On January 27th, Cathy N. Davidson launches “The History and Future of (Mostly) Higher Education,” a MOOC connected to dozens of other courses and events distributed across the web. Over six weeks, Hybrid Pedagogy will host a discussion group, codenamed MOOC MOOC Dark Underbelly, a rowdy exploration of topics unearthed by the course and its offspring, a place to examine the deeper (and sometimes darker) issues implicated in these discussions. Our node will include related articles, curated content from participants, weekly #moocmooc chats, and more. Watch @hybridped and @moocmooc for details. In this article, Cathy offers 10 things she’s learned from making her meta-MOOC.

1. It’s a little bit “Wayne’s World,” a little bit “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,” and a little bit amateur hour (and that’s a good thing).

Starting last May 2013, my HASTAC colleague Kaysi Holman and I began making a meta-MOOC, “The History and Future of (Mostly) Higher Education.”  It comes with a long, whimsical subtitle intended to disrupt traditional ideas of the purpose and function of higher education:  “Or, How We can Unlearn our Old Patterns to Relearn for a More Engaged, Successful, Fruitful, Productive, Humane, Happy, Beautiful, and Socially-Conscious Life.” We made it for Coursera with which my university, Duke, is a partner. The Duke News team shot the opening promo video with two real cameras and real lights, but, for the rest of the six week course, Kaysi and I filmed with and delivered into a low-tech webcam neither of us had ever shot with before, a la Wayne and Garth.

Amateur videography is not really what I signed on for but it turned out to be interesting. I learned a lot about the art of scripting an entire course in 8-15 minute segments, designing and reading from cue cards (harder than it looks, as numerous hilarious Saturday Night Live segments attest), and storyboarding text and images. Kaysi, who has a law degree, not only read the fine print (confusing and in one case contradictory) on the agreements and helped with the IRB, she also learned many new skills: ScreenFlow editing, uni- and bi-directional mic’ing, and lighting to try to compensate, futilely, for the unflattering zombie green of office fluorescents, to name just a few. She edited, interjected explanatory texts and images, and designed landing pages. I’m not sure what we would have done without Lynda.com.

One reason the course is a meta-MOOC is we actually talk about this process, not just in articles like this but on camera, in the MOOC itself. We make my cue cards available as study guides, and in one segment pan the entire PhD Lab in Digital Knowledge where all the cue cards for the first several weeks’ were strewn around the walls on giant post-its. After Kaysi found out a better way to correct the flashlight-under-the-chin ghoulish light, we filmed a segment where we asked our MOOC participants to chime in and let us know if we’d done it better.

The result? Very DIY in look and feel. If we were doing it all over a second time, we’d do it much better.

And that’s the message and methodology of the course itself. Talk about “meta.” This meta-MOOC advocates that 21st century education needs to return to Deweyite roots, embracing much more of a maker spirit, and much more willingness to experiment, to stray away from expertise (despite the “doc on the laptop” premise of most MOOCs). The course advocates a spirit of innovation, experimentation, collaboration, daring, and, sometimes, the result is DIY amateurism. Thus the long subtitle. The learning is lifelong. Or as Kathleen Woodward, Director of the Simpson Center for the Humanities at the University of Washington, says in this era of constant change, “we’re all non-traditional learners now.”

One metaphor we develop in the meta-MOOC is that there’s always someone else behind the camera. As expert as we think we may be in our areas of specialization, life (and education) is about all those areas in which we are not expert and learning how to thrive, sometimes by getting information online, sometimes by learning the skills of experimentation and iteration, and sometimes we get by — as the song goes — with the help of our friends. None of us has all the answers but, together, we might be able to come up with a few good ones. As we say at HASTAC, difference is not a deficit. It’s our operating system. And necessary in a world where we are all non-traditional learners.

