MOOCs, it seems, are driving us to distraction. The objects of so much current investment, fiscal and psychological, if MOOCs (massive open online courses) haven’t reached you yet, they are just a click away, coming to a screen near you soon.

Cathy Davidson caused a stir last week by arguing that, if humanists are unable to convey compellingly to various publics what we do and why it is important, we will be replaced by a screen; she had MOOCs in mind. It turns out that the challenge has had a longer history in cultural consciousness: “mooc,” my colleague Arlene Keizer tells me, is also a regional insult from New England, perhaps metaphorically signaling the derision with which the online courses have lately been met among faculty nervous of losing their jobs to screen life.

Last week California Governor Jerry Brown announced that Udacity, one of the principal private ventures developing MOOCs, would be providing remedial MOOC courses for the ill-prepared half of the freshman student body starting out at San Jose State University. It has been apparent from the outset of this new generation of online-distance courses that MOOCs would most immediately impact the large enrollment lower division college courses that are a rite of passage from which freshman mostly learn little if anything by being forced to attend. San Jose State will be charging $150 a course for these MOOC remediations, a third of its regular course fee. An undeclared proportion of the fee will go to Udacity for developing and running the courses. Here, the latest generation of too often unsuccessful public investment in private education enterprise; hence the derision.

Two sorts of justification are usually offered in support of MOOCs. The first concerns cost. There have been some wild assessments that MOOCs will make learning massively available at next to no cost to globally distributed learners. On the other side, there has been serious concern expressed that they further shove open the door of (formerly) publicly funded education to profit-making ventures unconcerned about the quality of learning.

There may be some truth to both assertions, but at this point both seem massively (pun intended) overblown. The day after the announcement, Jerry Brown–in urging the University of California Regents to pay attention–admitted that MOOCs are not going to be massive revenue generators for universities (as the University of Virginia Board, among others, seemed a few months ago to be salivating over). Rather, Brown suggested, they are worth the experiment to determine if they can help in driving down spiraling college costs. He certainly has a point: From 1982-2007, US undergraduate tuition increased by a whopping 439 percent, far outstripping inflation (even given the high inflationary period of the early 1980s).

We are right to bemoan the fact, as Ian Bogost implicitly does, that education, among just about everything else, is no longer deemed a public good. The state proportion of the annual University of California budget has plummeted from roughly 27 percent in 2000 to just over 10 percent today. The Universities of Michigan and Virginia receive even proportionately less state support. But we also have to admit that faculty and administrators in higher education–yes, pretty much all of us–have helped to bring this upon ourselves. A just-released report indicates, for instance, that Division I public universities spend 3-6 times more on athletic programs, notably football, than on academic ones.

This is not to say that we are public no more. Rather, publicness of the public universities lies today largely elsewhere than in our funding sources. They are a function now more of who we serve, to a degree on how we think of our mission and how we are run and governed, in short, on a set of dispositions. Like Udacity’s San Jose State MOOCs, most all universities are already private-public hybrids.

That said, MOOCs will be no panacea, at best a painful salve on a bleeding wound. The University of Pennsylvania reports that the MOOC courses its faculty have developed in behalf of Coursera (one of Udacity’s less compelling competitors) cost $50,000 each to develop. The cost to date has been completely borne by Penn as an investment either in its brand (as Bogost suggests) or in future possibilities (or both). In any case, were MOOCs to prove viable alternatives as learning platforms, Gov. Brown is right to caution against their economic salvation. For every assistant professor that might be replaced, there will be need for ongoing systems administrators and tech support, server time and cooled rooms, administrators and teaching assistants. In addition, any course worth its salt needs updating and upgrading, pretty much from one offering to the next. Literal repetition grows stale fast. None of this comes cheap. Learning institutions can remain starry eyed over the prospects of MOOCs only by padding the business plan. It wouldn’t be the first time.

The second and more moving defense of MOOC culture concerns the potential impact on the scale and quality of learning itself. Many more would have access to quality learning capacities than they otherwise would. The concern that this will renew a digital divide–f2f learning and quality personal access for those who can afford it, impersonal screens and distance learning for those who cannot–is a legitimate one. But it rests in part upon a very conventional assumption about online learning: that it is overwhelmingly isolated, without learning support from those offering the course or from peer learners, that it is passive, and that its assessment mechanisms have no way to shield against cheating. As with caricatures generally there may be some truth to this, but whatever evidence exists to date is largely anecdotal and very likely overgeneralized.

The best MOOC offerings–as with conventional courses, some are just much better than others–are taking up the gauntlet and working to address these concerns. MOOCs make it conceivable, at least, to draw on the most compelling social media practices and on peer-to-peer collaborative learning, the virtues of which in non-online formats are now well established. Where MOOC platform providers are driven more by the possibilities of improved learning capacities than by starry dollar signs — by the premise of anywhere, anytime learning and the motivations of personal interests that are embedded in the premise of MOOCs, by the dramatic reach across place and class, and by the demand for more self-assertive, active/activist sorts of learning practice — then their best versions indeed are worthy of collective investment. This, of course, is a big “if”…

The “if” here concerns more than will, though as with these things it will require a heavy dose of commitment. It is about ecologies, informational and instructional, technological and dispositional, material and architectural. Traditional learning institutions, from K-12 through higher education, are predicated on a long and well established set of ecologies. Bricks and mortar, mostly static and stand alone technologies, expert and honored instruction, largely passive learners active pretty much only in emulating their honored seniors, hand to hand information flows (handouts, book circulation, verbal sharing, etc). I say this not as belittlement but in awe of the extraordinary achievements in their name, a (now aging) member and inheritor of its copious contributions.

