Sunday, February 3, 2013

MOOCs and doom

I've spent so much time discussing MOOCs and The Future of the University today that I think I might as well put my thoughts together in one place. Here goes.

It started with this and this. The first is an article by Thomas Friedman arguing that MOOCs (massive open online courses) will be great for spreading cheap, high quality education, thereby lifting people out of poverty. The second is a piece by Nathan Harden arguing that MOOCs will mean the end of the university as we know it. So what's my view?

MOOCs face some problems. The fact that they are open means that anyone can take them, and lots of people do. If all those students write papers and do other assignments, who is going to grade them all? How will the grader know that the students did not cheat, say by having someone else do the assignments for them? And if the courses are open to anyone, how can anybody make a profit from them? Presumably the goal is to use some combination of software and badly paid academics to grade work and detect cheating. Then credit can be given for passing the course, and students will pay for this credit. Since there are so many more students able to take each course than at a traditional college or university, and the overheads are relatively low, it should be much more profitable to teach like this than in the traditional way. Cheaper for the students, too. Hence the good news that Friedman is so happy about, and the doom that Harden predicts.

It's too early to tell what will happen, but it does seem likely that MOOCs will become a cheap way to spread pretty good education around the world. They don't seem ideal for hands-on engineering courses, or theatre, or subjects like philosophy where tutorials would probably be the ideal means of instruction. But they do seem to be a perfectly decent way to teach anything that can be taught through large lectures, and that includes almost everything at the introductory level, as well as perhaps some whole subjects. Would a small introductory ethics course taught by me really be much better than one in which students watched Michael Sandel's lectures and had access to someone like me online for questions and discussion? I like to think it would be, is, better, but I doubt it's much better, and I don't know how anyone could measure (or simply discern) the difference in quality at all reliably. At levels above the introductory, though, I think you need more individual attention and less lecture, at least in subjects like philosophy (by which I might just mean the liberal arts, but I don't know other subjects well enough to say). And I think this is widely recognized.

I expect universities will find a way to survive, even though they are the homes of the largest lecture courses, which seem to me to be the most vulnerable to competition from MOOCs. After all, they are also home to college sports, to the professors who will teach the MOOCs (although how many of these will we need in future?), and to the graduate students who are learning how to become either superstar MOOC professors or else badly paid MOOC graders and discussion-leaders (how many of them will there be in future?). But maybe it will become standard to graduate in just two or three years after transferring in a year or two of MOOC credit. Maybe some subjects will be so MOOC-friendly that they will disappear from college curricula, there being no market for these on actual campuses. And perhaps non-MOOC-friendly subjects will be confined to a much smaller number than exist now of old-fashioned liberal arts colleges, populated by the children of wealthy parents who want more individual attention and the prestige of non-vocational education for their offspring, even if they themselves have little sense of the value of literature, philosophy, etc. That's what seems likely to me.

It will mean better value in higher education for many people, but an even worse job market for liberal arts PhDs. Given that the job market is already terrible, and that some students go to community college first and then transfer credit to four-year colleges and universities, it would basically mean more of the same stuff we are seeing already. Which makes it all the easier to believe.


  1. "And perhaps non-MOOC-friendly subjects will be confined to a much smaller number than exist now of old-fashioned liberal arts colleges, populated by the children of wealthy parents who want more individual attention and the prestige of non-vocational education for their offspring, even if they themselves have little sense of the value of literature, philosophy, etc. That's what seems likely to me."

    I see why one would suspect this, and it seems unfortunate (should it come to pass), for the sorts of reasons discussed here. That is, I want the non-elite to have reasonable access to these subjects, as courses of study. (Of course, there is the problem of jobs, and there are problems I have with the current structure of graduate education: I have a bit of a sense that graduate students are often convenient adjuncts that we don't have to call adjuncts. That may not be entirely fair, but I think there's something to worry about here.) I think it's good, e.g., that kids from Eastern Kentucky can get something approximating an "old-fashioned liberal arts" education at EKU. Some will, for sensible reasons, be in search of more specialized degrees, but (a) if universities are still going to educate teachers (at all levels), then teachers need, I think, some exposure to a broad base of ideas (otherwise education at all levels will become uncritical information transmission), and (b) I think the university can still be a place where students learn how to interact intellectually with others in ways that are just hard to mimic even through things like Skype, etc. We are physical beings, we interact physically, etc. (There's more to say about this; I'm just trying to carve out a couple basic thoughts.) (I'm encouraged by the fact that my dean, an economist, is currently taking a MOOC in Principles of Economics and is not entirely impressed by the experience so far!)

  2. Yes, it's not good. MOOCs seem basically good, but if they lead to the disappearance of the liberal arts from places like EKU and VMI then that will be a great shame. And the liberal arts do seem to be under attack from various sources.

    On the other hand, I think a good case can be made that the most useful courses students can take these days are ones that develop general skills (reading, writing, thinking, etc.) rather than specific ones (how to use this software that will be out of date two years from now, how to perform this task that will be done by machines two years from now, memorizing facts that you will have forgotten two years from now, and so on). And the attacks seem often to come from a political party that is somewhat on the ropes right now. So maybe the attacks will come to little, and people will realize how great philosophy is. But what movement there has been recently has not been in a good direction, and MOOCs might make things worse.

    I really have no idea what's going to happen though. Which is just as well.

  3. maybe it's just perversity on my part, but i would never want to become an in-person (or online!) adjunct to an academic-star-on-video a la sandel. although it's true that in most philosophy courses we're taking the products of thought-elites as more or less authoritative contributions to our discipline, there's something repugnant about taking their lectures or their course plans the same way.

    i don't know if i'd feel similarly about a technical discipline. when i use a logic textbook it basically determines the content of my course and my day-to-day classtime to a great extent. there's quite a bit of wiggle room in a standard undergraduate calculus textbook, because they're designed to please so many market segments and pedagogical constituencies (more proofs, more applications, more technology). but maybe importing someone else's calculus lectures on video would make the lecturers seem like explainers-in-a-box rather than intrusions into the local character of the course.

  4. No, I wouldn't want to be an adjunct to a star-in-a-box either, but I can see it happening. I wouldn't want to take a course like that either, although perhaps I would if it saved me a lot of money compared with taking a real course. Calculus lectures might well be different, as you suggest.