Standing Still

One of my favorite ways of studying historic change is to look at it through the eyes of someone who did not modify his or her position or disposition, regardless of the fact that consensus was dramatically transforming around them.

The most dramatic example of this would be Cato the Younger who did not budge one millimeter from his Republican ideals, even as the rule of Senators gave way to generals and eventually emperors in Ancient Rome.

Most of the time, these types of situations are far less dramatic (and don’t require those who stubbornly hold onto a certain view to commit suicide in defense of their principles).  In such cases, it usually takes the form of a person who continues advocating a majority position long after it no longer represents the majority.

I thought of this a couple of weeks ago when I found myself taking the role of an ardent defender of MOOCs railing against a string of backlash stories that came in the wake of changes over at Udacity.  The reason why this unanticipated behavior fits (somewhat) into my model for studying historic change is that this blog (in fact the entire Degree of Freedom project) was designed to inject some perspective – derived from ground-level experience – into a MOOC debate which, at the time, was characterized by an excess of zeal from MOOC supporters eager to see this new learning medium immediately put on par with attending class at a residential college.

OK, in retrospect such calls now look like rhetorical excess amplified through an educational and general media eager to blend technical utopianism with a desire to “stick it” to hoity-toity colleges that were ripping off America’s youth.   But as this project inches closer to the finish line, it’s been weird to watch the ground shift beneath me to the point where today’s rhetoric excess is coming from those who feel the MOOC experiment to be a danger to the entire educational edifice delivered with the impression that the sooner the whole thing passes into oblivious the better.

This excessive negative commentary seem just as ill informed as previous excessive cheering for MOOCs with regard to the lack of actual experience creating or taking a massive course informing either claims or accusations.  For just as earlier enthusiasts fixated on one high-profile aspect of the MOOC phenom (Free Courses from Harvard!!!!!), the backlashers can’t seem to think beyond their own all-powerful factoid (95% Drop Out Rates!!!!!!).

Now I won’t jump again into the debate over gradation numbers, except to reiterate that neither 100,000+ enrollments nor 90-95% attrition statistics do justice to what is really going on in the world of actual MOOC classes.  And while we are on the subject of the real world, it’s going to take years for MOOCs to encroach in any meaningful way into formal credit-requiring degree programs, and even when if/when they do they will need to take their place alongside a host of other services (AP, CLEP, ACE transfer credit programs, etc.) that might in aggregate provide a way to give students some tuition relief (but only if institutions start looking seriously at offering shortened pathways to a BA).

And so we are left with a MOOC movement that has “merely” raised the bar in online education, created an environment whereby educators eager to teach as many people as possible are given the opportunity to do so, and hundreds of thousands of people (less impressive than millions, but not by much) are eagerly signing up to learn and are learning.

I began this project as a cautious optimist over what MOOCs might evolve into and having watched that evolution take place over the last twelve months, I see no reason to change my disposition.  If MOOCs simply end up being the fad that critics claim them to be, then this optimism will be shown to have been misplaced.  But if MOOCs are simply riding the hype-cycle roller coaster then perhaps consensus will again move beneath all of us as we move towards a plateau of enlightenment that will finally allow us to understand what this fuss was all about.

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