As many have been pointing out, though, we are deeply amidst a profound shift where parts of the ecology have given way much more rapidly to innovative modes against a backdrop of more static elements. Informational flows are overwhelming and instantaneous, spoken word and projected image are immediately shared across universes more or less unknown, or at least largely unseen. Learning has proliferated, across sites and scope, pretty much around the clock, not always trustworthily. But the housing for all of this, the bricks and mortar, the associated structures and activities, the institutional(ized) modes of teaching and learning, have followed much more slowly, even if their costs have more than kept pace.

The insecurities as a consequence are palpable. What of value are we carrying with us into these novel modalities, if not leaving behind; where will we end up and will it be an improvement, in process, in modes of learning, and in outcomes? Will things work better as a consequence, and more pressingly will we better off–and not just monetarily?

MOOCs have fast become one of the bridging capacities in this unsettled institutional world, between the bricks and mortar and the virtual, between production line institutionalized education and anywhere, anytime learning, between the passive and active, radically individualized and collaborative learning. As with any bridge, in addition to the appeal of their aesthetic design, their capacity will depend on the underlying structural strength, their emerging ecological foundations, where they lead from and to, how effective they are in arriving at the desired destination. To date, MOOCs are dependent on existing institutional sites: for content expertise and their reproduction, for institutional and political access. But their longer term levity will depend upon transforming and transformed structures supporting learning capacity, their ability to enable even as they draw on learner agility in a world demanding of it, their mobile and agile effectivity in getting us from learning departure point to expanding learning destinations in a rapidly transforming educational environment.

The challenge is to identify and enable agility in thinking, learning, doing, and making in a networked world of connectedness. The learning concepts and literacies central here, not surprisingly, significantly overlap with but are not simply reducible to those in the educational environments that have become conventional.

There are the basic skills of analysis and calculation, critical reading and creative writing. Analytically, what is important is the capacity to take things apart, to deconstruct them, to comprehend how things work by understanding their principles of operation. To learn how, and not just that, in the classic Rylean terms. These are skills as important to and importantly produced by  good learning in the human, cultural, and social disciplines as in the STEM ones. But there are the crucial capacities also to make and remake, to rework and remix from the deconstructed bits and pieces. This includes the acquired ability to fashion viable workarounds, to compose from multi-media inputs of text, sound, image, and material components, to understand the difference that perspective makes as much to making as to critical interpretation.

Good driving is acquired over time. Repeated exercise hones one’s navigation skills, enables ever quicker evidence assessment and response in tricky circumstances with potentially fatal consequences, ultimately giving rise to wise judgment–in truth, developing from personal practice, working collaboratively with, and watching others (including what Howard Rheingold calls “crap detection”), as much in determining what it is warranted to believe as in judging where and when to turn. It includes experience in managing time, in judging when to turn to others and when to turn off or away from the pulsing circuits in order to take stock or make things happen. These capacities are basic to navigating thinking, doing, and making in every walk of life. They are virtues of an agile life, counting perhaps even more so in the expanding mobile environments we now face.

Implicit in all this, too, is the importance of knowing what it takes to collaborate, when to listen and when to lead, when to offer encouragement and when criticism, and how to take both in productive ways, to offer what one has and to take what’s needed, as much in learning as in getting tasks at hand done. Curiosity, so important to ongoing knowledge formation, is not simply a natural disposition. It is fashioned by the excitement of uncovering the hitherto hidden, of working out and working around, of seeing how things materialize and being excited by the insights and makings of others.

This is connected learning: the connection between ideas and the materialization of things, between people collaborating to learn and do and make things together, between mind and machine, curiosity and capacity, anywhere and anytime learning and effecting, between the world as it is and our ideals of edification and equity that we deem crucially important to institutionalize.

The early evidence is that MOOCs can deliver the numbers. In the end, they will not be judged simply on this quantitative mandate. Rather, they will be assessed, like any learning modalities, by their ability to draw on the best of social media and peer-to-peer engagement to cultivate these virtues of theory and practice, to comprehend and to create, to expand the reach of access, insight, and validated knowledge. For it is such cultivation that makes learning what it is and why it is worthwhile. If MOOCs can’t deliver on the promise and possibility they will be nothing more than the next fly by night. It is more hopeful and helpful to see them as a hybrid form, as a bridge between conventional institutionalized and post-institutionalized learning. Their institutional and social promise will depend both on the underlying structural support and on the quality of their destination. Ultimately their success or failure will turn on whether they can help substantially to move us collectively and collaboratively along the road to delivering on these potentialities of connected learning.

Image(s) credit: giulia.forsythe and