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.