Teaching Japanese Popular Culture in the MOOC World

Possibilities and Challenges

Chris McMorran, Department of Japanese Studies, National University of Singapore [About | Email]

Volume 13, Issue 2 (Discussion paper 2 in 2013). First published in ejcjs on 6 September 2013.


Since 2012, the growth of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) has stirred excitement and controversy in higher education. Open-access, fully online courses are but the latest advance in a long history of distance learning. However, the recent combination of advanced course-hosting technologies, enthusiasm for MOOCs at institutions like Harvard and Stanford, and vast start-up capital for MOOC providers like Coursera, edX, and Udacity has led to speculation that MOOCs may drastically alter higher education, for better or worse.

What will the future hold for MOOCs in Japanese Studies, specifically for courses about or incorporating Japanese popular culture? This paper addresses this question and explains the relevance of the topic for anyone engaged in teaching about, or with, Japanese popular culture. This includes not only individuals who teach courses in film, media, or cultural studies departments specifically about Japanese film, anime, manga, games, cosplay, literature, music, television dramas, etc., but also those who use examples of Japan’s rich cultural heritage to teach about something else, like history, sociology, anthropology, geography, politics, international relations, marketing, business, and more. Anyone who relies on Japanese popular culture to make a point, provide an example, define a term, or even entertain, needs to be cognisant of how MOOCs might shape what they do and how they do it.

I hope to stimulate discussion about MOOCs in Japanese Studies. Although there is very little peer-reviewed scholarship on MOOCs, there has been a media explosion of news reports, commentaries, essays, videos, and interviews with MOOC advocates and skeptics. In this paper I draw on dozens of mostly online materials, as well as email correspondence with several scholars who have developed or are developing popular culture-rich MOOCs, in order to: 1) define MOOCs and trace their recent growth, acclaim, and controversy; 2) discuss challenges that must be overcome to take advantage of MOOCs, most notably copyright; and 3) raise some questions about MOOCs that have yet to be widely discussed, but may affect us all in the future. Overall, I question the ability of MOOCs to democratise education and fear they may create a fissure between institutions, departments, and scholars who can capitalise on their promise and those who cannot.

Defining MOOCs

MOOCs have been called “the single most important experiment in higher education” (Weissmann 2012), a “game-changer” that will open higher education to ‘hundreds of millions of people’ (Lewin 2012), and a “massive, terrible idea for the future of college” (Bustillos 2013). They have stirred almost religious fervour among advocates and doomsday scenarios among opponents. However, for anyone unfamiliar with the term MOOC, some explanation is necessary.

By definition, a MOOC can have a Massive number of learners. For instance, over 160,000 students from over 190 countries signed up for Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig’s ‘Artificial Intelligence’ course in 2011, spurring Thrun to give up tenure at Stanford and found MOOC provider Udacity (Pappano 2012). Another Udacity course, ‘Intro to Computer Science,’ has enrolled over 300,000 students so far. Because it is online and automated, in theory a MOOC can have an unlimited number of participants.

By definition, a MOOC should be Open to learners regardless of institutional affiliation, academic status, age, sex, religion, race, or geographical location. In addition, most MOOCs are still free of charge, allowing anyone access to classes taught by faculty at some of the world’s top-rated institutions. In theory, anyone with a computer and Internet access can enroll in any MOOC.

By definition, a MOOC is Online. Like radio, television, VHS tapes, cassette tapes, CDs, and DVDs before, the Internet ushered in a new era in distance learning. Advanced course-hosting technologies now allow nearly all materials to be accessible through one online portal, including lectures, discussion forums, quizzes, and other assessments. While some MOOCs show lectures videotaped in front of students, others are specially produced for online learners, with an instructor speaking directly to the camera or speaking over lecture slides, in addition to homework, discussion forums, and assessments that take advantage of the online learning environment.

Finally, a MOOC is a Course. It is not a single lecture, like a TED talk, or simply a series of lectures. Nor is it online learning materials or lesson plans that can be used in a course, like M.I.T.’s Visualising Cultures site (M.I.T. 2013). A MOOC is a self-contained course that follows a syllabus and requires homework and assessment. Unlike most courses, however, successful completion of a MOOC typically does not earn credit toward the completion of a degree. In lieu of credit, instructors often offer a certificate of completion.

