MOOCs for the Masses

imagesThe automation of education is one of the big issues of the early 21st century, and in the halls of higher education, where I hang out, it’s very controversial.

The leaders of small colleges like mine are watching nervously as the big boys jump on the MOOC bandwagon, throwing their immense resources behind the development of sophisticated online learning platforms designed to serve hundreds of thousands of students at a clip.

So far these courses are not available for actual degree credit, but the accrediting corps is not far behind, busily working on the conceptual architecture needed to award students college credit no matter which institution’s logo is on the screen.

Once this is fully operational, students will be able to work towards a college degree in patchwork fashion, taking math and science courses from MIT, liberal arts from Yale, and philosophy from Princeton along the way to their shiny new 21st century B.A.

The minute the technical hurdles to this system are worked out, the floodgates of online learning are going to open for real.

Those who are skeptical of the quality of online learning argue that even video conferencing, now widely available through Adobe Connect or Google Hang-out platforms, cannot match the electricity of ideas exchanged face to face, facilitated by a well-trained, talented instructor.

This is the argument used by small liberal arts colleges like mine to justify the continued emphasis on bricks-and-mortar institutions, and there is truth it, as long as the class sizes are small and the instructors are not only knowledgeable, but also  skilled at facilitating discussion.

But let’s be honest: most American students do not have the benefit of attending small liberal arts colleges, because the small student/teacher faculty ratio is incredibly expensive to maintain.

LectureHallHaving spent nearly a decade teaching on a State University of New York campus, I can attest that most undergraduates there sit in large lecture halls where they watch powerpoint shows narrated by a teacher down at the podium.  That is, when they bother to go to class.

There is no question that such lectures could be more easily and cheaply delivered online, sparing the professor the travails of explaining Chemistry 101 yet again to another generation of yawning, surfing students.

Big institutions are now getting excited about “flipping the classroom,” meaning: the student watches the lecture on her own time, as homework, and then comes into the classroom for a discussion about the material.

My question, as a higher education insider, is: who is going to lead that discussion?

My guess is it will be graduate students and adjunct professors doing the discussion leading, as it has been for many years already with tenure-track professors who give the lectures and leave the work of actually interacting with students to their teaching assistants.

The ramifications of this for higher education as a field of employment remain to be seen.  For the moment, most people who are thinking about online learning are much more focused on the students (the “clients”) than on the labor issues involved.

Clearly, a professor who can teach 100,000 students at a time is going to be offering a lot more value to the institution than a professor who teaches 20 students at a time, especially if at least a percentage of those thousands of online learners start to pay for credits towards a degree.

As the century goes on, we’re going to see fewer tenure-track professors and a lot more adjuncts.  The field was going this way anyway; online learning is just going to put the trend on hyperdrive.

Faculty advocates in higher education need to be focusing on the issue of a living wage for adjunct professors now, because once American adjuncts are competing with part-timers all over the world, we’re going to see the out-sourcing of American education bigtime, with unpredictable results.

 

Meanwhile, globalization cheerleaders like Tom Friedman are waxing enthusiastic about the idea of beaming lectures by Harvard professors to remote locations around the world.

“For relatively little money,” Friedman said in a recent column, the U.S. could rent space in an Egyptian village, install two dozen computers and high-speed satellite Internet access, hire a local teacher as a facilitator, and invite in any Egyptian who wanted to take online courses with the best professors in the world, subtitled in Arabic.”

Yes, this would be globalization with gloves on, and certainly far better than spreading American-style ideology at gun and loan-point, as we did in the 20th century.

MOOCs are already opening up the previously hallowed halls of the best American institutions of higher education to new, worldwide audiences.

As Friedman reports, the head of the new Harvard/MIT online platform EdX, Anant Agarwal, said that “since May, some 155,000 students from around the world have taken edX’s first course: an M.I.T. intro class on circuits. ‘That is greater than the total number of M.I.T. alumni in its 150-year history,” he said.’”

In the next few years, we’re going to see online learning take off bigtime, as more and more students clamor for the opportunities it affords, and higher education leaders perceive the huge benefits in cost savings that will result from not having to house all the students they serve.

We’re going to see more and more students living at home with Mom and Dad right through their undergraduate years, whether it’s here in the U.S. or, as Friedman imagines, in some Egyptian village.

From the point of view of the average student, the one who would not in any case be able to afford or get into a selective liberal arts college, this may be for the best.  Certainly it would be better to live at home a few more years than to incur heavy debt burdens for the privilege of living on campus.

Students and their parents are already viewing education in increasingly utilitarian terms; as they contemplate getting on the B.A. track they want to know What can I do with this degree? What jobs will it prepare me for?

They’re looking for the most practical, value-added route to the goal—a secure, interesting, well-paying career.

images-1There are always going to be elite undergraduate colleges ready to give a premium, face-to-face educational experience to those who can pay for it, just the way there are still deluxe prep schools available even though most Americans go to the public high school down the road.

Faculty at these colleges will continue to teach small classes, where students are encouraged to be creative, critical thinkers, to question authority, to write papers rather than take tests, and to get to know each other both in and outside of class.

Just as future queen bees are given a far richer diet than future worker bee, there will be different educational strokes for different folks.

The real question, as we enter the MOOC era, is whether education will continue to serve as a vehicle for social mobility, as it did so strongly in the 20th century, or whether we’ll have online learning for the masses and bricks-and-mortar for the elite, with the gap between the two growing ever wider.

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2 Comments

  1. While I hear where you’re coming from, I can’t see that something like Khan Academy is anything but a good idea, since it allows free access to self-education to anyone[1] from anywhere. The only downside I can see is the addition of YATUA[2].

    [1] caveat: anyone with access to the Internet, that is.
    [2] YATUA: yet another totally unnecessary acronym, in this case ‘MOOC’, for which I had to search before I found that it means “massive open online course“.

    Reply
  2. Good, thoughtful post. The labor issues are key, as are the issues of what it means to abandon local education. Would everyone want to get rid of their symphony and go watch an HD movie of the Berlin Philharmonic, say, instead? I think locality is important, though often it’s not articulated. If I might quote John Dewey in connection with your last few thoughts:

    “Democracy cannot flourish where the chief influences in selecting subject matter of
    instruction are utilitarian ends narrowly conceived for the masses, and, for the higher
    education of the few, the traditions of a specialized cultivated class.” — John Dewey

    Respectfully, A fellow higher education teacher.

    Reply

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