Thursday, May 23, 2013

Some Thoughts About MOOCs

Massive Open Online Courses (or MOOCs) seem to be a major topic of conversation in higher education these days. Online courses for high school students tend to be neither massive or open where open means that anyone can take them. Online education in high school (and younger) seems to be viewed as a solution for students who don’t do well in traditional schools, credit recovery or offering courses that a local school doesn’t have the resources to offer specific courses. No one (or few at least) seems to be suggesting that MOOCs or online education will revolutionize secondary school education. Thankfully.

I can’t see online education being a general solution for secondary school students. Since no one is trying to make that happen I am relieved. Not just because it means my own job is safe for a while either. But I have some concerns about MOOCs in higher education.

My recent post (Would You Hire Your Graduates?) drew some real indications that universities value diversity in their faculty. They value it enough to not hire their own graduates so as to avoid becoming inbreed. On the other hand many large universities seem to be embracing MOOCs as parts of consortiums such as EdX, Udacity, and Coursera. Where is the concern about diversity there? Could we wind up with a handful of courses that an overwhelming majority of students (how ever we redefine students) are taking? Would that be a good thing or a bad thing? I tend to think it would be bad.

So why are universities who clearly want diversity in faculty so quick (in many cases) to embrace a system that seems to be going in the opposite direction with regards to teaching? I suspect two reasons:

  • Increasing income while reducing expenses
  • Direct more attention to research over teaching

MOOCs seem to offer an education to a lot of people for very little money compared to traditional teaching. There is a lot of high minded talk about bringing a first class education to more people in more places around MOOCs. And clearly some people believe that talk. It sure sounds good in theory. But how is the practice? I think the jury is still out on that.

With reductions in income because of the economy while at the same time costs are rising many university administrators are looking at their schools more like a business. Cutting costs and increasing tuition revenue seem to be higher goals than quality of education in many places. We’re already seeing trends like more courses being taught by adjunct faculty who are generally paid much less than tenured faculty and also get fewer (if any) other benefits. I’ve seen universities where discussions are taking place about shorter “terms” so that more terms can be taught in the same calendar year. And of course online education as a way to reduce costs for classrooms and similar resources that bricks and mortar teaching requires.  MOOCs much seem like a logical next step for many administrators. Even if most students take the course without getting credit if enough students do pay for credit the potential profits look pretty good.

I’m heard university faculty say things like “teaching is what I do the get the opportunity to do the research that is important to me.”  With grants getting harder to come by I can easily picture some faculty wanting to see MOOCs do the teaching and bringing in the revenue to support faculty with lighter teaching loads and more time for research. I haven’t seen data but I would not surprised if faculty whose first love and reason for being at the university is teaching are less supportive of MOOCs than faculty who live for research.

MOOCs do have the potential to provide more education for more people but is the MOOC education going to be as valuable as a bricks and mortar education? I remain a skeptic because I believe that a good university education is about a lot more than what happens in the classroom or lab session. I don’t think we’ll ever get there with a completely online education. I also worry about a loss of diversity in what is taught and how things are taught. Every university is unique and that has value to society.

A lot of things that people thought the Internet would bring – greater understanding, more transparency, higher levels of cooperation – have not materialized. Theory and practice are often not the same thing.

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