The term MOOC was coined by Dave Cormier in 2008 in reference to the University of Manitoba’s ‘Connectivism and Connective Knowledge’ course (Boven 2013, see also McAuley et al. 2010). Precursors like Open Educational Resources (OER) have been praised for their potential to assist developing countries by enabling anyone to pursue higher education (OECD 2007). However, the MOOC idea did not garner much attention until Stanford’s ‘A.I.’ course in 2011, with its startling enrolment of 160,000 (Martin 2012). In the intervening years, MOOCs have continued to grow in ways none of their pioneers ever imagined, with established MOOC providers now located around the world, including Australia, Canada, Germany, Great Britain, Spain, and the United States.

Godzilla-size Growth

The New York Times declared 2012 ‘The Year of the MOOC,’ stating, “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” (Pappano 2012; see also Shirky 2012). Indeed, most MOOC providers portray themselves as democratising education. For instance, Udacity (2013) writes, “Our mission is to bring accessible, affordable, engaging, and highly effective higher education to the world. We believe that higher education is a basic human right, and we seek to empower our students to advance their education and careers.” Coursera (2013) has similar aims: “We envision a future where everyone has access to a world-class education that has so far been available to a select few. We aim to empower people with education that will improve their lives, the lives of their families, and the communities they live in.” Even edX (2013), which distinguishes itself from other providers by emphasising research on the effectiveness of online learning, sees itself opening the doors to learning: “We present the best of higher education online, offering opportunity to anyone who wants to achieve, thrive, and grow.”

The admirable goal of opening higher education to anyone, coupled with a world of potential learners, has led to immense growth in the number of MOOC platforms, partner universities, course offerings, and enrolled students over the past few years. For instance, Coursera, founded in April 2012, maintains a ticker on its homepage that as of 10 June 2013 boasts more than 3.7 million students, 384 courses, and 81 partner institutions. Such growth may be unsustainable. MOOCs may be a fad. However, the growth is too sudden and widespread to ignore. Most faculty and institutions have already decided (or soon must) what role, if any, MOOCs will play in their future. Those who teach about Japan are no exception.

With enrolment figures for Japan-centred courses constantly in flux due to unpredictable economic and cultural factors (see Tsutsui, McLelland, this issue), faculty who teach about Japan might see MOOCs as a way to reach more learners, including the possibility of reaching more students in a single MOOC than in a 30-year career at one institution. While some may argue that education should be focused more on quality than quantity, dwindling enrolments have justified the closure of many departments over the decades, and there is nothing sacrosanct about Japanese Studies or similar departments. At some point, all faculty will need to decide whether to create, reject, or adopt the MOOC platform.

The stakes for joining (or not) the MOOC revolution are higher for institutions. Given the ever-increasing costs of higher education and growing student debt, MOOCs provide an opportunity for highly selective and/or expensive institutions to open their (online) doors to anyone who wants to learn (Ritter 2012). Moreover, in a globally competitive higher education marketplace, many institutions consider MOOCs a major pedagogical shift that cannot be missed. Early advocacy of MOOCs by institutions like Stanford, M.I.T., and Harvard has left some schools scrambling to join MOOC collaborations, create their own, or be left behind, while others have actively rejected the model (like Amherst College; see Kolowich 2013a).

Limits to the Democratisation of Education

Enthusiasm for the potential of MOOCs to democratise education recently has become tempered by serious questions about the centralisation of knowledge, academic freedom, and the potential hollowing out of institutions. Some of these concerns were sparked by a MOOC titled ‘Justice,’ offered by edX and taught by Harvard government professor Michael Sandel. Japan scholars might recall Sandel’s recent popularity in Japan, where his public lectures attracted tens of thousands (Otake 2010, Tōhoku University 2013). In early 2013, a dean at San Jose State University suggested that its philosophy department pilot Sandel’s MOOC, assigning the MOOC lectures as homework to stimulate discussion during class time. While some experts consider this ‘flipped classroom’ a promising innovation enabled by MOOCs, the philosophy department balked. In an open letter to Sandel published in The Chronicle of Higher Education, they implicate him in a process that may one day dismantle departments and narrow the production of knowledge in higher education (Kolowich 2013b). They write, “We fear that two classes of universities will be created: one, well-funded colleges and universities in which privileged students get their own real professor; the other, financially stressed private and public universities in which students watch a bunch of videotaped lectures and interact, if indeed any interaction is available on their home campuses, with a professor that this model of education has turned into a glorified teaching assistant” (Philosophy Department at San Jose University 2013).

