Blog Post

The Humanities and MOOC's of the Future

This morning I opened my newsletter from Ed Surge, the excellent and informative newsletter for innovators in education,, to find this brief story: 

MOOC PROFILING: "Caucasian females about 33 years of age who are not the first in their family to attend college and who typically have a total family income of about $66,500." These are your "average" students taking online courses, according to aLearning House whitepaper, "Online College Students 2012: Comprehensive Data on Demands and Preferences Report." (PDF) Based on a survey of 1,500, the report dives into some of the motivations, concerns, and expectations of online students. Business reigns supreme as the most popular subject, though we wonder if this will change in the coming years with Udacity, edX, and Coursera (the "Big Three?") likely to offer a broader range of courses."


I am sure we need more data here but this early demographic report explodes the idea that most students taking MOOC's live in Third World countries, are taking programming courses, and their success at those courses makes them ripe for a world-wide employment agency to which companies like Google might turn for outsourcing cheap code at low cost, without benefits, and on a piece-work basis.  That still happens to be true, by the way, for many excellent coders around the world, especially from the Third World, who take programming courses on line but this new survey opens up a whole new idea of the audience for MOOCs and, to my mind, has very interesting sociological implications and educational ones.  


I've no means thought this through but here are some random thoughts: 

  • How many of these 33 year old putatively middle class women "stay at home moms" who find it is harder than one might originally have thought to raise kids on a 66K annual income?   That is a sociological issue of this generation.
  • How many of those 33 year old women former liberal arts majors?
  • How many 33 year old former liberal arts majors do, in fact, have the skills to enter the business world but have never had the education that bothers to tie together those essential critical thinking, critical reading, interpretive, critical writing, and communication skills that, in fact, are crucial in the business world?  Now, they are taking business courses on line to try to enter the job market at a higher pay grade.   

I personally dislike the putative assumption of the 20th century research university that says the ideal student, implicitly, is the one who goes on for advanced work in graduate school or professional school.   This bias towards specialized, advanced field expertise certified by advanced academic training pervades the modern university.  One side-effect of this bias is that it makes liberal arts, general education, the core curriculum, and even the vaunted Great Books of the most traditional colleges and universities ultimately, implicitly, peripheral (not just foundational) to a future productive worklife.  As I've argued elsewhere, I would love to see educational reform that makes deep, critical engaged thinking and serious communication intrinsically part of the way university's teach problem-solving and profoundly integrated into training for the real world.  (See, for example, "A Core Curriculum to Create Engaged Entrepreneurs" as part of my Fast Company CoExist blog series "Changing Higher Education to Change the World). 


I wonder how many MOOC business courses are, in effect, remedial "practical" retooling of liberal arts majors?   I would like to see us connect core liberal arts thinking to productive adult future lives--and not simply to graduate school careers for professorships for an increasingly dwindling pool of humanities majors.   To me, this reconceiving of the liberal arts as a "way of thinking" that enhances all other forms of a productive, adult work life is important for the thriving of the humanities in the future but it is even more crucial to the future of good, ethical, innovative business practices. 

Now, let me flip the assumptions:   is there a way to offer MOOCs on line for all those 33-year old business men (so the demography would suggest) who may be making 66K a year in boring jobs and who long for intellectual stimulation?   You know they are out there.   What would an online, engaged, exciting, deep, captivating, and important humanities MOOC look like?   



Cathy N. Davidson is co-founder of HASTAC, a 9000+ network committed to new modes of collaboration, research, learning, and institutional change.  Along with a steering committee of scholars across many fields, Davidson has been directing HASTAC's operations since 2006, when moved to Duke University, where she also co-directs the Ph.D. Lab in Digital Knowledge.   She is author of The Future of Thinking:  Learning Institutions for a Digital Age (with HASTAC co-founder David Theo Goldberg), and  Now You See It:  How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn (Viking Press). She is co-PI on the HASTAC/MacArthur Foundation Digital Media and Learning Competitions.   NOTE:  The views expressed in Cat in the Stack blogs and in NOW YOU SEE IT are solely those of the author and not of HASTAC, nor of any institution or organization. Davidson also writes on her own author blog, 


1 comment

Most surely, MOOCs offer opportunity where it was once mighty thin - even if a MOOC is hardly a developed safety net. Yet just as surely, most schools-other-than-colleges lack capacity, approach, curriculum, and staff to compete with a MOOC offering. Why, for example, is a MOOC course bound by a semester curriculum? or even a year? Why cannot high school kids dip in and out, exploiting MOOC learning opportunities to enhance their career and college awareness? Why couldn't a high school course on programming coincide with parts - and eventually all - a college course on Java?  If their ain't no barrier - and there is no conceivable reason why there should be - this is a remarkable opportunity for both the MOOC college sponsors, school partners, student participants, and faculty (both college and school) to explore ideas ahead of sequence, when the best questions can best be answered regardless of registration.

And I have yet to find a high school with the cojones to refuse credit for credible performance at Harvard, MIT or Stanford.