5 Ways of Understanding the New, Feminist MOOC That's Not a MOOC

When professors go online, it doesn't have to look like any one particular thing.
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(Robinson Meyer/Evan Bench)

Yesterday, we received word of the newest innovation in higher education. Across the world this fall, it was said, students and professors would sit down at computer screens, breathe deeply, and plunge themselves into open learning.

But they would not be taking a MOOC.

They'll be taking a DOCC: a Distributed Open Collaborative Course. Its name rhymes with "lock."

It is a feminist MOOC.

Here are five ways of understanding it.

1. As a not-for-profit MOOC When people criticize MOOCs, Anna Balsamo told Scott Jaschik of Inside Higher Ed (IHE) yesterday, they tend to focus on two things: the massiveness of MOOCs, and the fact that MOOCs have to make money.

Or they're trying to make money. Or they are making money. Or at some point in the future their content will be connected to something which has a profit motive.

The MOOC companies are still rather unclear about all this, but, in short, they're run by for-profit companies. The DOCC, on the other hand, is a phenomenon, an organized event, a happening, and, as such, is not for-profit.

A large number of participating colleges -- private and public, domestic and international -- are sponsoring the DOCC. (They include Yale, Bowling Green State, and the University of London.) The DOCC's faculty will be provided by those institutions, so the course doesn't have to pay to hire teachers. In fact, all they have to fund is the cost of video production, which, according to the IHE report, the New School and Brown University have provided, in two grants of $10,000 each. Pitzer College has also pitched in $7,000.

How does that compare to MOOCs? Saving on teaching costs by using faculty time for free is straight out of the MOOC playbook: A provider like Udacity isn't paying professors, either. And the DOCC's $27,000 bill is only a little more than the $25,000 which Stanford allots to each MOOCifying project.

2. As a non-massive open online course. (An "OOC.") Balsamo's other criticism is that MOOCs are too massive. The business model of the venture-funded, for-profit MOOC depends on applying the same pedagogical process to every student, and accomplishing this mass-application through the Internet.

The DOCC's classes are 15 to 30 people. How does that work?

Classes in the DOCC will begin with a common, couple-minute video, then discussion in which students and faculty share their own expertise and experience. There are fifteen courses at participating universities, so -- with about 20 students per course -- there will be about 300 students taking the class in person this fall. But the course also allows students to take it remotely: "We don't know how many 'drop-in' or 'self-directed learners,'" they'll get, Balsamo wrote to me in an email. "We've got a month to get the word out."

It presents a profoundly different vision of what education through the Internet might be, especially "open" education that "scales." As Ian Bogost wrote this weekend on MOOCs and the concept of growth:

The growth of private MOOC companies is driven almost entirely from financial speculation, speculation with an interest in private, short-term gain via industrialized scale. It's worth imagining what other kinds of growth might be possible if we had the stomach for a different kind of speculation meant to benefit long-term social institutions like schools instead of just the market.

The DOCC posits that other forms of growth might be possible: something smaller, something more personalized.

3. As a feminist project. And Balsamo, in her email to me, portrayed that alternate form of growth as feminist, saying they were purposefully playing on the word "massive," because the DOCC's topic, "Feminism and Technology" is so rarely discussed in universities. She wrote:

To be able to gather 300 students + 30 instructors to engage these topics, for 10 weeks, is a major step forward in educating a new generation on the important histories and innovative thinking that is ALWAYS left out of the official records.

In the words of Balsamo, MOOCs which triumph the singular, genius professor, lecturing from the middle of the invented digital world, are troubling, too: "The idea of the one best talking head, the best expert in the world, that couldn't be more patriarchal," she told IHE. "That displays a hubris that is unthinkable from a feminist perspective."

Students in the DOCC, according to Jaschick, will also "storm Wikipedia," analyzing how the website represents notable female contributors to science and technology. As such, it seems to be a statement about the worth and value of digital institutions, even if those institutions are (at the moment) imperfect.

4. As a continuation. When pundits of a certain class debate MOOCs, they often decry the lack of innovation that occurs in institutions of higher education. (Though, when they decry these things, they usually mean a very narrow set of schools: elite, mostly private, four-year.)

It seems to me, looking at the DOCC that this, too, is innovation. This is the innovation you are looking for. And it comes as another step in an ongoing, long-lasting tradition of pedagogy meant to serve those that teaching hasn't historically served or hasn't historically covered.

5. As an initialism. Alas, alas, some paradigms of MOOC-dom might never be shifted.

Presented by

Robinson Meyer is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where he covers technology.

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