UPDATE: Signed comments preferred. Non-sketchy email addresses required.
Hi all! It is, as always, some combination of fun and anxiety-producing to be guest blogging here again. Many thanks to Brian for inviting me back, and happy start of the fall term to everyone.
So my unit is making a MOOC.
I will admit that I’ve been underwhelmed with much of the hand-wringing about MOOCs. Most of the time the critique seems to be that they will threaten the traditional classroom. I’m just not that convinced that the kinds of traditional classrooms they plausibly threaten - mostly overcrowded, underfunded classrooms taught by underpaid, undersupported adjuncts - are serving anyone so wonderfully that they don’t deserve a little healthy competition. This widely-circulated letter from the San Jose State University Philosophy Department articulates powerful criticisms of Michael Sandel’s MOOC, but they seemed to me to be specific to that class and not generalizable to the technology as a whole. Watching my colleagues put a MOOC together, I am pretty impressed with the technological and pedagogical creativity involved. I am not prone to nostalgia or luddism, and it strikes me as an utterly open question whether the traditional classroom is the best educational forum for the vast majority of students who are not enrolled in fancy advanced seminars at top schools.
Now that I am in on the making of one of these, though, it seems to me that there are interesting problems they raise that are getting little to no attention. I want to mention a couple, although I can’t delve into them in detail in a blog post. I don’t claim these are the most pressing issues MOOCs raise; they are just examples.
- They raise disturbing intellectual property concerns. We contribute our thoughts and performances. Those then belong to a private company, and we don’t have any norms in place for how that company might use that material in the future. Maybe eventually there will be campaign ads for Rick Santorum running under my lecture, or a clip of me will be edited out of context and repurposed for who knows what end - plopped into some awful ‘pro vs. con’ debate I never would have agreed to participate in or something. I think that we academics are easily lulled by the idea that we are producing courses that people can take *for free*, as if that means that we are not actually participating in a long-term for-profit venture in which we are not the owners of the means of production.
- The MOOC-makers can (and do) collect an enormous amount of fine-grained data about the tens of thousands of students who enroll in these classes and their use of the materials, and they use this data for what amounts to market research and product development. The data could be used for any number of potentially odious purposes - for drawing conclusions about racially-based learning styles, or for manipulating course content to encourage purchasing behavior, or who knows what. Especially since part of the goal of MOOCs is to reach people in developing countries and the like, it seems to me ridiculous to think that the students can be taken to have understood and implicitly consented to providing this data while relinquishing all control over its use. MOOC students are basically unwitting participants in a massive, profit-driven social research project; at a minimum this surely requires some careful ethical reflection.
In short, I think that when it comes to MOOCs we need to be having hard conversations about intellectual property, ownership of the means of production, privacy, and other complicated issues in applied ethics. And I am sure there are other hard conversations to be had as well. Mostly, my sense is that our technological capacity here is outpacing our capacity to establish thoughtful practical norms and ethical constraints on the use of this technology. Thoughts?