Robert Rhoads: New Book Explores Pros and Cons of MOOCs

HEOC professor delineates pedagogical, social, and economic shortfalls of OCW movement and massive open online courses.

UCLA Professor of Education Robert Rhoads has published “MOOCs, High Technology, and Higher Learning” (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015), which places the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) and Open Courseware (OCW) movements into the larger context of a revolution in educational technology. Through an analysis of how cultural, political, and economic forces came together with evolving teaching and learning technologies to give birth to the MOOC, Rhoads seeks to bring greater balance to increasingly polarized discussions about their use, while bringing a critical framework to analyses of their utility, particularly with regard to claims about MOOCs democratizing higher education.

Professor of Education Robert Rhoads
UCLA Professor of Education Robert Rhoads explores the pros and cons of MOOCs in his new book.

Rhoads says that while OCW and MOOCs have provided greater access to course content, syllabi, lecture notes, and exams for students and instructors, there are intrinsic shortfalls when users merely skim MOOCs for new information, or when the large-scale nature of courses prevents any personalized attention that instructors can give to students who need it.

“Many MOOC users in fact already hold degrees and may simply be mining them for new ideas and not necessarily seeking to complete the courses; this in part explains the high attrition rate among MOOC users,” he says. “In terms of collaboration, the greater availability of course syllabi and course-related content enables students and faculty to share course-related ideas much more widely. Learners enrolled in a MOOC often have expanded opportunities to forge learning communities and professional and social networks. But in terms of student-teacher collaboration relative to individual online courses, the fact is that the ‘massive’ nature of MOOCs can work against such collaboration—it can be overwhelming for an instructor to deal with the large number of users participating in some MOOCs.”

In his book, Rhoads underscores how technology advocates champion the MOOC movement as a solution to higher education’s challenges, including the ways that MOOCs are presented as an alternative to brick-and-mortar access for low-income populations. He says that the pedagogical, social, and economic costs, and challenges are often unrecognized in many of the claims made by MOOC advocates, and that while MOOCs are appealing to some state legislative bodies and university administrators focused on cost savings, such reform strategies often contradict the goals of democratic education, and ignore other access issues such as the “digital divide.”

“In my mind, the advantages of MOOCs do not outweigh the disadvantages when it comes to low-income populations,” Rhoads says. “What is democratic about suggesting that students at Yale and Harvard should benefit from face-to-face lectures and have the opportunity to actually question their professors, while students at San Jose State University or Slippery Rock University (my undergraduate alma mater) should take MOOCs taught by professors at the nation’s most elite universities?

“MOOCs as additive courses to support under-prepared college students are a good idea, but MOOCs as substitutes for face-to-face introductory-level courses at under-resourced universities has been a disastrous idea,” says Rhoads. “In terms of the digital divide, this is a concern often ignored among the biggest advocates of the MOOC movement. Often they speak of reaching the developing world with rich courses and course-related materials with little recognition that not everyone has access to a computer and a high-speed internet connection.”

Rhoads also offers a critical analysis of the extensive media coverage of MOOCs and examines empirical studies of MOOC content delivery, the organizational system that supports the OCW/MOOC movement, and faculty labor concerns.

“Common media discussions of MOOCs often confound them with basic online courses,” he says. “Online courses have been around for years, but MOOCs are a very particularized form of an online course, oriented toward massive consumption, which contributes to expanding open educational resources. However, the massive quality of MOOCs can also undermine advances in instructional technology in that it may be quite challenging for course designers and instructors to initiate and manage technology-based learning experiences when thousands of learners are enrolled.

”Despite great advances in instructional technology, most MOOCs primarily rely on basic tools such as course websites, reading lists, etc., while often leaving it to users to organize their own social learning experiences through internet-based apps. Some MOOCs provide more guidance than others, but the size of enrollment can be quite a strain.”

Rhoads is a professor in UCLA’s division of Higher Education and Organizational Change (HEOC) and co-director of the Educational Leadership Program (ELP) at UCLA Ed & IS, and serves as a faculty affiliate at UCLA’s Center for Chinese Studies. He is the author of “China’s Rising Research Universities: A New Era of Global Ambition” (With X. Wang, X. Shi, and Y. Chang. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014). His teaching and research interests include social movements and the university; higher education reform in China and the United States; globalization and university reform; and multiculturalism and student activism.

For a Q & A with Professor Rhoads by Inside Higher Ed, click here.