The contention that MOOCs democratise education may be undermined by the possibility that they could lead to a concentration of knowledge production and dissemination in the hands of a few elite institutions and celebrity academics, as well as less academic freedom for faculty required to use MOOCs in “flipped” or “blended” environments (Lewin 2013a). As the San Jose State faculty note, “Teaching justice through an educational model that is spearheading the creation of two social classes in academia thus amounts to a cruel joke” (Philosophy Department at San Jose University 2013). Sandel responded to the letter, supporting the department’s academic freedom. However, he admitted, “The worry that the widespread use of online courses will damage departments in public universities facing budgetary pressures is a legitimate concern that deserves serious debate, at edX and throughout higher education” (Sandel 2013).

In an era of cost-cutting throughout higher education it will be difficult for many institutions to resist the dual allure of 1) reducing labor costs by reducing new hires or hiring qualified scholars as lower-paid ‘glorified teaching assistants,’ and 2) offering students at less prestigious institutions credit for MOOCs from global brand-name universities, a new reality that is likely to expand (Lewin 2013b). As the San Jose State philosophy department points out, this may lead to “the creation of two social classes in academia” (Philosophy Department at San Jose University 2013), a division that may be further exacerbated among those who teach about or with Japanese popular culture. The reason is simple: copyright.

Copyright and Fair Use in MOOCs

A recent review of Coursera, edX, and Udacity reveals only a handful of courses that strongly emphasise popular culture in some way and no course focusing on Japanese popular culture. However, it seems inevitable that someone will take that first step, attracted by the pedagogical innovation and the prospect of teaching a truly global classroom about Japanese film, anime, manga, games, characters, fashion, literature, music, television, etc. Whoever accepts the challenge of creating a MOOC about, or using, Japanese popular culture will face several major hurdles. Existing online technologies enable any course to reach millions of learners; however, because MOOCs are open and online, copyright will be a major issue. Indeed, the best step forward seems to be pushing the limits of fair use in ways currently discouraged by MOOC platforms.

It may be no wonder that the first and most common MOOCs have been in subjects like computer programming, mathematics, and science. Particularly at the introductory level, such courses do not require major adjustments year to year, nor do they involve potential copyright infringement. Many experts have emphasised the disadvantage suffered by humanities and social science courses in online education, (Digital Media Project, n.d.), a problem that continues with MOOCs. At issue is the lack of protection for fair use: the informal doctrine that allows the “performance or display of a work by instructors or pupils in the course of face-to-face teaching activities of a nonprofit educational institution, in a classroom or similar place devoted to instruction” (U.S. Code 2013). Without fair use, none of us could show film or television clips, artwork, music, or anything else protected by any country’s copyright laws without fear of prosecution by copyright holders (Bielstein 2006). The classroom would be a space nearly absent of media.

The fair use doctrine generally does not apply to MOOCs. First of all, like all digital scholarship and learning platforms (e.g. websites, wikis, blogs, Moodle), MOOCs are not confined to the physical classroom. Therefore, the face-to-face aspect does not apply. Secondly, many MOOC providers hope to one day profit from their offerings by charging students for course completion certificates (e.g. Coursera’s Verified Certificate (Korn 2013)), or charging universities to use MOOCs produced elsewhere for credit-earning courses. Therefore, the nonprofit educational institution aspect does not apply. When it comes to showing third-party content, which major MOOC provider Coursera defines as “content that is not self-created, such as graphs, charts, artwork, photos, screenshots, clip art, trademarks and videos,” the company tries to provide hope. In advice to faculty creating MOOCs, Coursera states, “While this is not to rule out fair use as an option, it is to be used with care, and in parallel with consultation with your university's attorneys or legal personel (sic)” (personal communication 9 May 2013).

