Anti-MOOC advocacy

I don’t have any strong opinions on MOOCs one way or another really. On first glance, the idea has appeal to me personally. I learn better on my own at my own pace. I never got anything out of class discussion. Efficiencies of scale seem pretty cool and are capable of delivering much higher quality in general (for instance, movies are like theater MOOCs and are way better than live theater, especially compared to my local theater options). I also realize that my preferences are not everyone’s preferences, and that actually-existing implementations can be corrupted or fall short or whatever. But this is not a post about the merit of MOOCs; it is what I hope will be helpful advice to those waging battle against them.

The advice is this: don’t ever appear like you are talking about your own self-interest. Most of the detractors seem to be people who are graduate students, professors, and the like. The problem with this is that these are the people whose jobs are at stake if MOOCs take off. That makes their advocacy against MOOCs immediately suspect to anyone who does not think academics are somehow angels cut from a different cloth than the rest of us, a cloth that has no self-interested protectionist instincts. The natural response of anyone with healthy levels of cynicism to these kinds of individuals complaining about MOOCs will and should be: of course they don’t like them.

Most people have no relationship to those whose might be affected by academic jobs drying up. They almost certainly do not care if a structural shift causes those jobs to be eliminated. They really don’t. Take this story in the NY Times today about a Harvard MOOC asking alumni to donate time to help monitor and guide group discussion online. Folks in the anti-MOOC crowd recoiled in horror. I sort of get the recoil insofar as this is a free labor scheme of some sort. But I also notice that there is no similar recoil at using alumni to conduct regional interviews for applicants to these same schools, which already happens. Of course the alumni interviewers displace admissions jobs, not academic jobs, so you can start to ponder why the difference in reaction. The point here is that most people will respond to this NY Times article the same way that they would to an article about regional alumni interviewers: give a colossal shrug and think to themselves “who gives a shit?”

I am not saying the anti-MOOC people only talk about themselves. Generally they do not. They have other arguments — some better than others — about why MOOCs are bad that focus on student experience and such. I am suggesting that, to maximize the effectiveness of their advocacy, they should only ever make those other arguments. They should never mention themselves or even make it seem like they are contemplating their own job situation, or that of their colleagues. The instant they do so, they lose huge credibility. They appear to be people worried about protecting their own jobs and salaries, and even their non-self-interested arguments get read as covers for the real reason they are mad.