Much Ado About MOOCs

Is it justified? My concern: Elitism. We need less of it, not more.

Posted May 17, 2013

Unless you have been off the ‘net, you have probably heard some hue and cry over MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses). Some people love ‘em (those who embrace every new thing in higher ed, those who want to do education as cheaply as possible, those with an entrepreneurial bent, those who think tuition is too high—the list goes on) and some folks don’t (mostly faculty who are not teaching MOOCs, people who like higher ed the way it is, skeptics, technophobes); other people (and colleges and universities) are on the fence, others are welcoming them with open arms (Yale just joined the latter group).

In brief, MOOCs allow thousands and thousands of people to sign up for an online course, usually for free. If they stay (with) the course and complete the assignments, etc., they get a course completion certificate, which is not (yet) a degree. Just a piece of paper, probably not frame-worthy, but something to indicate you had an online experience. At present, I am told about 1% (yes, that’s right 99% or thereabout never finish a given course) of people who sign up for any given MOOC finish it.

MOOCs tend to be taught by famous faculty at Ivy and other brand name colleges. They are less likely to be taught by rank and file faculty members (yours truly, for example) at this juncture, anyway. Developers of MOOCs say they will change the face of higher education by making it more egalitarian and open to people whom otherwise could not afford a traditonal and often costly college experience (I hear La Marseillaise playing in the background--also the clink of coins). Many administraors, trustees, and regents see MOOCs as a source of cost savings ("Why hire a faculty member to teach topic x if we can get Dr. Famous Researcher at Household Name University to do the job for us? We can save salary, pension, office space--even parking!"). Many faculty members see this as another case of the camel's nose slipping under the wobbly tent of university life and undermining teaching and learning.

Of course, all of this is complicated and it is much to soon to tell what MOOCs will or won’t mean. I doubt they will be anyone’s educational salvation and I don’t think all the doom and gloom is justified, either. But I do have some concerns. At this point I am concerned with what I call the double-edged elite problem.

First, (mostly) elite schools are producing MOOCs and marketing them to the public and to less elite colleges and universities. Recently, for example, the members of the Philosophy Department at San Jose State University objected to a course on justice (taught by—surprise!—a faculty member from Harvard) being made available on their campus (justice being a philosophical-legal issue taught on many campuses, including SJSU). This is a case of educational NIMBY, to be sure, but it also represents an old problem in higher ed: Elites telling less elites what to do and how to do it. The worry is that at public (state) institutions, the never-ending search for cost-savings will result in academic retrenchment (e.g., “Do we really need philosophy and philosophers when we can farm out teaching to online media? And isn’t it great if we can get faculty at elite schools to do the teaching; aren’t they truly the best and the brightest, anyway?”). I think this is a real concern, not a silly or flippant one. As an educator, professor, and parent, I am worried about the undermining of excellent teaching at schools outside the Ivy-belt. Is “elite” education the best education? No, not always, not necessarily, not even. Like most things in life, “it all depends.”

Now, here’s my part two elite worry: Let’s imagine a world where many people (that other 99%--no, not that group, although they fit in here, too—the 99% who heretofore don’t complete MOOCs) finish their online course and get some sort of degree certification, the equivalent of an online diploma (it may not be a college degree—but it will be some sort of certificate). Do we expect that those certificates will be taken as seriously as a traditional college or university degree, one where students attended physical classes (at least sometimes), had face to face interactions with peers and professors (at least some of the time), experienced some sort of campus life and extracurricular activities (at least on occasion)? Had actual lab experiences, recitals, music lessons, and went to Writing Centers . . . the list goes on. I don’t think so.

I worry that we will create a new layer of elites. Will students still matriculate to the top of the food chain schools (the Harvard, Yale, and Princetons . . .)? Yes, of course. Will their experiences there be MOOCy or more traditional (really, what do you think?). Will all other colleges outside the elite realm dissipate, fade, or even—gasp—disappear? No, but there may be some shrinkage and consolidation and certain changes. But some students will still go to large state U’s and others will still attend liberal arts colleges (like mine, for example). This will be a second elite-ish tier, if you will—people who had some sort of authentic college education (broadly defined, idiosyncratic to be sure, but still distinctive). And then we will have people with MOOC degrees and other as yet to be discerned or sanctioned forms of training.  One of these things is not like the others . . .

I may wrong, of course. It’s too soon to tell. And I’m not sure we are whistling past the graveyard just yet. Still . . .

I attended a presentation yesterday where the speaker—my College’s new president—expressed the view that MOOCs uber alles was an unlikely outcome, that like other trends pronounced long before as signaling the death knell for higher education (e.g., the black board was once seen as a corrupting influence, for example), this one—or these ones (ouch!)—will be assimilated and mined for what works. What doesn’t work won’t be used. And then we’ll be off to the races to proclaim or defame the next thing.

We’ll see.

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