Consulting with university legal personnel over every image, film clip, artwork, song, advertisement, and poem to be used in lecture is unrealistic for most instructors. In fact, as I argue below, the limitations of fair use in MOOCs threaten to create a chasm between institutions with the financial and legal backing to produce media-rich MOOCs, and those without. Developing any MOOC related to Japanese popular culture will require one of three options, none of which is ideal: 1) stripping the course of all copyright protected material, 2) securing copyright permission from all content creators, or 3) creatively pushing the boundaries of fair use. I argue that only the third option gives courses in Japanese popular culture any chance at realising the MOOC goal of democratising education and preventing a sharp divide between the haves and the have nots in online higher education.

Free content, content-free course

The first option, removing from course materials anything protected by copyright, may be easy in a course where third-party content simply illustrates a concept or phenomenon. For instance, in my Introduction to Japanese Studies course when I teach about the recent decline in lifetime employment and emergence of dispatched workers, I do not need to show a clip from the 2007 NipponTV drama Haken no hinkaku, (Dignity of Special Temporary Staff). The clip may grab student attention and help illustrate my point, but it is not essential. However, how could one teach a film or media studies course without showing at least something protected by copyright? How could one teach a course on manga entirely from work in the public domain? How could one teach a film studies course without showing film clips protected by copyright? Screen shots may be acceptable in MOOCs (no company has challenged the practice yet), but are insufficient to achieve the kind of close and repetitive viewing necessary when teaching about the moving image. Film clips, on the other hand, are covered by fair use due to the tireless efforts of The Society for Cinema and Media Studies (SCMS 2008) and others, but not allowed in MOOCs without some adjustment (more below). If the fair use doctrine fails to transfer to MOOCs and all copyright protected material is excised from film and media studies classes, whole departments and thousands of scholars around the world will be unable to fully participate in this new world of online education, hamstrung by the inability to include the very object of criticism and debate in lecture.

Content-rich course, rich institution

At the other end of the spectrum, one could secure permission for all copyright protected materials in a MOOC. Coursera recommends securing permissions “as if you were the author of a textbook, obtaining rights for materials you would like to include in your book” (personal communication 9 May 2013), in consultation with university lawyers. Because most of the relevant content for a MOOC on Japanese popular culture is produced in Japan, the university will also need to hire administrative and/or legal assistants with Japanese language ability to contact the necessary copyright holders: publishers, production companies, website administrators, advertising agencies, and so on. Otherwise, the faculty member will lose precious research, teaching, and service time. Finally, even if the large legal and administrative team finds the necessary copyright holders, the rights for a particular image, film clip, or song may be too expensive to justify its inclusion in the MOOC. On his course description page for ‘History of Rock, Part One,’ John Covach notes that cost is a concern: “Unfortunately, the expense of licensing music to support a course like this is prohibitive. Students are therefore asked to seek out the music discussed here (most of which is readily available on the Internet). Because artists cannot be paid otherwise, we encourage all students to purchase the music they enjoy when possible” (Covach 2013). Of course, this assumes students can purchase content regardless of their location, a problem I address below.

At this point, even the most enthusiastic faculty member and institution may conclude that developing a Japanese popular culture-based MOOC is not worth the effort. The thought of liaising with university lawyers (assuming one’s institution has full-time lawyers with time to devote to copyright issues) and chasing down the copyright holders for bottled green tea commercials or out-of-print manga from the 1980s will sound like an exercise in futility to many. And even if copyright is secured for enough material to create a course, instructors may sacrifice academic freedom by settling on a second- or third-best example. More seriously, securing permissions will require an investment of time and money beyond the reach of most scholars and institutions. Only institutions with deep pockets and large legal teams will be able to produce MOOCs of the highest scholarly calibre, thereby threatening to widen the gap between the social classes in higher education.

Pushing the boundaries of fair use

Between these two extremes lie various options, including linking to the content in question and pushing the boundaries of fair use. Linking to external sites is only feasible if one is certain a link will remain active and if the content is legally accessible to students around the world (see McLelland this issue). And when creating a MOOC, what responsibility does an instructor have to protect the rights of copyright holders? Certainly, one cannot link students to scanlations, fansubs, or pirated content, but can one mention that such websites exist, thereby encouraging students to search for them on their own? How should one react if students use discussion forums to provide other students links to sites that violate copyright?

