Susan Meisenhelder's 'MOOC Mania'

Susan Meisenhelder offers a scathing critique of MOOCs in her article “MOOC Mania” published in the latest issue of Thought & Action. (Here is a link to a ~5mb pdf of her article.)

The evidence so far suggests that MOOCs are great for a very specific kind of student looking for a very specific kind of product, but that MOOCs are really awful for some of the very groups that they are marketed to serve, namely students with less privilege (low-income, working class), and students on the lower end of the academic success scale (little education, poor performers).

Meisenhelder recites a response to criticism of MOOCs which stuck me: “In what passes for the public discussion of MOOCs in higher education, faculty have been carefully cast by many tech boosters as backward-looking, slow-moving, self-promoting Luddites cloistered in our Ivory Towers.” The thing is, I think this criticism of faculty has a lot of merit. I see a lot of my professional peers in that description–way too many, in fact.

But I don’t think that’s where the criticism of MOOCs is coming from. I think it’s coming from those faculty who have their pulse on trends in higher ed, because those are the faculty who are aware enough to care. Experimentation is a good thing. Skepticism toward the current hot trend in education is also a good thing.

There is an ethical component to this debate as well. In higher education, the students who struggle the most academically are often given the worst academic tools, the leftovers, and are expected to somehow “catch up” to everyone else, that is, to make more improvement in a shorter amount of time than the successful student requires. Full-time faculty tend to avoid involvement in remedial programs and even look down on those faculty who do get involved. (This is doubly so in mathematics. Embarrassingly, remedial education is a paria among professional mathematicians.) If we prescribe MOOCs for what ails these students, then we need to have hard evidence that MOOCs work. Right now, the evidence suggests that this particular cure is worse than the disease for these students. It would be wrong to take from them the scraps that they do have and give them even less. The ethical situation is similar for poor students.

That’s not to say that MOOCs are bad. MOOCs may be great for some kinds of students. Free access to high quality educational material is a great thing. Engaging student populations that would otherwise be disengaged is a great thing. Institutions of higher education thinking outside the box and engaging with the public in new ways is a great thing. Let’s embrace MOOCs for what they are rather than what we had hoped they might be.


Robert Jacobson

R&D-oriented computer scientist, mathematician, and software engineer with broad experience. I have particular interests in compilers, programming languages, and virtual machines; computer vision and machine learning; and algorithm design and mathematical programming.

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