gender bias: (yet) another reason to worry about MOOCs

By | January 28, 2013

Image source:

You may have heard that Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are going to revolutionize and/or destroy higher education as we know it. A MOOC, in case you need a quick primer, is a free online course, generally offered through a university or through one of a small handful of educational technology companies (Coursera, Udacity, and edX are the most prominent these days). The goal of the MOOC model is to open up education–to make it possible for unprecedented numbers of people to gain access to college-level knowledge. As a recent New York Times article notes,

The shimmery hope is that free courses can bring the best education in the world to the most remote corners of the planet, help people in their careers, and expand intellectual and personal networks.

Of course, not everyone is quite so enamored with the MOOC model. Media scholar Douglas Rushkoff, for example, worries that the MOOC craze reduces education to the mere acquisition of skills. Rushkoff explains:

For pure knowledge acquisition, it’s hard to argue against [an increased emphasis on online learning models], especially in an era that doesn’t prioritize enrichment for its own sake. But it would be a mistake to conclude that online courses fulfill the same role in a person’s life as a college education, just as it would be an error to equate four years of high school with some online study and a GED exam.

Rushkoff’s view has its own problems: For one thing, it assumes that the goal of a college education is, and should be, less about credentialing workers and more about crafting people. Which is fine–except that the “crafting people” model has baked right into it a set of assumptions about what makes a “good” and “educated” person, and it turns out that these assumptions align pretty closely with Eurocentric, masculinist, and middle class ideals. Which is fine, unless you don’t happen to believe that those ideals are necessarily the ones we should want to bake right into our people.

Still, Rushkoff’s point is worth considering. What does it mean to embrace a higher education model that emphasizes knowledge acquisition over acculturation, that emphasizes quantity (thousands, perhaps millions of students learning about science and math and business and writing!) over quality (very little interaction with instructors, and sometimes very little interaction with classmates!)?

Here’s another reason to worry: Recent evidence suggests a deep gender disparity in who teaches MOOCs. Lisa Martin and Barbara Walter explain in an LA Times op-ed that the vast majority of MOOC classes are developed and taught by men–even when the classes are in more woman-heavy areas like the humanities. They explain:

One consortium, Coursera, offered 205 courses with named instructors at one point this month. Only 34 are taught by female instructors; 157 are taught by male instructors; the remaining 14 courses are taught by groups of both men and women. Even in fields in which women are a majority of doctoral recipients and recent faculty hires, such as the humanities, the vast majority (72%) of classes at Coursera are taught by men. Udacity, another major provider of MOOCs, has almost no women as sole or lead instructors in its course offerings.

The gender disparity becomes even more obvious when we look at individual universities. At Princeton, for example, 33% of the permanent faculty members on campus are female, yet none of the courses offered by Princeton through Coursera are taught by women. At the University of Pennsylvania, women on campus also represent 33% of the faculty, but they teach only 12.5% of the courses offered through Coursera. Only MOOCs offered by Stanford, which has 25% female faculty, come close to a representative level.

The authors note that since the selection process for MOOC course instruction is generally fairly opaque, it’s difficult to decipher exactly why MOOC instructors are predominantly male. They point out, however, that

it surely can’t be because women don’t want to take advantage of this exciting opportunity and the potential resources that might flow from it. And it does not appear that women are under-represented because MOOCs are choosing only the oldest and most established professors, most of whom are male. The ages of the instructors range from fairly new PhDs through long-tenured professors.

My view, as a reformed Open Education evangelist, is that there are three main reasons for the gender disparity described above. First, the MOOC model is an offshoot of the broader open education movement, which has roots in the open source software movement, which has a long and storied history of gender bias, sexism, and exclusionary practices. Although the OpenEd movement is working hard on the “gender problem,” it’s not easy to shake free of all that yucky history.

Second, the MOOC model, with its reliance on lectures and content delivery, is misaligned to certain pedagogical approaches. If you embrace a feminist pedagogy, if you favor culturally relevant pedagogy, if you believe good teaching requires responsiveness and flexibility and an effort to come to mutual understanding in collaboration with your students, then you may consider the MOOC to be incompatible with your epistemological commitments. This is not to say, mind you, that no MOOC could ever be taught using one of the above approaches–I’m sure that some instructor, somewhere, has found a way to shape a MOOC to fit these and similar commitments. It’s only to say that developing a MOOC gets harder the farther you get from the “traditional” lecture-based approach to instruction.

Which leads me to my third point: the MOOC model doesn’t really help female faculty all that much. Let’s say you’re a female-bodied university professor–which, by the way, means you overcame some odds: Although women make up nearly 60% of all college undergraduates, they’re far less likely than are their male peers to begin a doctoral program and far less likely to earn their Ph.D. Women are also less likely to secure faculty positions at top-tier universities like Stanford and Princeton and MIT and the University of Pennsylvania–which are among the most prominent proponents of the MOOC model.

Ok, so you’re a female-bodied university professor at one of those universities. You know you’re going to have to fight harder than your male colleagues to earn tenure. Your students are probably going to give you lower evaluations than they give your male colleagues. And teaching a MOOC, while it may be an intriguing project, is probably not going to help you overcome these obstacles. So why would you bother?

The MOOC model has been embraced as a potential equalizer, as a way to confront educational inequity on a global scale. I don’t disagree in theory with this–making more information available to more people has to be viewed as an important project. In practice, however, MOOCs are still very much part of the broken system they purport to fix.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.