Massively Open Online Embarassment

Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs) may be the way of the future, but they show every sign of disrupting my intricate bargain with humiliation. For ten years, I’ve managed to contain evidence of my incompetence to the small number of students who had the misfortune of wandering into my lecture hall. But online lectures on YouTube? Virtual office hours through FaceTime? Interactive tutorials through video conference? These can hardly be good news.

Case in point: my recent attempt to teach a lesson about local customs in a global age by telling a story about Nova Scotian skyscrapers. Some years ago, I moved from Toronto to Halifax, only to discover that complete strangers would talk to each other on elevators. Like, really talk. Not, “nice weather out there,” “damn government,” and “bloody in-laws”—the kinds of superficial topics that Torontonians use to avoid actual conversation (and then only if looking up, looking down, or re-pushing the button fourteen times hadn’t served to avoid speech entirely).

No, Haligonians would really get into things. Where are you from? Where are you headed? You seem nice, why aren’t you married? What do you think of Heidegger? What are the key challenges for the public sector in these times of neo-liberal austerity? Don’t you think that Battlestar Galactica is the all-time greatest parable about humanity’s struggle for meaning? (Well, er, maybe that last one was me, but no matter).

Now, if you’re a scholar interested in the structure of everyday life, such differences say something about local practices in a connected world. Canadians watch the same shows, read the same blogs, experience the same social influences, and brag constantly about convergence, synergy, and interactivity. Yet elevator culture is strikingly different across the country.

Well, thanks to the brutal honesty of my teaching assistant, I now know that—owing to some sort of unconscious Freudian or Beevisian slip—I spent the whole lecture saying “urinal” instead of “elevator.” I suppose, in a broad sense, that didn’t matter. The point still holds, after all, since the survival of local urinary practices in a global age can be highly revealing. But what was supposed to be a lesson in the complexities of local custom became, alas, another entry in my growing Humiliatum Vitae.

So you can see how I might be a bit reluctant to “scale up” and join the emerging MOOC revolution. I mean, the only saving grace in that urinal story was precisely its limited audience. The class had just fifty students to begin with, and since it was late March, about half of them weren’t there at all. And to be honest, it was about forty minutes into a one hour lecture, so at least a third of the students had trickled out, another third had dozed off, and a few more seemed to be playing solitaire on their computers. So, really, very few people actually heard my embarrassing slip, and at least one of them was my brutally honest T.A. Surviving pedagogical humiliation is all about limited scale.

Alas, in the MOOC era, my bumbling incompetence will know no geographic bounds. Worse, my humiliation will survive on the Internet somewhere, indelible, fully recoverable for generations of undergraduates across time and space. Thousands and thousands of students— as far as, say, Germany or Indonesia—might witness my embarrassing attempts to relate to young people through hangover jokes; students in 2025 might share befuddlement at my compulsive Star Trek references; and who knows who will be wondering whether that strange Canadian’s story about Halifax bathrooms owed to drunkenness or outright incompetence.

I mean, seriously, MOOC U just wasn’t designed for guys who mix up urinals and elevators, and I have a sneaking suspicion that the new age of open education is just another way for good looking people to get attention. How about this: Moderately-Sized Off-Line Courses? MSOLC might not be a good acronym, but through it I will maintain my fragile peace with small scale humiliation.

Steve Penfold is Academic Matters’ humour columnist. He moonlights as an Associate Professor of History at the University of Toronto.