Maria Bustillos at the Awl has written a sort of primer on the MOOC debate for those outside of academia. I have to admit to being continually stunned that people–lots of people–seem to think MOOCs are anything other than a money-grabbing gimmick by people trying to get a piece of the ever-shrinking higher ed pie. Bustillos’s piece is worth reading in its entirety, so I won’t quote from it, but I do want to note that the case she lays out, and that the commenters further explore, seems to be resting on a couple of incompletely-examined assumptions.
The first is the equivocation between humanities and STEM instruction, which is to say, an equivocation between content and skills as the primary deliverables of a course. I’m certain there are a lot of good reasons that MOOCs are insufficient for science and math courses–primarily the absence of labs in which to put concepts into practice. But the fact remains that STEM courses, particularly entry-level courses, are in the content business, since students require a certain baseline of knowledge before they can move on.
I can teach wildly different content in my intro-level English class each semester, and students should still leave with the same set of skills. Skills they develop because I respond to their writing several times a week, help them strengthen their arguments over the course of multiple revisions, and engage with them and each other during discussion. We might not need to be sharing the same physical space to do all that, but it’s absolutely essential that my class be the opposite of “massive” so that I can provide the sort of attention necessary for students to make real gains in thinking and writing.
Which leads to the second problematic assumption of the piece–that humanities courses are largely useless because they don’t credential for specific, desirable jobs. The personalized attention my students receive, then, is a luxury having nothing to do with the necessary process of credentialing oneself for the marketplace. And I can see how someone could get to that assumptions, because a MOOC in which a student simply absorbed information about nineteenth-century American literature and culture probably wouldn’t be of much use on the job market. It would be all content, and that’s not content employers are all that eager to have access to.
I’m not going to get into the value of literary study from a content perspective, though there’s certainly an argument to be made. But what I teach are skills. Valuable skills that prepare students for higher-level thinking, difficult writing tasks, and the ability to consider and respond to a variety of positions. The humanities teaches the sort of skills that employers consistently rank high in their list of desirable traits. We in the humanities need to be more forceful about reminding people of that. And that’s why MOOCs are so dangerous for the humanities in particular: they imply that the important part of an education is content, and that the content delivered in the humanities is trivial.
MOOCs may not be going anywhere, but the humanities should not just make the most of what little MOOCs offer us. We should be looking for alternatives that democratize access to education while emphasizing the essential and tangible skills a humanities education provides.