The Early History of the MOOC, from the end of the Roman Empire to the 21st Century
or The History of the Massive Open Offline Course
by Laura Gabiger
or The History of the Massive Open Offline Course
by Laura Gabiger
In one of our well-known publications, maybe The Chronicle of Higher Education or The New York Times, this past year has been described as the "year of the MOOC." Certainly much has developed, with Coursera's having made agreements with ten or twelve state university systems in the USA, and with various squabbles breaking out in both academic and journalistic forums as to whether we were heralding a savior or harboring a devil, welcoming a way of providing a valuable education worldwide to people who otherwise would not have access, or hastening the death of institutional identity and instructor individuality by spreading standardized curriculum to masses worldwide. People questioned--rightfully so--how the MOOC will be integrated (or not) into existing systems of granting educational credentials and how it will transform (for good or for ill) the economics of higher education.
About the economics I will be only brief as that is not the central focus of this writing. I'll mention only that the tension in universities since their founding in the West (I am unfortunately not educated in far Eastern ways) has existed since the beginning between free inquiry and the practical expediency of generating employment skills, that in the USA not much has changed in principle since the American model was examined for this very tension by Thorstein Veblen in The Higher Learning in America: A Memorandum on the Conduct of Universities by Business Men (1918), and that the main dots on the map were recently connected by Clay Shirky in The Chronicle of Higher Education (July 19, 2013).
This writing focuses only on the academic or educational model, not the economics; it picks up where some have taken the thread and put it down when they suggested that the educational model is already familiar to us in the multi-hundred seat lecture hall for mass delivery of introductory digests of complex subjects. It seems important to continue this line of reasoning, to recognize just how well-established the academic and educational model is in Western education so that we worry about the correct evils and free ourselves from unnecessary worry. So the core of this article is to suggest that in exploring our fear of a mass standardization of curriculum, of a loss of individual identity, we recognize this one point: whether for good or for ill, the MOOC model in Western higher education, or education in general, is not new, and in fact it long predates the multi-hundred lecture hall of modern universities. To examine why this is, we will reverse the chronology of some points of history and of the letters of the abbreviation.
C is for course. How do we define a course? The word, like "curriculum," is cognate with Latin "cursus,"the length or track of a chariot race --or of a career or a series--of studies. A beginning and an end are implied. We long have recognized the concept of the pre-arranged syllabus, the legitimacy of planning in advance our instructional delivery and finding a way to measure completion. In the USA we long have operated on the model of the credit hour and the semester with variations new and old; Veblen describes a practice of measuring classroom instruction in units of duration and number and amplitude and frequency. Later we developed outcomes assessment to show what has been learned, planting the seed of competency-based measures. Especially at the introductory course level, our instructional delivery is already measured in units of material to be delivered at intervals and is widely standardized.
Our most common standard for a "course" in the USA may be what a student learns sitting for three hours a week over a fifteen-week semester, and our mass-circulation materials reflect this habit. Anyone who "adopts" a textbook by Cengage (now in bankruptcy) or any of its brethren, and frames an introductory college course around its chapters, whether it be a novice instructor or an assistant professor busy with the demands of research and service required for the promotion and tenure dossier or an adjunct instructor too harried with the freeway traffic between institutions to develop a creative approach or even the seasoned full-time full professor who finds a particular textbook, his or her own or someone else's, apt for the purpose (or even one who is lazy), may depend to a greater or lesser degree on a standardized "course." The books may be perceived to be "graded," with subjects the author perceives as introductory or foundational placed generally in the beginning of the book and the more advanced topics at the end. Cengage, Pearson, Barnes & Noble, McGraw Hill, you name it. This "curriculum" is widespread and the books from one publisher in given fields bear an uncanny resemblance to the counterparts put out by the competitors. In some of my fields, English composition and public speaking, I can say with some confidence that a new textbook will address business correspondence in a chapter numbered 14 -17, that presentation aids will be treated in Chapter 16. For good or for ill, we tend to arrive by mass consensus at a canon of material that forms the introductory "course." We have already accepted that each instructor does not need to sit around reinventing and polishing an instructional wheel from scratch at the start of each new academic term.
In the past, before Cengage swallowed smaller publishers and became huge, others already marketed introductory textbooks. As an undergraduate in the late 1970s I purchased a paperback called Latin by Frederic M. Wheelock, 3rd ed., published by Barnes & Noble. The Latin language had been digested and systematized into forty short chapters for introductory use by students and their teachers. As another analogue consider Gray's Anatomy; in the 19th century, long before it was on TV, it was an introductory textbook widely considered the standard for teaching medical students the fairly finite canon of our human anatomy.
Let's jump farther back, way farther, to the first Western universities; consensus places them in Italy and a few disputes at Bologna or Padua, followed by Salamanca and Paris and Oxford and Cambridge. Bologna had a law faculty. In the time before that, ponderous collections known as the "Theodosian Code" and the "Justinian Code" contained the varied elements of what became the law. The canon law--the regulations of the ecclesiastical authority--was probably no less messy than the civil law. Around the era of the inception of university law faculties, a scholar from Bologna named Gratian condensed and systematized a set of material mostly from canon law into what we now call the Decretum, a handy and palatable introductory digest manageable by students and faculty.
