Posted by: crudbasher | October 16, 2012

An Argument Against MOOCs (And My Reponse)

Jonathan Marks writes in Inside Higher Ed about a Massive Open Online Course he recently took. Over all I liked his report and thought it was fair however I don’t agree with his conclusions. I’d like to quote some of his article and the reply to it.

As a politics professor, I feel I should know something about health policy, but it is mostly dread that made me sign up for Ezekiel Emanuel’s class, Health Policy and the Affordable Care Act, through Coursera. Word is that higher education is about to be disruptedby online providers, like Coursera and Udacity, and their MOOCs (massive open online courses). If students can take political philosophy with Harvard’s Michael Sandel for free, why will they pay to take it with me?

As a former college professor I can totally relate to the question of why will people pay to take his class. The answer is, some still will. I am convinced that there will still be people on the campus and in the classrooms at Harvard for example in 20 years. I believe that school and a few others have a different purpose than teaching, they are elite networking systems. They cost enough and are harder to get into so they tend to perpetuate the social stratification of society but that’s a little off topic. My point is, they will still get students.

Let’s continue.

[T]he “college credit monopoly” may have been the only thing protecting me from Sandel. Dean Dad explains that students who can get college credits for free will have more incentive than ever to max out the transfer credits they are allowed and less incentive than ever to buy my college’s expensive products, including, I cannot help emphasizing, me.  It is just my luck that, amid what some are calling a great stagnation, one of the few big advances in the offing wants to eat my job.

I agree that college credit is what is protecting the university system and that is endangered. What should be noted here though is the form of this disruption won’t necessarily endanger his job. Well, it might change it but if he’s effective in what he does he will still be employed. The nature of this disruption is to disaggregate the traditional system of distribution of information, coupled with an empowering of creative individuals will lead to massive courses taught by very talented teachers. What is missing right now is the support pieces of a university aren’t yet in place to add to a MOOC experience.

After completing the eight-week course, however, I am optimistic that this kind of MOOC will not eat my job because it and I are not really in the same business. At Ursinus College, where I teach, the faculty and administration work individually and collectively to help our students cultivate judgment, the capacity to decide what to think or how to act in areas, like health policy, where no formula can generate the right answer.

Well, he’s right that MOOCs and universities aren’t in the same business. I have heard this claim that universities are a place where students reach an enlightenment they couldn’t have found on their own. While I do believe that college can be a transformative experience, a) it isn’t for every student, b) that’s not what students are paying for and c) you can be enlightened by many things in life; higher education doesn’t have a monopoly on this.

Professor Marks talked quite a bit in the rest of the article about the lack of structure and guidance offered in the course. I have no doubt that was true. MOOCs are fairly new and I think are missing certain parts. But like all other functions of the university, these parts will be distributed online as well. What if you offered a MOOC for free, and then offered various levels of services and help for a cost? Seems like a great business model to me. Not everyone needs help but those that do can buy access.

As I said in the beginning I think Professor Marks was fair in his assessment of the MOOC experience. They will get better rapidly so I’m hoping he doesn’t dismiss them forever. He is missing one very important point though: A single MOOC can teach more students in one semester than Professor Marks will teach in his whole career. We are talking about teaching the whole world potentially. In an increasingly global and technology driven world, lifelong learning for everyone is going to be critical to solve the world’s problems. Professor Marks is an educational craftsman in a mass education world.


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