The Sustainability of MOOCs

Rachelle Peterson

This article originally appeared on Minding the Campus on February 18, 2014.

Does the college classroom have a “carrying capacity”?

The term refers to the theoretical maximum population that a particular environment can nourish (or carry) for an extended period. When population outstrips those resources, neo-Malthusians predict deprivation that returns society to its carrying capacity size. I’ve been learning about “carrying capacity,” demographic transitions, and population curves (j-shaped curves are exponential and unsustainable; s-shaped curves approach a sustainable asymptote) in “Introduction to Sustainability,” an eight-week MOOC offered on Coursera by the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

There’s much to critique about the concept of “carrying capacity” (though U-Illinois Professor Jonathan Tompkin doesn’t seem inclined to think so). Historically, humans have been ingenious in finding new efficiencies and new resources. “Sustainability” is a wily buzzword that prophesies environmental deprivation and preaches progressive social and economic reconstruction—a campus trend worth monitoring.

I’m taking the MOOC both because I’m interested in the sustainability dogma on college campuses, and because I’d like to know if higher education can adapt to a digital environment as fluidly as humans adapted to the Ice Age. Can the classroom intellectually nourish masses of students? What are the limiting structures that have kept classrooms small, intimate, and discussion based—and are those structures important? Over the next several weeks, as I work through the MOOC, I’ll write a series of short articles chronicling what I find.

My thoughts so far: The MOOC is semi-Darwinian—not just in content, but in form. The completion rate for “Introduction to Sustainability” remains to be seen, but it’s clear the course offers none of the retention-conducive amenities of a brick and mortar institution with live, accessible advisors and professors. If I quit the course now, nobody but Coursera’s automated email system that sends weekly reminder emails would know or care. We shouldn’t be surprised when MOOCs dwindle to fractions of their original enrollments.

But if the MOOC weeds out the least-committed students, it also admits greater numbers. I don’t mean underprivileged or nontraditional students, who are significantly underrepresented in surveys of MOOC users. When perusing the introductory get-to-know-each-other forums (my first assignment for this MOOC), I randomly selected a handful of my thousands of classmates and found only one traditional college student, a young woman who was studying “social work and community organizing” at a private college in Wisconsin. I did see a number of working professionals, though, including a New York businessman starting a sustainability-inspired restaurant, a DC denizen prepping for grad school, and a man from Bangalore, India, hoping to improve his prospects of getting promoted.

Besides the working professionals, my own post on the introductory forum highlights another subgroup that MOOCs reach: latecomers. I told my classmates I was starting the course three weeks late and playing catch-up, something I probably couldn’t have done in a regular class. But here it mattered little whether I started late or on time. Past (but not future) MOOC lectures and quizzes are available online at the student’s convenience. Perhaps they’re too convenient; I could have taken all my quizzes without watching the lectures or reading any assignments, if I’d wanted to.

The only inconvenience of taking the MOOC at my own pace? I missed a few early discussion forum threads, the opportunity to join Coursera Signature Track (whereby I could pay Coursera to verify my identity and award me a “verified certificate” if I passed the course), and the deadlines to receive credit for the first few quizzes (which I took anyways). To catch up with the others, I could watch fifteen-minute segments of lectures over dinner and read my assignments online late at night. 

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