The trouble with MOOCs

Published on Wednesday, 17 July 2013
The trouble with MOOCs Image by STML via Flickr

It seems that with every new advancement in technology come bold predictions and dire warnings of the inevitable demise of traditional brick and mortar schools, colleges and universities.  In 1885, the founder and future president of the University of Chicago, William Rainey Harper, suggested that innovations in transportation and postal delivery meant that “the day is coming when the work done by correspondence will be greater in amount than that in the classrooms of our academies and colleges.”

 

Well, Harper didn’t get it completely wrong.  American colleges did develop correspondence and distance education programs, but these didn’t replace in-class instruction.  In fact, by the 1920s correspondence courses quickly took on a bad name as private for-profit offerings proliferated, many of dubious quality sold by door-to-door sales people.

 

Over the course of the next century, similar claims about the end of education as we know it were made about the alleged instructional transformations offered by the phonograph, radio, television and later the Internet. In fact, over a hundred years after Harper’s prediction, a Coopers and Lybrand report, “The Transformation of Higher Education in the Digital Age,” confidently asserted that new communications technologies will replace the traditional classroom. Online education, we are told, has two significant cost advantages: “The first is the need for bricks and mortar; traditional campuses are not necessary. The second is full-time faculty. Distributed [online] learning involves only a small number of professors, but has the potential to reach a huge market of students.”

 

I’ve been thinking about these and similar predictions about the end of days for traditional education in light of the debates over Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs).  MOOCs are university and college level courses offered for free over the internet to anyone who has access to a computer. They have no formal admission requirements. Anybody can sign up. The catch for now is that most MOOCs don’t allow students to earn credits. They are “massive” because there are no enrolment limits. Some courses have tens of thousands of students. 

 

As far as anyone can tell, the first MOOC was apparently delivered in 2008 at the University of Manitoba in Canada. That’s when a professor inspired by the open education movement provided free access to his online courses and attracted a few thousand students. Later, some staff at Stanford University latched onto the idea and began video-taping and uploading their lectures online along with some assignments and quizzes. They too attracted thousands of students and they eventually founded  Coursera, one of the leading for-profit MOOC companies today.  Other Ivy League American institutions such as MIT, Harvard and Yale quickly followed Stanford’s lead in developing MOOCs, joined later by lower tier colleges hoping to boost their reputation by keeping company with the upper set.

 

Today, MOOCs are expanding rapidly and are being hyped, much like correspondence courses in the past, as the brave new future of education. If you listen to their proponents, MOOCs will radically transform how and where education is provided and delivered. MOOCs, it is claimed, will help us realize the long-delayed utopian dream of democratizing education by eliminating the barriers of distance and costs for students. Coursera’s co-founder, Daphne Koller, has spoken passionately, though arguably a tad too hyperbolically for my liking, about how MOOCs can serve the needs of the entire developing world by transforming education from a privilege for a few to a human right for all.

 

And if that’s all MOOCs were about, teachers probably wouldn’t have too much to argue about. Sure, there are some serious pedagogical questions about the effectiveness of MOOCs .  There’s no or very little interaction with the instructor, dropout rates are astronomical, and assessment of assignments is done largely through crowd-sourcing – that is, students “grade” each other’s work. There’s also a foul whiff of educational imperialism in a lot of the bluster around MOOCs, particularly when they are championed as bringing the best – i.e. Anglo-American – university courses to the rest of the world. 

 

But what’s the real harm you might ask if MOOCs are simply providing open access to education?

 

The trouble is there’s a darker side to how MOOCs are developing, one that’s reflected in the thinking behind the Coopers and Lybrand report. MOOCs as they are now evolving are ultimately about turning education into a commodity, shifting the responsibility of paying for education from the public purse to the individual consumer.

 

While most MOOCs are offered free of charge for the moment, what really excites the MOOC entrepreneurs and their financial backers is the prospect of eventually selling their wares to a large market. Already, the for-profit providers have the business plan in place. Convince governments that the cost of education is too much for them to bear in these difficult economic times. Then offer the solution: allow MOOCs to enter into licensing agreements with educational institutions to develop and deliver online courses for credit. With 100,000 students or more in a course, you need only charge a relatively modest sum to turn a profit. With government finances in a pinch and tuition fees soaring in many parts of the world, MOOCs might be welcomed by many policymakers as the low-cost solution to expanding access to education.  

 

MOOCs can be offered on the cheap not just because of their market reach, but also because they reduce the number of teachers needed.  As explained in a recent World Bank blog looking at the potential for MOOCs in Africa, providers can “’cash-in’ by saving money as a result of increased faculty efficiency.”  Translation: private companies can make fistfuls of money by employing fewer full-time instructors.

 

But it’s not just the jobs of teachers that are at stake. There’s also a real concern that MOOCs could further stratify the education students of various backgrounds are able to access and experience. We know that tuition fees can be an insurmountable barrier for many potential students. The much lower fees that MOOCs would charge might at first blush appear to lower this barrier for many, but at a cost. We’d be in danger of creating a multi-tiered education system, one for the rich and another for the rest of us. Professors at San Jose State University in California, for instance, recently refused the administration’s request to use a Harvard-produced MOOC philosophy course for this reason.  In an open letter , the professors say they fear that MOOCs threaten to create two classes of universities: “one, well-funded colleges and universities in which privileged students get their own real professor; the other, financially stressed private and public universities in which students watch a bunch of videotaped lectures….”

 

The real solution to the problems of access, affordability and equity in education isn’t MOOCs, but it lies in ensuring governments live up to their obligation to fully fund quality education for all students. That’s why I don’t think there is anything inevitable about the future of MOOCs.  Correspondence courses, the phonograph, radio and television didn’t replace our schools and colleges, nor did the first wave of online education. This was due in no small measure because teachers and their unions worked with new technologies to ensure that educational values and not commercial imperatives prevailed. And while I’m understandably wary of making predictions about the future of education, I’m pretty comfortable in saying, to turn a phrase from the esteemed William Rainey Harper, that as long as teachers continue to advocate and mobilize for quality education I don’t believe the day is coming when the work done by students taking MOOCs will be greater than the amount done in our classrooms, lecture halls and labs.

 

Update: The shine may be coming off MOOCs quicker than even a skeptic like me could have foreseen. San Jose State University, one of the early adopters, recently announced it is putting the brakes on its partnership with MOOC-provider Udacity. According to the university’s Provost Ellen Junn, the decision was made due to “disappointing student performance”.  Maybe that might cause Udacity CEO Sebastian Thurn to rethink his bold prediction – yes, yet another over-the-top prognostication to add to the list – that within 50 years only 10 brick and mortar higher education institutions globally would be left standing in the wake of the coming MOOC tsunami.  In any case, I hope that as the overblown hype around MOOCs mercifully fades away we can have a serious adult conversation about how technology can be used to enhance, not replace, our proven teaching and learning practices.

Last modified on Tuesday, 01 October 2013

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David Robinson

David Robinson is the executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, representing academic and general staff at colleges and universities across Canada.

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