Is MOOC Too Masculine?

"0046 Le Boss" by Artemedion
"0046 Le Boss" by Artemedion

This is an edited repost of an earlier post from an earlier version of my blog.

While working at a university nearly a year ago, I had a discussion with a colleague of mine in the computer science school tea room about online learning. In particular we were discussing the impact of MOOCs on the higher education sector, and their potential impact here in Australia. The discussion was in the context of what we’d want to see in a MOOC if we were in control of one.

For those that aren’t familiar with the term MOOC, which stands for Massive Open Online Course, is defined by Wikipedia as:

an online course aimed at large-scale interactive participation and open access via the web. In addition to traditional course materials such as videos, readings, and problem sets, MOOCs provide interactive user forums that help build a community for the students, professors, and teaching assistants

The key items from the point of view of the higher education sector are:

  1. They’re large scale
  2. They have content other than just slides, documents and video recordings of lectures
  3. They are accessible via the web
  4. Most importantly they’re open access, or to put it another way they’re free to access

At the time I had to cut the discussion short because I needed to make the trek across campus to the humanities school for a meeting with another colleague of mine. As an interesting side note, who knew working on a cross discipline project involved so much walking around campus?

While in the humanities schoolI happened to see a list of items on their whiteboard for discussion and further investigation I noticed that one of them was MOOC's. I mentioned that I’d just been discussing it before our meeting. That’s when she said something quite interesting.

She said that she was a member of a feminist collective in the school and that the collective was against the term MOOC as it was deemed to be too masculine. I enquired how it was too masculine and she wasn’t sure, perhaps it has something to do with the term massive. We left the discussion there and moved on with the rest of the meeting

This comment stuck in my mind. A few days later I was back in the computer science tea room, involved in a discussion on online learning again, when I happened to mention the discussion I’d had in the humanities a few days earlier.

The idea that the term MOOC was too masculine for the feminist collective was met with laughter and a comment that they’d just have to get used to it. Now I should clarify at this point that both colleagues were women.

I felt this was entirely the wrong response. The key issue for me isn’t if MOOC is too masculine or not. They key issue for me, is that a not insignificant number of the user community where a MOOC may be deployed felt that the term was too masculine. My thoughts on the matter of the masculinity of MOOCs are immaterial, what is important is their thoughts on it.

It is important because if a MOOC was introduced, they will need to use the system. They will need to be the ones uploading the content, in many instances creating new content, and most importantly being advocates for the system.

If they don’t like the term MOOC, getting them to use and participate in the system is going to that much more difficult. Not only would their expectations of the new system need to be managed carefully, they’re less likely to engage as it uses a term that they don’t like.

The key issue here is that if they don’t engage with the system then the system is a failure. For in my mind if a system doesn’t meet the needs of users, they won’t use the system. Or if they do use the system it will be under duress and therefore they won’t use it to the fullest extent possible. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, they won’t be good advocates for the system.

The response to the feminists shouldn’t be “just get over it” it should be “what term would be better?”. That way they’re involved in the development of the system and more importantly starting to engage with the system.

While this is an amusing anecdote the key message that I want to impart is this. When developing a new system getting the users to engage in the system is critical and if that means changing the language that is used to describe the system, then that’s what you’ve got to do.