How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the MOOC

David Clemens

Worry pervades higher education. Voices whisper, “Where are we going?” Helium keeps leaking out of the higher education bubble: too much cost, not enough benefit, constricting SLOs, competition from for-profit schools and Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). Will there be creative destruction, or just destruction? Are we the last professors at the soon-to-be administration-only colleges? Whither accreditation?  Whither tenure? Whither the liberal arts?  No one can read the tea leaves.

Charles Darwin suggested that one must adapt to changing conditions or yield to those who can; Clayton Christensen made the same point about business and education. That’s why, on a chilly day last fall, I found myself standing against a green screen, broiling under TV lights, squinting to read off a tiny Teleprompter that scrolled just eight or nine words at a time with no punctuation. I had been standing in this spot for two hours; my legs ached, I was getting hoarse, and every time I spotted a cue on the mini-prompt, I had to look down to advance the next PowerPoint slide on an off-camera laptop, take a slow breath for editing purposes, then resume my lecture. Later, post-production would edit out the head bobbing and composite the green screen so that my background would appear to be the small Doric temple on the National Mall. It was exhausting and nerve-wracking, but all in a day’s work making my MOOC.

Five years ago, when I started the Monterey Peninsula College Great Books Online Certificate Program (described here and here), I had three goals. First, to shelter my college’s endangered traditional core curriculum under a “certificate” umbrella. Second, to boost enrollment by making courses and the certificate available online.  And third, to combine the first two so as to expose as many people as possible to what Robert Hutchins called “The Great Conversation,” those key works of literature, history, philosophy, and science that define and express Western civilization.

But you don’t jump from Family Guy into Proust.  First, I would have to establish in students an understanding of why great books matter, what constitutes a great book, how reading differs from watching, how great books and democracy are related, and I would need pre-emptively to identify and respond to critics of great books, as well as teach how to read a challenging book (after Mortimer Adler).

My tactic was more PBS than Ph.D., a revival of middlebrow learning popularized by multi-episode TV programs such as Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation, Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man, and Robert Hughes’s The Shock of the New, formatted to exploit the new delivery systems of the Internet. I created a multi-lesson course, Introduction to Great Books, for online delivery.  Then I built a website; I opened a Facebook site; I blogged; I promoted with GoogleAds; I recorded guest speakers and put them on YouTube. With this new media DNA, it was inevitable that I should eventually MOOCify my course.

But grassroots MOOC-making is not easy. The heavyweight MOOC hosts (Coursera, EdX, Udacity) affiliate with elite universities (Stanford, MIT, Ivies) while I teach at a small community college. The big boys want “profess-stars” who can draw tens if not hundreds of thousands of students with name recognition alone. That would not be me. For the same reason, the giants have little or no interest in the withering liberal arts. Instead, the MOOCiverse is dense with STEM and CTE courses because they are high-demand, high-traffic, job-related, and easily adapted for online delivery. Finally, a major league MOOC can cost upwards of $250,000 to create. My school’s tuition is $46/unit; quarter mil courses are a non-starter.

Part of the MOOC genesis and ethos was “free education for all.” That’s what “Open” means:  no placement tests, no prerequisites, no residency requirements, and badges or certificates that replace college credit. Y’all come!  Of course, total availability means no cost, and no cost means no revenue for the sponsoring institution, a concept that lives at the dangerous intersection of Altruism Avenue and Economic Suicide Boulevard. Turned out I had contrived a perfect edu-storm: a course in a subject widely considered passé, at a huge cost, producing no income! 

Happily, there’s still room on the planet for a cockeyed optimist. 

Instead of giving up, I looked around and found that there are other, less glamorous, MOOC hosts, and picked one: San Francisco-based Even though under the radar, Udemy still claims 8,000 courses and two million students, employing a kind of market/apprenticeship approach. Anyone can sign up to teach a course in anything because Udemy is not affiliated with a university or consortium of universities. Instructors can teach, and charge, whatever they want, and Udemy hosts, promotes, and takes a cut that averages around 30%. My work on behalf of great books is evangelical and pro bono, but I realized I would have to charge something to make it worth Udemy’s time to market the course since 30% of nothing is nothing. Because I couldn’t grant college credit, I stripped out the writing assignments, the six textbooks, and the mandatory discussions, leaving just me to provide congenial lectures and pictures à la Clark, Bronowski, and Hughes.  

Udemy proved pretty laissez faire but stressed one design feature—make 60% of your content visual (computer screens are not essay-friendly). Shoestring MOOCers often use a webcam resulting in a cheesy, homemade YouTube effect but I wanted something high def and professional-looking. My college simply doesn’t have the technological muscle to produce, much less host, a MOOC, but the local cable access channel (Access Monterey Peninsula or AMP) was the answer with its studio, lights, cameras, production and post-production expertise. Still, I had never made a MOOC and they had never shot one, so we held hands, said a prayer, and jumped off the high board. 

Squinting and sweltering, I recorded eight lectures in front of a silent, imaginary audience, adding the PowerPoint slides to highlight important quotes or images. Then AMP went to work, adding music and the Greek temple background, editing out my ducking to advance the slides, and helping with the uploading to Udemy, all at a fraction of the cost for a big boys’ gold-plated MOOC.

Maybe, in time, my MOOC will prove intriguing enough to act as a funnel into my college credit course and online certificate program.

Are MOOCs “the answer” to higher education’s myriad problems? Probably not.  MOOCophobia is misplaced; nothing can surpass Socratic dialogue or shared inquiry around a table. No one has ever been inspired by a PowerPoint slide. On the other hand, I learned a lot from Kenneth Clark, Jacob Bronowski, and Robert Hughes. That’s why I’ve learned to stop worrying and love my MOOC.

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