To what degree have the territorial dimensions of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) been made visible? Remarkably little, I would argue.
This point came has been in the back of my mind for some time on the basis of following coverage about MOOCs including the three high profile leaders of the pack (Coursera, edX, Udacity), other MOOCs (Udemy and WeduboX), and complementary online learning platforms (e.g., Course Hero, iTunesU, Kahn Academy, OpenClass, Open Learning Initiative). Of course there is a long history to the development of these MOOCs (see ‘Adjacent possible: MOOCs, Udacity, edX, Coursera‘ by the MOOC pioneer George Siemens), not to mention the impact of openly accessible courses in the 1970s and 1980s via ‘open university’ platforms that once used public television stations (e.g. British Columbia’s Knowledge Network), but we’ll leave the usually neglected historic foundations story to the side for now.
The lack of attention to the territorial dimensions of MOOCs came to the front of my mind when I attended a talk by Scott Page last week at UW-Madison during which I heard little about the geographies of MOOCs. As with much of the literature on MOOCs, Page’s talk included multiple references to enrollment numbers that generated ‘Ooos’ and ‘Wows’ from the crowd. Advocates, even reflective ones like Page, seem fixated on how many students sign up to take their MOOC courses. We’re now at a stage where tens of thousands of students is viewed as the desirable target. This drive to larger and larger numbers, much like the drive to build taller and taller skyscrapers (cf Dubai’s Burj Khalifa) is somewhat fetishistic but let’s give the MOOC people the benefit of the doubt in this exciting lift-off phase. Interestingly Page noted that maximizing volume is the defacto business model — an N-1 business model of sorts where scaling up numbers is the core objective, one that precedes an actual workable business model (that will eventually come, to be sure).
Now, as a geographer, three territorial silences initially come to my mind regarding the MOOCs discussion to date.
The first territorial silence is a basic presentation of the geographies of enrollment and completion. It is usually inferred that the high enrollment numbers mean small and bordered territorial geographies (i.e. the traditional campus) have been punctured by the MOOCs platform. Numerous comments have been made about the enrolment of students “both on-campus and worldwide” leading to the collapse of time and space.
Thus we see two simple categories of students – existing students associated with the universities backing MOOCs like edX, and new students who are located across the globe, all brought together via the MOOCs platform. While this binary is true, there are all sorts of problems with the notion of a singular ‘global’ or ‘international’ category. First, internet access continues to be limited across the globe as International Telecommunication Union data from 2011 clearly highlights.
Even if we hear about students from X number of countries who are enrolled in MOOC courses, where they come from inside said countries matters. We urgently need far more data, and visualizations, that shed light on the geographies of MOOC student enrollment and completion trends and patterns (both national and intra-national). After all, if real-time heat maps can be provided about Twitter users, surely the tech savvy backers of MOOCs platforms like edX, Coursera and Udacity can provide more information about their operations. Arguably the organizers of these MOOC platforms also have an obligation to present such data in an open and timely matter to enhance collective learning about this phenomenon. In short, what are the evolving geographies of enrollment and completion regarding each MOOC platform, and each MOOC?
The second territorial silence in the MOOCs discussion/debate regards the relevance of these primarily US university-provided courses for the world’s internet-accessible population. It is worth discussing how scalable, across national boundaries, the content of each course is. Some courses reflect the production of knowledge about phenomena or issues that are perhaps equally relevant to people in the US and Pakistan, for example. Other content, however, is deeply reflective of variations in state-society-economy relations, as well as the identity and positionality of course professors. Over time this will become even more of a factor as courses other than computer science and physics get posted. Surely, with open-access courses that are designed to reach across global space there should more visible information that flags how appropriate or relevant the content might be to students outside of the nations the course professor(s) are situated in. Of course this is not a simple thing to do but one way or another those working with MOOCs need to grapple with the myriad of challenges associated with teaching students from contexts very different than the ones their regular students are embedded in. This fact always hits you in the face when you teach a traditional class with students from around the world in it, as I did last term in my Cities and Development graduate seminar. And I am sure this comes out in discussion forums in many MOOCs and MOOC professors think about the issue a lot. But given the numbers dynamic, professors teaching MOOCs will never see the subtle looks of confusion hinting at the need for more explanation and attention to context. Given this it is even more important for MOOC sponsors and professors to be clear about the limitations of their course content.
The third territorial silence in the MOOCs discussion/debate is related to the mission issue. I find it interesting that so little attempt has been made, yet, to integrate courses, and create programs, to help students progressively acquire knowledge about territorially-specific issues or needs. There is huge unexploited potential with the MOOC platform to offer single and integrative courses and programs that grapple with issues at the city-region scale, the province/state scale, the national scale, the supra-national regional scale, and the bilateral (city to city; nation to nation; region to region) scale. MOOC courses like edX’s CS184.1x: Foundations of Computer Graphics cut across global geographies providing you have adequate internet access, which is wonderful, but maximizing enrollment numbers and global reach should not be the core objective or foundation of a platform ‘business model.’ We are educators, after all!
As an urbanist, for example, I think it would be wonderful to see a series of courses strung together that educate people about metropolitan scale politics in specific city regions, or unpack the ‘innovation’ agendas currently shaping development policies in Western cities. Likewise, universities in many continents are grappling with revenue challenges and some (especially in Europe and Asia) are pursuing technology transfer as a vehicle to diversify revenue streams and enhance ‘impact’ – in such a context a MOOC course on the long history and complex dynamics of technology transfer and innovation systems, with abundant case studies, would be very useful.
Or, at a completely different scale, imagine the value of creating territorially- and temporally-specific MOOCs to shed genuine light on the dynamics associated with specific crises in Bahrain or Syria, or tangible geographies of the ‘global’ financial system. Where are the MOOCs on politics and empirics of austerity in Europe, for example? At the moment MOOCs tend to be sectorally- and disciplinary-specific, not territory-specific.
There is a danger that MOOC content will be established in as generic and timeless a fashion as possible to maximize shelf life and ramp up enrollment numbers. But is this a positive outcome from a learning and societal development perspective? I think not. Such a model fails to take advantage of all the forms of knowledge contained in our universities and in doing so we are at risk of missing the abundant potential associated with the emerging MOOCs platform.