filreis and Schroeder. Davidson rehearses her ongoing (and much needed) critique of a method of schooling invented for industrialization and laments the lack of affordable access to education. And, unlike Filreis and Schroeder, she openly admits that “MOOCs aren’t the answer” to these problems.

Yet Davidson doesn’t address the evidence suggesting that MOOCs may actually exacerbate such problems. For example, they reproduce rather than reform the lecture-based model Davidson laments; they are primarily pursued by students who have already completed the higher education to which Davidson wants to increase access; and they are overwhelmingly populated by white, male students whose privilege already helps them evade the downsides of low-contact learning situations.

Given these apparently fundamental incompatibilities, Davidson justifies her plans to teach a MOOC because she intends to go meta on it. She hopes her massive course “The History and Future of Higher Education” will unearth better approaches to future learning for those students excluded from higher education. Such an effort will probably produce interesting observations. But I can’t help but wonder if the excluded students Davidson hopes to help wouldn’t rather have access to affordable (even if “Taylorist”) state education instead of the opportunity to phone-in to an extravagant “storyboarding” session hosted by an immensely wealthy private university, some of whose faculty have told me that they “didn’t even register” the post-2008 financial apocalypse that forged the final nail in the coffin of educational access in the United States in particular.

Increasingly, I have the sense that many endorsements of MOOCs exemplify the politician’s syllogism, which goes like this:

1.  We must do something.
2.  This is something.
3.  Therefore, we must do this. 

The Silicon Valley solutionist version of the politician’s syllogism assumes that the “something” of premise one is a problem addressable by technological change, and that the “something” of premise two is a technological solution. Such is one of the ways MOOCs are often presented.

When one refuses to accept this position at face value, it’s common to endure a response that rejects the validity of all concern: well, what’s your solution, then? No critique is deemed valid without a complete alternative program. Davidson is sensitive to this criticism, and her approach emphasizes her interest in defining such an alternative. But a valid response to a solutionist proposal may also involve rejecting the desirability of a particular solution, or observing that the problem it hopes to solve isn’t actually a problem in the first place. If MOOCs are necessarily bound up with an endorsement of increased austerity, privatization, and elitist exclusivity, then those features cannot simply be short-circuited by the isolated acts of well-intentioned agents.

I am not particularly interested in whether MOOCs are “good” or “bad” educational apparatuses, nor whether individual “positive” examples of the uses of MOOCs can be found to disprove wholesale rejections for the form. Rather, I’m interested in what MOOCs generally speaking do to the educational, technological, cultural, social, and economic landscape: in how they function at large. Individual examples of MOOCs illuminate a part of that picture, but not the whole of it. That whole picture is complex; MOOCs may function on many registers all at once, with interdependencies in-between. But, overall, MOOCs seem to function first and most powerfully as new instruments of fiscal and labor policy, rather than as educational technologies. It’s perhaps time we stopped talking about their value as instruments of learning, and started talking more about what choices they are making on our behalf while we are arguing on the internet about their educational potential.


(For Part 1 of the MOOC Roundtable, click here.)

LARB Contributors

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.

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).

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.


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