Aside from linking to third-party content, one can push the boundaries of fair use. For Coursera, the fair use doctrine applies to a MOOC in two cases: “1) The image shown is being directly criticised. For example, in a photography course, a photo is being shown to illustrate the problems with over-exposing film. 2) The image is being used in a transformative way; that is, the purpose for use in the course is completely different than its original purpose. For example, in a course about web design it is acceptable to show web screen shots to demonstrate good and bad web design techniques” (personal communication 9 May 2013). Criticism and transformation have long been central to the fair use argument for including media in classroom situations (SCMS 2008), and based on its comments, Coursera appears to recognise the importance of fair use with respect to third-party content. However, so far MOOC providers and institutions are advising instructors to secure copyright permissions or remove anything protected by copyright.

While researching this paper, I only found a handful of MOOCs with titles and descriptions about popular culture (Table 1). Most instructors address copyright in their online course description. However, I emailed each to request additional comments on the process and to ask whether copyright issues had been restrictive. One response came from Ib Bondebjerg, Professor in the Department of Media, Cognition and Communication at the University of Copenhagen. He is preparing ‘Scandinavian Film and Television,’ which will premier in early 2014 with Coursera. His course webpage does not mention whether or how students will watch Scandinavian film or television (Bondebjerg 2013), and in an email Professor Bondebjerg acknowledged, “The question of copyright is indeed much more complicated in a MOOC course like this reaching many thousand students from a wide variety of countries” (personal communication 11 June 2013). Still in the planning stages, Bondebjerg has met with others who have created MOOCs: “We were advised not to upload or show any clips ourselves. I do this all the time in my normal classes, so this is indeed a restriction. I had hoped to be able to imbed clips in my video presentations, but unless I somehow clear the rights (which I am working on) this cannot be done” (personal communication 11 June 2013).

Table 1: Courses about, or widely incorporating, popular culture at major MOOC providers

MOOC Provider (number of total courses)

MOOC Title Related to Popular Culture

Instructor, Affiliation

Coursera (386)

‘Online Games: Literature, New Media, and Narrative’

Jay Clayton, Vanderbilt University

‘The Camera Never Lies’

Emmett Sullivan, Royal Holloway, University of London

‘The Language of Hollywood: Storytelling, Sound, and Color’

Scott Higgins, Wesleyan University

‘Comic Books and Graphic Novels’

William Kuskin, University of Colorado, Boulder

‘History of Rock, Part One’

‘History of Rock, Part Two’

John Covach, University of Rochester

‘Live: A History of Art for Artists, Animators and Gamers’

Jeannene Przyblyski,

California Institute of the Arts

‘Listening to World Music’

Carol Muller,

University of Pennsylvania

edX (60)

‘Ideas of the Twentieth Century’

Daniel Bonevac,

The University of Texas at Austin

Udacity (25)


A second reply came from Scott Higgins, Associate Professor of Film Studies at Wesleyan University, whose MOOC is titled ‘The Language of Hollywood: Storytelling, Sound, and Color.’ Higgins is a bit more daring when it comes to fair use. He often lectures with himself superimposed over screen shots, but he also uses clips. “I did use quite a few clips in my lectures, but always with running commentary and/or interrupted. Also I used Screenflow to produce the lectures, so the film clip is always embedded, never full frame” (personal communication 12 May 2013). In this way, he contends he is criticising and transforming the original. When creating his MOOC, Higgins took the issue of copyright very seriously, as did the legal and administrative teams at his institution and Coursera. Higgins composed a letter to his provost justifying his incorporation of stills and clips into lectures. His rule of thumb is useful: “My personal litmus test for this practice is to ask, ‘Am I ruining the sequence in some way?’ In other words, if I am destroying the entertainment value of the sequence through a critical intervention, then I am probably safe” (personal communication 10 May 2013). However, he wonders who is ultimately responsible for any legal questions for a MOOC: the instructor, the institution, or the provider?

