Will MOOCs ‘de-professionalize’ higher education?

The proliferation of massive open online courses (MOOCs) isn’t just a potential nightmare scenario for professors, but for college students who value educators’ expertise.

moocsHistory professors at the American Historical Association’s (AHA) annual meeting cast a mostly-skeptical eye on MOOC platforms during an hour-long panel discussion on the experimental online classes, with one historian painting a picture of a dystopian future in which MOOCs drain professionalism from history education.

Jonathan Rees, a history professor at Colorado State University (CSU) – Pueblo and a long-time MOOC critic, said widespread MOOC adoption could lead to history courses led by graduate students or even people “with no history training at all.”

“Why should anyone provide content for their classrooms when the best profs in the world can be piped in via the internet?” Rees asked rhetorically. “MOOCs could de-professionalize or de-skill large segments of the professoria. … [Professors] could easily be replaced with personnel with less training. Perhaps MOOCs won’t hire any on-site help at all and simply let students fend for themselves.”

Even if cash-strapped colleges and universities didn’t do away with their most experienced faculty members in favor of MOOCs, using the massive courses could lead to confusion among students watching MOOC lectures outside of class and having their questions answered during schedule class time, Rees said.

“I can’t help but wonder whether students will understand who their real prof is in this situation,” he said, adding that this model — known as the flipped classroom — leaves little time for finishing assigned readings.

The basic MOOC platform falls short of traditional history education in every way, said Anne Little, a CSU history professor who participated in the AHA panel discussion.

“I coudn’t think of a single thing that MOOCs can do as well or better than human skilled teaching,” she said. “MOOCs can’t teach difficult or controversial subject matter as well as people” because MOOC professors will always be encouraged to teach “the broadest and most inoffensive” subjects in hopes of drawing and maintaining the largest audience possible.