Go MOOC Yourself

It almost seems cliche or foregone to write anything about Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) right now, but they are the new hotness, and thus something stuffy old institutions want to get their collective hands on. Yet, like many university money-making or money-saving schemes, MOOCs are probably not going to pay off in any meaningful, long-term way. In fact, universities seem to have a real lack of foresight when it seems there’s easy money to be made, causing them to do things like sign athletic sponsorship deals with out of town fast-food chicken chains, despite school officials claiming to be “at a loss as to why [chicken chain] Zaxby’s would want to partner with their schools”

With MOOCs, the main problem is that no one seems to know how to integrate these types of online courses into an established curriculum, or course of study for a major, etc. By their very nature, MOOCs can’t offer any type of personalization or direct feedback, both of which are quite helpful to the student learning process. However, MOOCs do offer universities a chance to appear on the cutting edge of something and to monetize the learning process by creating content or investing in the big MOOC providers: Coursera and EdX, among others. Money flows from foundations and venture capitalists to create more and more free, “open access” education, even as tuition rates for face to face coursework goes up and up.

A related problem of the MOOC is its dismal completion rate. A generous estimate is that only around 10% of students who enroll in a MOOC ever complete the entire course. As these courses notably rack up thousands of “enrolled” students, one wonders if any real learning or academic work happens at all.

While I no doubt sound rather cranky toward this whole new fangled internet machiny stuff, I can assure you, I am not. I am certified and trained to teach traditional online courses with two educational institutions. I think that online classes are going to steadily become a larger part of the standard curriculum at universities nationwide. I think the clear benefits of providing small online courses outweigh any nervousness over whether we are losing our grip on traditional educational models. I also believe that free information and educational content are excellent things; where would I be, for instance, without my childhood foundation of Reading Rainbow, Sesame Street, and Mr. Rogers? Where would any of us be without Wikipedia these days? (Incidentally, Wikipedia has a very good entry on MOOCs)

The problem is that rather than conducting some serious self-examination about how we are conducting post-secondary education, we are just jumping on a bandwagon we know little enough about. This bandwagon is already starting to highlight the cracks in academia’s treatment of faculty and their purpose on a campus. 58 professors in the Arts and Sciences at Harvard have signed a letter to their dean asking for more input on the MOOCs being offered and sold to EdX. A group of professors at San Jose State (SJS) wrote an open letter to Michael Sandel, also a professor at Harvard, for creating a course through EdX which SJS now plans to provide. The professors articulate their concerns about whether this sort of package buying of online content will even leave room for their departments to continue existing, let alone whether they can continue to teach their own content. Sandel’s response? He doesn’t care what happens to his work once it’s out there.

It doesn’t take a PhD, then, to see potential effects from this MOOC-mania. Professors will certainly be divided into pro and anti MOOC camps, and the rift will be solved with more adjunct faculty–because it’s not the tenure-track professors who are actually “teaching” these MOOCs; it’s adjuncts. If, as the SJS professor worry, departments are dissolved in favor of packaging MOOCs into an undergraduate degree, then universities will be able to rely solely on adjunct power and never hire a full professor again. That may seem a bit apocalyptic, and surely not something that will happen next year, but the trend toward more adjuncts and fewer tenured faculty is loud and clear, and I think we’ll likely see an intertwining of the MOOC trend with the adjunct trend in the near future. By which time, who knows? Perhaps Zaxby’s will have opened locations in the Big Ten towns they are sponsoring.

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