Jump back a little farther. Thought and learning were considered by some to have stagnated during the European 7th century (maybe because Christians and not Muslims or Jews or anyone else traditionally claimed ownership of the history in Western European and North American universities), but much is made of the revival of learning in the 8th century under Charlemagne of the Frankish kingdom and later the Holy Roman Empire. Among the scholars he drew to his court let us focus upon two: Alcuin of York and his student Hrabanus Maurus, Archbishop of Mainz and abbot of the Benedictine monastery at Fulda in Germany. These two, brought in to further knowledge and education primarily for advancing an ecclesiastical agenda, did much to systematize and disseminate a collection of subjects we now recognize as the "trivium": grammar, rhetoric, and logic; and the "quadrivium": arithmetic, astronomy, geometry, and music. Considered the preliminary steps to qualify a student for the study of sacred texts, these disciplines are now well known as the seven liberal arts. Of course they did not start with Alcuin and Hrabanus Maurus but had a transmission from the time of the Roman Empire, under which sometimes nine liberal arts were recognized. They were noted by earlier scholars including Boethius and also Martianus Capella, whose allegorical "Marriage of Mercury and Philology" contained the seven liberal arts as characters and had wide circulation. The works that enabled people to teach the seven liberal arts made up the canon recognized as the "course" for all beginning students who then would direct their knowledge and skill to the Bible and various commentaries of which many already were long circulating by Charlemagne's time, commonly known as the writings of the Fathers or the "Patrologia." The Jewish scholars similarly had their sacred Torah and the commentaries, the Talmud, also widely circulated. In general the Western universities rest on the early practice that required a study of the "arts" before anyone could take on professional study-- which in the middle ages meant law, medicine, or theology.
O is for Online. How did these items circulate? As now, through a medium. Surprise: during the middle ages, distance education flourished in Western Europe. People often learned from the master who was not present in their own room or building or city or region or even country. This is the meaning of "packets": hand-copied manuscripts and letters expounding on their contents were passed from place to place. Philosophically and in terms of their reach, the Patrologia corpus (Greek and Latin) and the Talmud might be of the same model as a MOOC. Since the world yet existed without modem or router, fiber optic or verizon.net, to reach the neighbors far and near the Goddess had to tread on the ground. Pack or harness animals no doubt got involved. The present-day medium began in the 1960s with the military-industrial-university collaboration ARPANET and later was refined by Berners-Lee and others into a "web," with connections many and varied criss-crossing all over the world. In the same way, throughout the middle ages, a web stretched across Western Europe through which a "course" could be delivered. We can skip here the early roots from the Egyptian desert hermits and the post-Roman Cassiodorus and focus on Tim Berners-Lee's 6th-century counterpart, St. Benedict of Nursia. Benedict's monastic rule formed the basis throughout Europe of a model for communal living that supported scriptoria for the hand-copying of codex manuscripts and libraries for storing them. The ductile anchors holding up the tradition, from Benedict's own Montecassino in Italy to a corresponding tradition of learning and knowledge stretching from Ireland to Scotland and then southward, attached themselves certainly all over Western Europe and probably extended into the east. In a great, complex, criss-crossing "web," Irish monks reached northern Italy to found Bobbio near Montecassino, and other strong anchors were established in Germany at Mainz and Fulda, in France at Corbie in Picardy and Paris, and elsewhere in too many places to mention here. So while the seven liberal arts formed the standard curriculum, the course was still Offline.
O for Open means, presumably, that anyone with an Internet connection has free unfettered access to a course. My Latin textbook by Frederic M. Wheelock probably cost five bucks, not prohibitive even for a college student of small means (as I was). Today on Amazon it can be bought new (7th ed.) for under $15. Henry Gray is reputed to have wanted his anatomy book to be affordable by students; even today new copies are available in a range from about $45 to $60, cheap in the current textbook market. Similarly in the European middle ages, anyone with the skill to hand-copy a codex manuscript or to commission one from a monastery scriptorium could have access to the works. People freely borrowed and lent manuscripts all over. Palaeographers have written copiously establishing that the distinguishing features of a scribe's handwriting would place the manuscript's copying or else the scribe's training at a place far from the monastic library where it was later found. One scholar noted that an abbot hesitated to lend out his copy of one of the Venerable Bede's works because it was too large for a monk to hide under his clothing, this mention of the exception suggesting that the practice of carrying manuscripts around for copying was commonplace.
Of course, to take advantage of this "open" access, one had to be in the club; generally some literacy skills and the ecclesiastical connections to have gained them in the first place would have formed the minimum qualifications for access to a manuscript. How different is that from our present-day open access to a MOOC taught on Coursera or one of its brethren by a faculty member from Stanford or Harvard or MIT or their brethren and sistren? In the USA there is little problem; anyone with the monthly sum of dollars to purchase access from Verizon or its many brethren can have access. But what about in countries where the government or the local religious establishment might have control over Internet access? A not-too-long-ago Time magazine article opened with an anecdote about a 12-year-old girl in Pakistan taking an online college course in physics when the Internet was shut down by the government. Others in the course rallied to help her find a way around the prohibition and finish the course. Is the access to present-day MOOCs really any more open to all the masses than the medieval European access to knowledge and information to those whose circumstances placed them "outside the club"?
