A star MOOC professor defects – At least for now

Mitchell Duneier once was a MOOC star. But today he's more like a conscientious objector. Worried that massive open online courses might lead United States legislators to cut state university budgets, the Princeton University sociology professor has pulled out of the movement – at least for now.

[This is an article from The Chronicle of Higher Education, America’s leading higher education publication. It is presented here under an agreement with University World News.]

After teaching introductory sociology through Coursera last year, Duneier extolled his experience in a Chronicle commentary. The New York Times featured him on its front page, and Thomas L Friedman wrote about him in a column. One of Coursera's founders, Daphne Koller, plugged his course in a TED talk.

But Duneier has now ceased teaching his sociology MOOC. The change of heart happened, he says, after Coursera approached him about licensing his course so other universities and colleges could use the content in a blended format, meaning a mix of online and face-to-face instruction. That could save institutions money.

"I've said no, because I think that it's an excuse for state legislatures to cut funding to state universities," Duneier says. "And I guess that I'm really uncomfortable being part of a movement that's going to get its revenue in that way. And I also have serious doubts about whether or not using a course like mine in that way would be pedagogically effective."

Now Duneier is taking a ‘wait and see’ approach. He calls his non-credit Coursera class, which reached 40,000 students from 113 countries during its run in the summer of 2012, "one of the greatest experiences of my career." He would teach a MOOC again, given the right circumstances.

"I would like to see things move in a more positive direction," Duneier says, "but I'm not optimistic about that right now."

Revolt at San Jose State

Duneier's defection thrusts him into the contentious debate over college courses using MOOC content. The issue gained attention in May after philosophy professors at San Jose State University refused to teach a course produced by edX, the MOOC platform of Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, or MIT.

In an open letter to the edX course's creator – Michael Sandel, a Harvard University government professor and political philosopher – the San Jose professors warned of "replacing faculty with cheap online education."

Professors "who care about public education" should not create products that undermine it, the letter concluded.

Duneier's move also points to potential sustainability issues for the companies that champion MOOCs and the institutions that hope to rely on them. What happens when instructors decide to stop teaching their MOOCs, either because of ideological concerns or simply because offering a class to the whole world takes so much work?

In response to Duneier's remarks, Daphne Koller e-mailed a statement saying Coursera is "very supportive" of faculty members' using MOOC content to improve education. This can free up class time for "meaningful engagement" with students, she says.

For example, she notes, several instructors in the University System of Maryland are using online content from Coursera and elsewhere in a course redesign experiment.

The Maryland system is an important test case for researchers studying the integration of MOOCs into public education. One focus of the research, financed by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, concerns whether online materials can preserve quality while lowering instructional costs.

William E Kirwan, Maryland's chancellor, told The Sun in Baltimore that "there are two things we're seeking: new strategies that will improve learning outcomes, and lower costs.

"We can't have one without the other," he said.

But Maryland is not paying to use the Coursera materials. The company is "not making content licensing a priority right now", Koller says.

"We view this experiment as a path to exploring new approaches to teaching that combine online and in-class interactions," she says. "We hope that the instructors engaged in this effort will develop pedagogy that can help provide their students with better learning outcomes."

So far the only Coursera deal in which one university has paid to use content produced by another was in 2012, when a handful of students at Antioch College took MOOCs as a form of independent study, Koller says.

Meanwhile, thousands of students at California State University, at as many as 11 campuses, are expected to gain access to MOOC materials under a deal between the state system and edX, the MOOC platform of MIT and Harvard.

And even as Duneier withdraws from teaching his MOOC, other professors have responded to the same ethical dilemma by arguing that they bear no responsibility for how their MOOCs are used.

A twofold request

Duneier had received a twofold request from Coursera. One component was to ‘license’ his content to Maryland, free, Koller says. The other involved the University of Akron, which was seeking to license materials "in a very small test pilot". But "they ended up using the videos only, in a way that did not involve payment and was done outside the Coursera platform".

Coursera, which rose to fame offering free courses to anyone, has more recently repositioned itself as a platform for credit-carrying courses.

In May the company announced a series of partnerships with state universities. Those deals include provisions for licensing one university's content for use in others' classes. Coursera would receive a percentage of the revenue.

Duneier says that he assumed he would have been paid for licensing his course, but that he never pursued that question, because he wasn't interested.

In teaching his MOOC, Duneier – a sociologist known for his works of urban ethnography, Slim's Table and Sidewalk – says he was excited to reach people choosing between a MOOC and no classes at all. Many who enrolled in his 2012 class were adult learners who were not deciding among online and campus-based educational options.

The experience demonstrated what he sees as the great potential of using technology to teach an interactive social science or humanities course. He tailored lectures based on what he observed on the course discussion board.

Using a video chat room, he held live, seminar-style discussions with six to eight students from around the world each week. Thousands more watched the chats in real time or played back the video later.

"Within three weeks I had received more feedback on my sociological ideas than I had in a career of teaching," Duneier wrote in his September 2012 Chronicle commentary. In the Times article that November, Duneier's journey from Ivy League classroom to global MOOC stardom was portrayed as emblematic of a larger movement that could "transform higher education".

He had intended to teach his course again, redoing the videos based on what he learned the first time. But he soured on MOOCs when Coursera approached him with the licensing request. The class remains listed on Coursera’s website, but the videos are no longer accessible.

Despite his concerns, Duneier calls Coursera an "extraordinary platform" with great potential for new kinds of online teaching.

"It's important to differentiate between, on the one hand, the view that this doesn't really amount to anything and it could never be equal to a good education and, on the other hand, concern about the revenue model.

"Maybe there'll be somebody who will say, 'I'm not doing it anymore, because I found it alienating', or something like that. I'm not one of those people, you know? I found it to be a great experience.

"But I also don't want to be part of a movement that is really about helping state universities achieve cost savings at the expense of their own faculty and students."

So what's wrong with trying to lower the cost of education and giving students at less prestigious universities access to a great sociologist?

"That's definitely the line that you hear," Duneier says. "But I don't believe that. When they talk about lowering the costs, I think that they are creating a rationalisation for the state legislatures to cut back on funding to the state universities."

Given the interactive nature of his class, Duneier also questions the efficacy of adapting it for a blended format, in which one group of students would watch videos that had been made of him teaching another group of students in the past.

"I don't really see this as contributing to a valuable learning experience, at least my particular class, by offering the lectures in that way," he says.

'Franchising' worries

It's unclear how many professors have been invited to license their courses. Another MOOC-teaching Princeton professor, Jeremy Adelman, says he has not been approached with an offer like the one Duneier received. Starting in September, he will once again teach "A History of the World Since 1300" on Coursera.

Like Duneier, Adelman worries about a process that he suggests could be called course ‘franchising’.

"The world has to have a big debate about this – whether you can have one-size-fits-all universal courses that you customise" locally," he says.

But Adelman also doesn't want to rule out the possibilities of online education, which he sees as a potentially equalising global force. For example, through a collaboration with an educational non-governmental organisation, Syrian refugees who complete his history MOOC will be able to earn a certificate.

"It may well be that Mitch's course became the unintended victim of its own celebrity," Adelman says. "It got so much public attention. Perhaps universities or Coursera itself were motivated to franchise the course because it had some celebrity."