MOOCs and the Mythological Promise

Daphne Koller is leaving Coursera to join Google Alphabet Calico.  EdTech is not the sort of field that keeps up with comings and goings a la the Hollywood Reporter, but this movement is significant in that Koller (along with Sebastian Thrun and Andrew Ng) were the public faces of The Year of the MOOC, MOOCmania and All Things MOOC after the stratospheric success of Stanford’s Fall 2011 courses.  Thrun remains at Udacity but recently stepped down as CEO, while Ng left the day-to-day operations of Coursera in 2014.  With Koller also leaving, MOOC’s original three have all now moved on from the immediate operations of their spawn.

Interestingly, the other MOOC professor at Stanford in 2011, who was not part of the media push or start-up aftermath,  was Jennifer Widom.  She has continued to teach MOOCs since 2011, and during her current sabbatical year is offering free courses in data and design…and those free courses are going to be in-person.

It’s been five years since the initial three Stanford MOOCs were announced, four years since The Year of the MOOC and the tsunami coming to education and the rotting tree, three years since SJSU hit the pause button on the MOOCs promised to save their school, two years since the failures of MOOCs were mansplained into the promise of MOOC 2.0, and one year since nobody took advantage of the ASU/edX Global Freshman Academy.  It has been a lot of bluster but very little result.  Today, people still make MOOCs and people still take MOOCs, but the idea of higher education disrupted and 10 universities rings hollow.  MOOCs were much more the signifier of sociocultural phenomenon than they were an educational salvation.

It would seem the five year anniversary would be a time for a postmortem rather than a celebration.  However, despite little beyond the anecdotal records its founders decried as lack of evidence, MOOCs continue to be set forth as a potential savior of whatever it is that is broken about education.  A quick Google News search of MOOCs results in numerous local news outlets extolling the virtues of specific MOOCs, the 2016 version of ‘there’s an app for that.’  MOOC funding from venture capital continues.  Even critical articles about MOOCs frame discussion as a ‘not now, but later’ to discuss the transformational potential of the magical technology + education equation.

The most widely quoted poetry from the 20th Century belongs to TS Eliot’s The Hollow Men, poem and poet both synonymous with modernism:

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper

EdTech, or really any system or structure permeating society, does not function under modernist sensibilities.  We push MOOCs not because they have any chance of solving whatever it is which needs to be solved, but because we want to believe there is some one-click option that we could employ and it would create the solution we desire.  Eliot is the oft-quoted but wrong lens.  It is better to consider Barthes’ view of myth and the resurrection of the falsely obvious.  In his preface to Mythologies (1972), Barthes notes how the dominant cultural nodes throughout everyday life conspire to “dress up” our reality to contextualize it in terms of history.  This history should not be considered objective, factual or just but rather the determination of the dominant social climate of the time.  As Neil Selwyn (2013) notes, the expansion of technology (and the rise of EdTech) coincides with a growth in libertarian ideals and neoliberal governmental policies, a one-two punch of individual exceptionalism and belief in the power of the outsider.  We believe in the spirit of the entrepreneur, the perspective of the organization and the power of the technological.  The MOOC is the best yet embodiment of all these pressures and beliefs, a private system using the wizardry of technology to promote a public good while championing the individual.  It matters little that MOOCs, five years later, are an unkept promise.  They continue to be a great story.

Featured Image courtesy of Alan Levine (CC BY 2.0)