The MOOC debate frequently omits discussing contingent faculty, rising tuition, or the need to restore public funding

MOOC-discussion-educationWhat are we not talking about when we’re talking about MOOCs?

Back in January, I met with Melinda Welsh of the Sacramento News & Review to talk about MOOCs, and this week’s issue includes a few quotes from our discussion in a feature story: “MOOCs: High-tech hype, or the future of education?

Among other things, the article quotes me on the way public fascination with MOOCs easily distracts us from more fundamental challenges to higher education. What are we not talking about when we’re talking about MOOCs? We’re not talking about the working conditions of contingent faculty, or rising tuition and student debt, or the need to restore public funding to higher education.

Welsh and I also talked about the way boosters have often presented MOOCs as a techno-fix for the ills of higher education. But now the MOOC messaging has shifted from technology-as-savior to technology-as-sublime-mystery.

According to the gurus of innovation, the MOOC phenomena is simply being misunderstood. As Mark Zuckerberg’s character said in The Social Network: “We don’t even know what it is yet.”

(Next page: Recognizing potential MOOC challenges)

Unfortunately, this new packaging is not much less deterministic and anti-democratic than the first. Whether MOOCs are essentially good or essentially unpredictable, the implicit message is that we don’t have political choices about how to respond — but of course we do, as Welsh makes clear in her discussion of faculty response to proposed California Senate Bill 520, which would have required public universities and colleges to give credit for privately run online courses.

The article rightly points out that MOOCs do have various benefits, and they may actually work best when not associated with universities at all: “some even suggest MOOCs will create a vast new ‘leisure learning’ market.”

But MOOCs also raise other important concerns, frequently and forcefully presented by Jonathan Rees:

Epistemic obsolescence

Why invest all that time and money — Welsh reports that a computing class produced by Udacity cost about $250,000 — when the content will be outdated in a couple years? Maybe it doesn’t matter so much for certain introductory topics, but most faculty continually update their courses to reflect new developments, both in their discipline and in society at large.

Faculty de-skilling and self-obsolescence

If students can watch lectures by the best super-professors in the world, do they really need highly trained but somewhat-less-super professors any more at all? If faculty record all their best lectures so that anyone can watch them by clicking a button, why would a university pay those faculty to give more lectures? Students can watch the lectures alone at home, and if someone still wants a little classroom interaction, a low-paid temp teaching assistant can lead discussion. Welcome to Wal-Mart U!

(Next page: Time constraints)

Time constraints

Watching an online lecture at home can be an excellent complement to assigned reading and other course materials, but there are only so many hours in a day. If forced to choose, should students watch a video or read a book? Maybe some of each, depending on the student, topic, and goals of the course. But when time is short, a 15-minute video easily seems more attractive than a 50-page reading assignment. The risk is that students no longer acquire the analytical and interpretive skills that come from careful reading of difficult texts.

These issues came together in a recent class of mine, when I played a few minutes of one of Michael Sandel’s lectures from his famous course on justice. Sandel is an engaging lecturer, in part because he often directly engages at least a few members of his huge audience in back-and-forth discussion. Nearly everyone remains silent, of course, so it’s nothing like a good seminar, but the verbal exchange is symbolically important, and even those who aren’t lucky enough to enjoy a few moments of friendly banter with the Sage on the Stage may feel virtually included.

But as I watched the video with my students, it struck me as incredibly sad. Why would we sit there and watch another professor discuss important issues with another set of students? So I jumped up and turned it off, told the students to watch it at home, but only after they had finished the assigned reading, and the students and I talked about the issues ourselves.

Mark Brown is professor in the Department of Government at California State University, Sacramento. This article originally appeared in Whose University?


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