M is for Massive: Cengage and its brethren stretch far and wide. The front of my Wheelock cover to this day boasts "The Barnes & Noble Outline Series|An aid to more than 150 million students." I have not yet looked into the geographic reach of Gray's Anatomy but roughly concurrently with its British publication it made its way across the Atlantic, probably by mandate of copyright treaties between England and the USA. Going back farther, what about the transmission of parts of the seven liberal arts from York in England to Aachen in Germany? What about other texts or practices that found their way from Ireland to Northern Italy, or from York to Aachen to Rome, or from any of those places to St. Gall and Fulda and Mainz and Lorsch and Corbie and Cluny and Luxeuil and Paris and Fleury and Tours and throughout this interconnected web of monastic libraries and cathedral schools and the universities that grew out of the Cathedral schools? Certain texts, for example the Ecclesiastical History of the English People and some works on chronology by the 8th-century northern English monk and teacher the Venerable Bede, still survive in roughly 150 manuscripts spread all over Europe (not counting a copy in St. Petersburg, Russia presumably brought from France during the 18th-century Revolution), making work for scholars still tracking their transmission? We see that the English reached far and wide long before the Open University model. OK, Western Europe is much smaller in land mass than wide stretches of Asia and Africa and the Pacific Rim where a MOOC might go, but to the mind before 1500, before the printing press and modern telecommunications and trains and automobiles and airplanes, Western Europe was MASSIVE.
Has there really been a change, then, in the academic model or only in the tool? Again I emphasize that this backward little alphabet soup aims only to establish the relative age but not the morality of using the MOOC. But some questions of the model's age cannot help but lead to the other questions of comparative quality and also of economics. This is because in the USA anyway, we have reached a point where the job skills and the life education now needed of our graduates no longer are delivered by cheap and measurable "training" but rather the long-earned hard-fought intellectual gains available only through a more expensive investment in inquiry-based instruction heavy on the liberal arts, communication skills, and the development of mental agility. Can that be delivered en masse and online?
Whatever the shortcomings of the MOOC, from overstandardization and lack of local identity to the difficulty of awarding transferable credit, I have yet to see it proposed as an exclusive form of educational offering. Just as individual instructors often have and use their own discretion in delivering and supplementing the material in a basic and standardized mass-publication textbook, mass online delivery will need to be supplemented with some form of small-group effort to provide depth of inquiry. An engineering student sitting in a large American public university's 400-seat lecture hall in 1979 idly drawing with a marker on his jeans while a visiting assistant professor lectures in an unfamiliar Asian accent might have profited no more from his introductory course than a freshman in 2013 listening to a recorded lecture through headphones on the bus to his night job. But presumably the engineering student of 1979 was put through some other steps in his educational process from the lecture hall to the draft room where he designed the bridge over which the cars would ride. Whether he went to a small lab or recitation section with a dedicated instructor, or participated in a guided internship, or was mentored on a project by a faculty member with a reasonable load of advisees, he no doubt did not graduate directly from the lecture hall to professional bridge design. Whether that small-group effort may be deliverable online is another question outside the scope of this discussion. [Elsewhere I am writing an emphatic YES answer for some disciplines anyway.]
Just as in the middle ages Alcuin's grammar had to be paired with a local literate guide or mentor using dialogue to refine knowledge by asking and answering questions, just as Gratian's Decretum was merely a background basis for the disputation or quaestio models, sic et non debates in which students and faculty explored questions, issues, and cases, just as the medical school faculty follow basic instruction in human anatomy with hands-on, John Dewey and David Kolb-worthy complete adult education cycles insisting that for mastering a surgical procedure, everyone must see one, do one, and teach one, we certainly need experienced mentors in small groups, at least sometimes face-to-face, to help students through the inductive-deductive cycle that we have known about at least since the ancient Greeks. The universities always had to serve the two masters: God (whose creation is thoughtful and takes long, even six whole days) and Mammon (fiscal expediency). We never had in the universities what Clay Shirky calls the Arcadian ideal. The only people who had that were the well-off privileged classes of classical antiquity or the antebellum Southern plantation owners who could read about the law without necessarily having to dirty their hands with the practice of it. We always have been looking for efficient, and yes, cost-effective ways to combine the mass delivery of the basics with the careful, mind-expanding, inquiry-driven, mentor-guided internalization of complex advanced knowledge. Each age has its own combination of these different components, its tools for managing them, and its formulas for paying for them. Maybe if we use the MOOC and its online brethren judiciously, we can deliver some material so cheaply that we can pay faculty a living salary to lead the more advanced inquiries that students need to become the flexible thinkers the coming age will require. Can we use the millennia of wisdom at our disposal to create and keep re-creating the best possible combination?