Once, on a lecture tour in Australia, I happened to eat at a restaurant with a sound system that played opera arias performed by the restaurant’s proprietor and chef. The food was good but the music was pretty pitchy. The menus read, “As an opera singer, I am a great chef.” That about sums it up. Not all our skills qualify us as experts, and sometimes it is our amateur skills that get us through crises, help us improvise, teach us how to collaborate, or provide us with enormous pleasure.FutureEd Graphic

2. I could have written a book in the same amount of time it has taken to make this MOOC (and I’m learning more and having more fun doing it).

We spent an estimated 40 hours a week from May 2013 through January 2014 working on the MOOC — and that’s before the course even begins. The investment in time makes sense for me, since I am passionately interested in innovation in higher education, and (meta again) I wanted to learn about making a MOOC inside and out. For a junior scholar, trying to work one’s way toward tenure, committing this much time to an online course that counts neither as a publication nor as a university course would require serious consideration. Is this how a junior person wants to commit her time?

That time commitment and potential professional constraint is, to my mind, a real problem. Do we really want knowledge that comes only from senior professors? I don’t know about other profs but my most exciting conversations invariably are those with junior colleagues, graduate students, or undergraduate students. In fact, I just had a great one about how to use and not use Wikipedia with a middle-school student. I’ve written elsewhere about the narrowness of MOOC education only emanating from R1 universities, but the senior scholar problem promises to be just as stultifying.

3. A MOOC made by a professor at an elite university is not “the same” education that students at the university receive (and in some cases it may be better).

The Coursera website promises “a future where everyone has access to a world-class education that has so far been available to a select few.” Are my amateur lecture videos a “world-class education?” Not even close. You pay for an elite education because of the individual instruction and advising, the array of rich face-to-face experiences (with teachers and peers), conversations, labs, art exhibits, seminars, study abroad possibilities, extracurricular events, practical internships and engagement opportunities, and research experiences offered by an elite institution. Even though we strive to make our meta-MOOC as participatory as possible, a free online course can never offer all that a tuition-paying Duke student can take advantage of in the course of a semester.

On the other hand, coupled with local peer meet-ups, online discussion groups, forums, virtual office hours, and the kind of interaction we hope to inspire in our meta-MOOC, this experience may well be richer than what, at many public and private universities, might be a 200- or 600-person lecture class, with multiple choice quizzes and a TA to answer questions in a few office hours a week. But let’s quiet the hype. A MOOC, even a meta-MOOC, is not offering the kind of personalized, individualized U.S.-style liberal arts education that is admired and envied by students around the world.

4. MOOCs are not going to take away your teaching job at a two-year or four-year college or large public or private university.

The hype about MOOCs offering the equivalent of a Harvard or Stanford education for free is just silly. Equally implausible is the ancillary hysteria that MOOCs will be used to take away jobs. The appalling and reprehensible 70% contingent and adjunct labor statistic in higher ed began long before MOOCs were a gleam in Sebastian Thrun’s or Daphne Koller’s eye.  As I wrote in a blog post, “Schadenfreude for the MOOC is not Joy for the Higher Ed Status Quo,” if we scapegoat MOOCs for all the troubles in higher education, we’ll be left with no solutions, no progress, no innovation, and no change in the status quo. Simply protesting MOOCs is not enough. We have to be smart about new ideas and about what is or is not threatening and what is or is not efficacious about MOOCs. We need to work together, and with the interest of our students utmost, to change the conversation back from a contempt for higher education to appreciation of its importance to civil society and to the future. There is no victory in undercutting MOOCs if our hostility does nothing to change the percentage of adjuncts or public support for higher education — or the status quo of the structures, legacies, outmoded methods, assumptions, and metrics of higher education today.

Technology has a way of making people lose their marbles — both the hype and the hysteria we saw a year ago were ridiculous.  It is good that society in general is hitting the pause button. Is there a need for online education? Absolutely. Are MOOCs the best way? Probably not in most situations, but possibly in some, and, potentially, in a future iteration, massive learning possibilities well might offer something to those otherwise excluded from higher education (by reasons of cost, time, location, disability, or other impediments).