Higgins is not the only MOOC instructor incorporating film clips. In a recent piece in The New Yorker, Nathan Heller (2013) discussed ‘The Ancient Greek Hero,’ a MOOC from edX led by Gregory Nagy, Francis Jones Professor of Classical Greek Literature and Professor of Comparative Literature at Harvard University. Heller describes a lecture relevant to the discussion of fair use: “The segment started with a head shot of Nagy talking about the 1982 movie Blade Runner. His lecture was intercut with a muted clip showing the rain-drenched death soliloquy of Roy Batty, the movie’s replicant antagonist. ‘I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. […] All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.’ Nagy spoke the crucial words and started teasing them apart.” Nagy pushes the boundaries of fair use by showing the clip in its entirety, but voicing the character’s last words himself.

Limiting access, limiting learners

Film clips are one thing, but entire films or television programs are a different matter, and a particularly problematic one when it comes to the MOOC promise of democratising education. In his film course, for instance, Higgins (2013) provides this advice on how to view the required films: “They are readily available on DVD and available for RENTAL via NETFLIX or a similar service. Some of them are available streaming on the internet. All are available for purchase from AMAZON or another vendor.” The requirement that students view films outside class means Higgins’ film choices are restricted to what is available for rental or purchase, possibly limiting what he can teach about filmmaking in the early twentieth century.

More disconcertingly, prohibitive shipping costs, incompatible DVD region codes, and inaccessible online versions will make the films unobtainable for most potential learners outside the United States and may prevent students from registering for the course. Higgins discovered that students will turn to alternative methods for the sake of learning. “As soon as the course launched some students set up a Facebook page for it where they listed torrents for most of the movies. I monitored the Coursera discussion board and removed any reference to this, and any attempt to provide links to the films directly” (personal communication 10 May 2013).

Those who teach about or with Japanese popular culture understand well the barriers to learning erected by prohibitive shipping costs, incompatible DVD region codes, and online inaccessibility. Like Higgins’ students many of us must engage in legally questionable tactics in order to stay on top of popular culture trends in Japan and curate pedagogically appropriate materials for the classroom. After decades of sharing these works with students under the protection of fair use, instructors will be unable to incorporate them into a MOOC without bending the rules. Paradoxically, anyone who coordinates a MOOC about Japanese popular culture will need simultaneously to protect the rights of copyright holders and push the limits of fair use.


It is both exhilarating and daunting to think about how MOOCs may affect the future of Japanese studies and higher education as a whole. Because of their relative newness, it may be years before we understand either the full repercussions of adopting MOOCs or their effectiveness on learning and instruction. There are still many issues that need to be resolved about MOOCs. For instance, how will MOOCs affect graduate training, hiring, salary, and promotion decisions? Might MOOCs raise the bar on teaching in higher education, not only by encouraging more carefully planned courses and sound pedagogical choices by MOOC instructors, but also by providing faculty around the world an opportunity keep abreast of pedagogical innovations and cutting-edge content delivered by peers at other institutions? Might journals such as ejcjs, which already features book and film reviews, add MOOC reviews? Although speculative, these are all questions that the prominent emergence of MOOCs forces us to consider.

Unfortunately, the open and online nature of MOOCs and the extremely cautious application of fair use by institutions and MOOC providers threaten to limit the global, democratising impact envisioned by MOOC advocates and create two classes of institutions. If we fail properly to address fair use and copyright in MOOCs, those who teach about or with Japanese popular culture may find themselves on either side of an ever-widening chasm. On one side will be those with the institutional support to develop media-rich courses that offer the greatest level of academic freedom and attract the largest number of students. On the other side will be those marginalised by MOOCs, unable to contribute to student learning with the same resources and at the same scale. Only by pushing the limits of fair use will all of those who teach about Japanese popular culture be able to fully participate in this new global exchange of knowledge. This may require a concerted, collaborative effort from those who teach about Japanese popular culture. The consequences of doing nothing could be dire.


My deepest thanks go to Drs. Higgins, Kuskin, and Bondebjerg for sharing their thoughts on creating MOOCs. I also wish to thank Deborah Shamoon for her comments throughout the writing process.


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About the Author

Chris McMorran is Lecturer in the Department of Japanese Studies at the National University of Singapore. He earned his Ph.D. in Geography at the University of Colorado Boulder in 2008. His research interests include labor mobility, heritage tourism, qualitative research methods, and the geographies of learning. He has published in edited volumes and the journals Area, Mobilities, and Tourism Geographies.

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