Women Study MOOCs

, Spencer Irvine, Leave a comment

The Modern Language Association (MLA) held a panel on the future of humanities programs during an era of massive open online courses, known as MOOCs. The panel, titled “MOOCs, Boutique Subjects, and Marginal Approaches,” featured five college professors who expressed fear for the future of their humanities departments and courses because of the introduction of MOOCs, mostly from a feminist perspective.

Rebecca Davis of St. Edward’s University pointed out that 12% of MOOCs are in the humanities and that 2% of the total consisted of what she called “boutique majors,” such as medieval studies or more exotic foreign languages. The term “marginal approaches” referred to feminist, queer, race or disability major, which made up 6% of the humanities and only 1% of the total in today’s MOOC composition. She categorized MOOCs into two sections: industrial xMOOC and networked cMOOC.

The xMOOC, according to Davis, is where there is one faculty expert, a homogenous network of students, one “perfect” lecturer and what she termed “knowledge transfer.” The cMOOC is her ideal MOOC model, where there is peer learning, a heterogenous network and where “knowledge is shared, knowledge is situated.”  Why does she use the term “networked”? She said that the “massive” term of MOOCs intimidates people too easily. And, one of her favorite MOOCs, she said, was UC-San Diego’s Elizabeth Mathews’ Losh’s FemTechNet.

She also added that there is a MOOC campus in North Carolina, where there is “no traditional faculty.” Davis said that professors “need to stop saying ‘MOOCs are evil’” and try to draw up the right kind of MOOC to draw people back into colleges.

Wendy Marie Hoofnagle of Northern Iowa criticized MOOCs from the start and said that failure rates by MOOC students “is not their problem” and that it is “not that they didn’t want to do enough”. Instead, she offered the view that the target audience of MOOCs is not being reached because the learning strategies are inefficient and ineffective. She said that 39% of MOOC students are 50 years old or older and that the gender gap is at 30%. This poses “serious questions…especially for women” and Hoofnagle said that this is a “storm in postsecondary education; a pronged attack on the humanities”. She backtracked and said she’s “not suggesting an Orwellian attack” but said that this “recent rejuvenation of STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering and Math] subjects” now comes “at the expense of the humanities.”

Her university barely saved its French program and some other humanities studies, even when men’s enrollment rates are “lagging behind women.” Also, she found “women do not perform as well as men in online courses” and as a result, “suffer [more]burnout than men…especially in areas where adjunct professors are not receiving institutional support for doing this.” Much to her dismay, Hoofnagle said that the majority of female professors are adjunct professors and that this should be considered a feminist problem. She said that professors have to “ensure that these women will not be disenfranchised” in their future career ambitions.

Hoofnagle warned that MOOCs are “going to cause a great deal of tears to these generations coming up.” The real discussion should be “about learning styles, not being on one side of the digital divide” because “maybe you don’t learn well in an exclusively online format.” She wondered if “gender” can be considered as “an economic issue” in MOOCs.

Helene Scheck of SUNY-Albany added to Hoofnagle’s remarks and pointed out how the classics department and the majority of most language studies were eliminated at her university. Only Spanish and Russian languages remained out of the modern European language coursework and the “theater department has been abolished.” She was no fan of the industrial MOOC model, with one lecturer, because “I’m not sure how that is going to benefit anybody.” Instead, the second category of networked MOOCs could “energize” the industry and admitted that “the real intellectual work to be done will be moved out of the institutions” because of increased corporate investments and interest in MOOCs.

Sonam Singh of Barnard College gave his perpective on MOOCs, which was far more positive than those of the other panelists.  He said that he “took a really well-run online course” and as a result, admitted that “I have become more tempered about my understanding about” MOOCs. He said that the common professorial term of “embodied classroom” is an outdated term. He’s seen multiple problems with classroom instruction, and not just in MOOCs, and he pointed out that MOOCs could help fix teaching problems. He called humanities professors “humanists” and believed the unanimous criticism of humanities professors toward MOOCs is not productive. He pointed out that one MOOC had less-than-stellar results, with 54% of the class making it to the end of the course, 60% approved of the course, 50% took the final with only 40% passing it. But, he said it’s a good start for MOOCs.

Lisa Weston of California State University-Fresno rounded out the discussion and said that MOOCs “are really an American product” and some MOOCS are working out of U.S. embassies across the world. She said “it’s really interesting,” but added that “neither knowledge nor pedagology is neutral.” She saw that MOOCs strongly “reflect Western traditions of knowledge, Western traditions of canon” and culture. Weston called it a Western cultural hegemony of MOOCs and believed that it “may inhibit the emergence of local academic content.” She said that these MOOCs are “Wal-Mart knock-offs” and stood by that analogy because they are like corporations, who “offer good enough” simulations to rake in money after giving minimal benefits. She asked the question, “Can we be sure that MOOCS and general Western civilization will produce, curate and deliver knowledge beyond that hegemonic simplification?” She asked if “queer or feminist perspectives” will be adequately represented in MOOCs and lamented that “they’re not fundamental givens.”

Weston was displeased that “medieval studies is seen as a boutique subject if not completely expendable” and said, regardless of her statements, that “I’m not a Luddite either, exactly.” Instead, she declared, “I’m not technophobic, quite the contrary, I believe in the ability to democratize scholarship” but still proudly called herself a “recruit into General Ludd’s army” with the “love the machine, hate the factory” mentality. Some of her other concerns were how today’s world reflects “the  corporatization of the university” and how “MOOCs are only likely to precipitate” downsizing…casualization of academic labor…adjunctification of faculty.” She would rather see the university voice to see “its voice, the gender of its voice, the sexuality of its voice change.”


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