Is traditional online learning all great? Not by a long shot. Is traditional onsite education perfect?  Not even close. There is much that we can all learn in having massive participation from individuals and communities around the world, united only by an interest in a given topic. I know there is. And I plan to report on that soon.

If MOOCs — and this meta-MOOC in particular — remind everyone (including legislators) that successful teaching is a handcraft (you don’t teach your infant to walk by showing her a video), that’s a good thing. Also, in the flipped classroom model, there is no cost saving; in fact, there is more individual attention. The MOOC video doesn’t save money since, we know, it requires all the human and technological apparatus beyond the video in order to be effective. A professor has many functions in a university beyond giving a lecture — including research, training future graduate students, advising, and running the university, teaching specialized advance courses, and moving fields of knowledge forward.

For now, my big advice: Calm down, everyone! Let’s learn from this rather than shut down possibilities before thinking through what they might be or what they might lead to.

5. Most MOOC students are not degree-earning, college-age students (so MOOCs will neither solve the problem of the high cost of education nor address the problem of student debt).

To date, the research I’ve seen suggests the typical participant in my meta-MOOC will be at least five or ten years beyond college age, will already have some form of undergraduate education or even a degree, may well be underpaid in a current job or be looking for a better job, and will come from outside the U.S. My MOOC is less about replacing someone’s classroom teaching responsibilities than performing public outreach, a public service from the academy to the larger world.

This is one reason why I’m not at all worried about the attrition rate. If only about 4-9% of participants finish a MOOC, what else is new for the success rates of self-improvement schemes? How many of your New Year’s resolutions have you still kept?

6. Faculty are far more creative, inventive, innovative, and experimental educators than both the pro- and anti-MOOC press ever gives us credit for being (i.e. my meta-MOOC is just one of many fascinating learning experiments riffing on MOOCs).

If ever there was an advertisement for the importance of higher learning and the reason why we should be investing in higher education — not cutting it back or trying to find ways to automate it — it is offered by the MOOCs themselves. Our meta-MOOC is offering all kinds of experiments in peer-to-peer learning and assessment, in online discussion groups, in interactive global forums on the subject of educational innovation. My face-to-face students will learn about the history and future of higher education partly by serving as “community wranglers” each week in the MOOC, their main effort being to transform the static videos into participatory conversations.  I’m also “team teaching” the same course with profs at Stanford (David Palumbo-Liu) and UC Santa Barbara (Chris Newfield), so the interactions of face-to-face, distance, massive, and intimate are multiple, experimental, innovative. Of course all this is connected to the larger HASTAC network FutureEd initiative. It’s all pretty thrilling and goes far, far beyond a normal broadcast model of MOOCs.

But I’m not even close to being alone here. Hybrid Pedagogy hosted MOOC MOOC barely after the first MOOC headed out of the gate. And in making my meta-MOOC, I’ve been talking to many other MOOC professors. I’ve been humbled all over again by the innovation, ingenuity, and dedication of teachers — to their field, to their subject matter, and to anonymous students worldwide. My favorite is Professor Al Filreis of the University of Pennsylvania who teaches ModPo (Modern and Contemporary American Poetry) as a seminar.  Each week students, onsite and online, discuss a poem in real time. There are abundant office hours, discussion leaders, and even a phone number you can call to discuss your interpretations of the week’s poem. ModPo students are so loyal that, when Al gave a talk at Duke, several of his students drove in from two and three states away to be able to testify to how much they cherished the opportunity to talk about poetry together online. Difficult contemporary poets who had maybe 200 readers before now have thousands of passionate fans worldwide.

Interestingly, MOOCs turn out to be a great advertisement for the humanities too. There was a time when people assumed MOOC participants would only be interested in technical or vocational training. Surprise! It turns out people want to learn about culture, history, philosophy, social issues of all kinds. Even in those non-US countries where there is no tradition of liberal arts or general education, people are clamoring to both general and highly specialized liberal arts courses.

