Friday, May 24, 2013

MOOCs and Ethical Obligations

I awoke on Tuesday morning to find that the Chronicle had published a provocative article on the ethical obligations of MOOC instructors, with the headline "MOOC Professors Claim No Responsibility for How Courses Are Used."  This led to a flurry of activity on my Twitter Feed, with a range of academics and others contributing to the conversation.  Jonathan Rees had a characteristically savvy and pointed response to the article as well (though I would not bundle MOOCs and flipped classes the way he does--but that's for another post).

It's a question that MOOC professors should have been asking themselves from the start, instead of assuming that administrators and legislators at institutions lower on the food chain would behave "reasonably."  In fact, from the perspective of budgets and current politics, many believe that they *are* behaving reasonably when they make plans to license MOOCs and make them credit-bearing.  They care not a whit about the authorial intentions of the MOOC professors (and, as the CHE article as well as Michael Sandel's comments about SJSU's use of his HarvardX Justice course suggest, at least some MOOC professors also don't care what happens to the commodities they created).  Unfortunately, not caring--even remaining deliberately ignorant--is not a morally acceptable position to adopt.  If someone decides to commodify a product--in this case a course--they have an ethical responsibility towards the community to ensure that the commodity is not used to do harm to the larger community.

Many MOOC professors seem not to grasp the significance of their participation in the grand MOOC Inc scheme.  I won't pretend to understand individual motives, which must be highly varied.  But I suspect that, whatever amount ego is involved, at the root of it, many are motivated by the opportunity to touch the lives of tens of thousands, to achieve a kind of notoriety that is impossible in a bricks and mortar university--even for award-winning senior faculty.  As well, they are motivated by the propaganda of altruism that Coursera, in particular, has worked hard to spread.  Certainly, there's no question that access to a high quality education is a significant national and global issue; and there's no question that working to increase accessibility is a good thing.  The difficulties come when one realizes that the MOOC Incs need to make money, they need to monetize.  When this need to monetize collides with the desire of many state legislatures to decrease the costs of higher education to their citizens, serious problems arise.  It is at this point that the MOOC professor has a moral obligation to, at the very least, take a position.  If the MOOC professor is in it for the money s/he can make from licensing fees (a process which will inevitably decrease salaries and job opportunities at institutions down the food chain), fine.  But own this. Don't hide behind claims of altruism or, worse, indifference.

Alternatively, if your motives truly were about outreach, about making your passion available to a larger audience, own that and protect your product.  Be sure that your commodified course cannot be sold without your permission; take an interest in the terms under which it can be run at a different institution.  All of us share syllabuses and teaching ideas; there's no reason not to share videos, practice questions, and other learning activities with our colleagues around the world.  The problems start when regents and legislators, most of whom have little experience with the nuts and bolts of the academic enterprise, treat a MOOC course as if it were the same as a classroom course or even a textbook.  It shares things in common with both of these, yet it is neither.  Faculty need to be vocal about these distinctions.  We can't simply dismiss MOOCs out of hand; we have to explain and perhaps even demonstrate why they don't and can't do what regents and legislators want to claim they can do.

We also need to be sure not to demonize all MOOC "superprofessors."  It's easy to do, especially because the media coverage has been so polarizing.  In the CHE article on the ethics of MOOC creation, it was as if they went out of their way to find the most tone-deaf, out of touch with the rest of the academic world faculty to speak on the record.  Other MOOC faculty, though. are being thoughtful and responsible about their courses.  On Monday afternoon, I spent a delightful hour on the phone on Monday afternoon with one such professor, Dr. Al Filreis.

Dr. Filreis offers his quirky and fascinating take on modern and contemporary American poetry in a MOOC titled ModPo that rums from the Coursera platform.  The course runs for 10 weeks and, Dr. Filreis repeatedly stated, is not intended to replace a university course (though it could be used as part of a flipped class led by another instructor); or to run independent of him and his teaching team. It is, notably, focused on discussion rather than lecture--a great model for other faculty.   Dr. Filreis is motivated by an altruistic desire to make his course more widely available to, especially, adult learners; and secondarily, to work in tandem with other faculty around the country to coordinate his MOOC with campus-based courses.  He was clear that he would not willingly relinquish control over his course to Penn to market; and that he would shut the course down rather than allow it to be run independent of him.  Of course, it remains to be seen whether the institutions who are building these courses at significant cost will respect the wishes of the MOOC professors if push came to shove.

The current conversation about MOOCs, as polemical as it is, is a crucial one to have; and it is crucial that institutional faculty step up and engage themselves in this discussion, take a stand.  A number of Harvard faculty have taken a first step in that direction, in a letter to the dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences that was signed by about 60 faculty.  This is an important step and is one that should be followed by faculty at every institution currently involved with one of the MOOC Incs as well as faculty as schools that are deliberating the licensing of MOOCs to be taught on their own campuses.  At the moment, the quietism of faculty is being exploited; faculty are being caricatured as researchers who can't teach, don't care about teaching, and would happily do anything to avoid doing the real work of teaching. Legislators, regents, even the MOOC Incs. promise that all of this is going to result in less work for us.  They leave out the fact that it will also, certainly, result in even deeper cuts to the instructional staff and will decimate the ladder faculty.  And that's the thing: whether we like it or not, we are all part of a community and we have moral responsibilities to other members of that community, including the graduate students who are training for teaching positions. 

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