Higher Ed

Inside and Outed

"Revolution Hits the Universities": MOOCs

CJ Westerberg, January 28, 2013 2:57 PM


"Nothing has more potential . . . "
                                                    -NYTimes Columnist and Author (The World is Flat)
                 Thomas L. Friedman

Tom Friedman is very bullish about MOOCs:

I can see a day soon where you'll create your own college degree by taking the best online courses from the best professors from around the world -- some computing from Stanford, some entrepreneurship from Wharton, some ethics from Brandeis, some literature from Edinburgh -- paying only the nominal fee for the certificates of completion. It will change teaching, learning and the pathway to employment. "There is a new world unfolding," said Reif, "and everyone will have to adapt."

Countering Friedman's ebullience about MOOCs are commenters begging to differ with snipppets such as zauhar from Philadelphia, "In fact, what I see happening is this: A few faculty at prestigious schools who see themselves as "stars" are being used by commercial interests happy to undermine the university as we know it."  Ouch.  

We can also sense other commenters popping champagne corks after riffing on the subject.
Do check out the full article and comments here.  A few examples: 

Frank Bannister Dublin, Ireland
We have been before; and not just once.

In the 1960s there was similar enthusiasm about closed circuit television eliminating the need to employ large numbers of academics.

In the 1970s there was the Open University in the UK (still around) which had superb lecturers (I even took an OU course in circuit design and it was excellent).

In the 1980s we had computer based learning (I did that too; taught myself Cobol).

In the 1990 we had courses on audio tape, then CD, then DVD (and now MP3). Some of them were (and are) great.

Now we have MOOC.

And with each new technology, the same hyperbole, the same evangelism. On-line education is great. MOOC is a wonderful concept. But most of the institutions in the world that are over 400 years old are universities and there is a reason for that. To paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of the impending demise of the traditional university may be much exaggerated.
Jim Lockard Ventura County
This article points to the new and emerging reality - knowledge must be transferred much more broadly and at low cost to create the kind of synergy to solve the problems that we confront. These problems will not be solved at the current levels of awareness and political capacity. MOOC can be one tool in this process. It's unpredictability is actually encouraging.
dpen Boston
There is a dimension of all this that goes unmentioned in Mr. Friedman's article. which is the impact it will have on academic professionals themselves. . If MOOCs succeed in the way that Friedman envisions, it is likely to mean the end of academia as a viable career path for most people. If a handful of the most elite universities can successfully teach billions, then what need is there for the thousands of ordinary universities out there that currently employ the bulk of faculty. At most, there would be a need for an army of poorly paid graders and on-line discussion facilitators (to respond to the thousands of comments the professor will never read). The use of contingent and part time instructors by universities has already pushed academia in this direction, and MOOCs will only exacerbate the situation. I think we are seeing the beginning of the end for yet another middle class profession. Teaching has so far been a craft, and now it is entering the era of mass production. This invariably results in a deskilling of labor and a concomitant decline in real wages.

If it really does lift billions out of poverty, that may be a price worth paying, but it is nevertheless a very real price. There is no such thing as free lunch. And my biggest concern is that MOOCs destroy the academy without replacing it with a genuinely valuable alternative.

vintoad Albuquerque
Best learning that ever occurred in my courses were those instances where 5-10 students out of a large class of 200 crammed themselves into my office to fire questions at me in a sort of group-supported fashion, where I served as moderator/ encourager; "Great question," spoken when looking a student in the eye were the most productive 2 words I have ever articulated. En courage --- the psychological effect of those sessions would then translate to the actual mega-classroom as students became empowered to believe in themselves, in their intellectual prowess. Although the MOOC intellectual discourse is certainly present, particularly as described in the example taught by the Princeton sociologist, the emotional empowerment requires that face-to-face collective discourse that only the college/university environment can offer. I hope that some kind of compromise can be struck that balances the advantages of both learning opportunities.

Citizen RI
Mr. Friedman,

Like you, I see MOOCs as the foundation for a universal and free global education system. While not perfect, I think as they evolve they will find ways to provide for people everywhere and in almost every circumstance. A revolution in education such as this can only have long-lasting and positive effects.

Let the naysayers grumble and groan. Their voices will be drowned out by those who are clamoring for an education so that they may better their own life and the lives of their fellow humans.

zauhar Philadelphia
It is paradoxical, but as a college prof I agree with many of the remarks above that criticize modern higher ed. College has become an expensive extension of high school. All but the most selective schools admit students who can barely write a coherent paragraph - otherwise there won't be enough tuition coming in to cover the budget (and the bloated budget of the modern university is a story in itself).

But the commentary I have read largely misses a more important fact - the value of the university is less in teaching, more in supporting research and scholarship. There has to be a "place" for research in theoretical physics and history (to pick two disciplines that our corporate-dominated world as no interest in supporting). More importantly there has to be a place that stands outside of current cultural and political assumptions.

In fact, what I see happening is this: A few faculty at prestigious schools who see themselves as "stars" are being used by commercial interests happy to undermine the university as we know it. They can make a big profit, and at the same time eliminate the last places in America not yet totally dominated by free market philosophies and wage slavery. (Edit: the free market philosophy is already here, but as a tenured professor I have the right to criticize it without retribution - for the moment, that is.)

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