7. The business model of MOOCs is at best naïve, at worst suspect (and no doubt will change many times in the future).

First let’s talk about the MOOC makers, the professors. Once the glamor goes away, why would anyone make a MOOC? I cannot speak for anyone else — since it is clear that there is wide variation in how profs are paid to design MOOCs — so let me just tell you my arrangement. I was offered $10,000 to create and teach a MOOC. Given the amount of time I’ve spent over the last seven months and that I anticipate once the MOOC begins, that’s less than minimum wage. I do this as an overload; it in no way changes my Duke salary or job requirement. More to the point, I will not be seeing a penny of that stipend. It’s in a special account that goes to the TAs for salary, to travel for the assistants to go to conferences for their own professional development, for travel to make parts of the MOOC that we’ve filmed at other locations, for equipment, and so forth. If I weren’t learning so much and enjoying it so much or if it weren’t entirely voluntary (no one put me up to this!), it would be a rip off. I have control over whether my course is run again or whether anyone else could use it.

Nor is the revenue direct. Students don’t pay. If you want a certificate (more on that later), you pay a modest amount, around $50 at this writing. But that, even at the scale of thousands, is not enough to make this work. And it is not the equivalent of actual course credit. For legislators looking to save public dollars, or administrators looking to keep down costs, MOOC revenue models are not viable at present — and may never be without a lot of cost increases. MOOCs remain not the silver bullet to save college costs but, emphatically, caveat emptor.

8. Because of MOOCs, there’s been a sudden re-emphasis on the importance of good classroom teaching — and that’s good for everyone.

I often end my talks with a scary slide that says, “If we (profs) can be replaced by a computer screen, we should be.” By that I mean that if we offer nothing more in our classrooms than what a screen can offer, then online learning is preferable. But this is also meant as a challenge: teachers need to work hard to show what they offer that no computer can. This isn’t just the flipped classroom model. It is an aspiration to engaged, excited, inspired teaching and learning, led by students themselves. Interestingly, since MOOCs, I have heard more faculty members — senior and junior — talking about the quality of teaching and learning than I have ever heard before in my career.FutureEd Term Commonality Plot 2

The MOOC is just one part of HASTAC’s FutureEd Initiative that includes dozens of classes, research projects, and informal groups spread around the world. This visualization plots keywords from descriptions of the various related courses and events.


9. The best use of MOOCs may not be to deliver uniform content massively but to create communities and networks of passionate learners galvanized around a particular topic of shared interest.

To my mind, the potential for thousands of people to work together in local and distributed learning communities is very exciting. In a world where news has devolved into grandstanding, badgering, hyperbole, accusation, and sometimes even falsehood, I love the greater public good of intelligent, thoughtful, accurate, reliable content on deep and important subjects — whether algebra, genomics, Buddhist scripture, ethics, cryptography, classical music composition, or parallel programming (to list just a few offerings coming up on the Coursera platform). It is a huge public good when millions and millions of people worldwide want to be more informed, educated, trained, or simply inspired.

In our meta-MOOC, we hope to galvanize a community, for example, to crowdsource a timeline of international educational innovation. We hope to have people interview one another and upload videos around the simple question “Who’s your favorite teacher and why?” and then we’ll do data analysis and visualization to see what collectively inspires us. And we’ll end with our project to “Design Higher Education from Scratch.” My face to face students will work in teams and put up three different models on the Coursera site and then we’ll invite the thousands of collaborators to mod, remix, iterate, and fork any way they wish. If it works, it will be a fascinating, inspiring, worthwhile experiment, in every way.  If it doesn’t, we’ll probably learn even more.

10. I don’t have a clue what I will learn from actually teaching my meta-MOOC (and I can’t wait to find out).

I’ll report back after my MOOC is under way to report on what I’m learning. My students will be blogging weekly for the Chronicle of Higher Education on their experiences turning a MOOC into a meta-MOOC. If you are interested, join us! Be a part of “The History and Future of (Mostly) Higher Education” or contribute to our FutureEd Initiative that builds on this MOOC. It’s not a MOOC — it’s a movement. And it’s quite an adventure. Let’s get started!

[photo by Thomas Hawk]