Monday, June 24, 2013

Are MOOCs Really the Worst Threat to the Future of Universities? | HASTAC

Are MOOCs Really the Worst Threat to the Future of Universities? | HASTAC

Author: Cathy Davidson
Posted: 6/23/2013 - 11:23am

MOOCs are the video games of 2013.   Everyone is talking about them, there's a lot of hysteria and a lot of nonsense surrounding them.  (Remember back when "Grand Theft Auto" was the end of civilization as we knew it?).  Pundits and media analysts are having a hyperbolic field day over MOOCs.  Nervous administrators and excited VCs are making rash decisions without evidence that MOOCs are an effective way either to educate students or to save costs (or, for that matter, to make a quick return on your investments).   Over and over, MOOC Mania is swamping lessons learned over the last decades from all the other kinds and forms of creative, interactive online learning, distance  education, continuing education, and open peer-to-peer learning.  Faculty are freaking out because suddenly MOOCs are the only thing anyone seems to be talking about.  It's a takeover! The zombie apocalypse comes to academe!  The problem is that, as with the video game hysteria, all the excitement distracts us from the seriousness and the range of problems and exciting possibilities for open, online, and classroom learning that deserve our serious attention.

So, for my own satisfaction and that of anyone who wants to play with me, I’m teaching a MOOC of my own beginning in January 2014 on "The History and Future of Higher Education" in which MOOCs are one of the subject we'll be discussing.  Further, many of us around the world are planning face-to-face courses, workshops, seminars and events on some version of that same topic in order to offer as many possibilities for critical thinking about education today and to posit some creative contributions to the store of ideas about MOOCs.   My own face-to-face students will  be studying what is happening in the Coursera MOOC and participating in the global forums.

In addition, a team of face-to-face doctoral students and faculty members will be doing research on the MOOC and on the face-to-face co-located offerings (students, costs, labor, numbers, learning outcomes, assessment methods, responses, feedback, interaction, and the overall impact of the MOOC on the institutional structure of the universities: do they replace, substitute, duplicate, extend, undermine, or reinforce what happens at the universities that offer them? are they a serious threat to present and future professors or something else?).  We don't know the answers.  We don't know what we will find out from our research but that is the difference between research and punditry:  we will be studying and posing questions and not simply reacting (and over-reacting).   [If you want to know more about this project, you can read about it here:  and here:  ]

Here’s what I believe to be true so far in my initial wading into MOOC waters.

1.  MOOCs are not the real threat to the future of higher education:

·      Figures we’ve seen that it takes about 150 hours of work to prepare 1 Week’s Coursera lessons are holding true for us as well.   Coursera’s model is elite profs at elite universities teaching the masses.  How many of those profs really are going to spend 150 hours shooting video from a DIY webcam?  Really?  It’s taking as much time to do this course as it would to write another book.  How many profs will choose the course over the book?  Really. Think about it.

·      I am told it will take even more time once the course is actually running.  This is not a viable labor model and it doesn’t get faster in the future.  See first bullet point above.  This is not the model that will put public universities and small private colleges out of business and steal jobs from current and future professors.

·      It costs a lot.  Perhaps even too much to be attractive to VC’s in the long run if all those VC's want is a quick return on investment rather than a serious investment in quality higher education.  It’s not clear how some of the models are even a sustainable business model.  (In a recent analysis by Christopher Newfield, published by Insider Higher Ed (,  of the Udacity contract with Georgia Tech to offer an online Master's of Engineering, the numbers should make anyone think carefully about business model.  Quality online education is not free.   Having run the peer-to-peer online network for a decade, we know that online interactivity does not run by itself but requires labor, hardware, human and physical resources and is anything but "free."   Part of my skepticism about the business model of MOOCs and how much threat to face-to-face education they will turn out to be in the long run is based on knowing how much time and funding goes into having run and sustained a 12,000-member online network.  I believe (and Udacity seems based on this assumption too) that the most sustainable MOOCs will be offering an alternative, not a replacement, to f2f education and to a different audience.  I may be wrong.  This is early and it's just a guess.  What I do know is that it takes some magical thinking (ie. the ridiculous panic of the UVA trustees last summer is a good example) to believe that, if it is online, it is necessarily cheaper.  it's more complex than that.

·      The audience for Coursera-style MOOCs is not the traditional college audience nor the traditional “returning student” model.  From what I’ve seen so far from others and from the research, 70-75% of MOOC students would not take any kind of standard college course for reasons of cost, time, schedule, location, mobility, access, ability/disability, prerequisites, prior degrees.

2.  Here’s an array of factors that pose more significant and extensive threats to the future of higher education:

External threats:

Neoliberalism's determination to shrink the middle class.  If you want a society of the so-called 1% (more like .5%), a shrunken middle class, and a large lower class, education will shrink as will the long-standing conviction that education is the ladder into the middle-class. This is a social tragedy.
The concomittant focus on de-funding public education (K-22) is a real and significant threat to the future of the university globally.  It represents an appalling social disregard for the productive future, not only of youth, but of the elderly whose increasingly long retirements will be sustained by a prosperous workforce.
The techno-cratic (and neoliberal again) conviction that corporate interests will make up the gap left by public funding by delivering education more efficiently, with more innovation, and less overhead than universities (public or private) can do.  (Really--I've not heard of many former CEOs who come to head up universities at a reduced salary or whose tenure as university president reduces either tuition costs or overall operating costs.  There may be some but I've not heard of any.)
The over-reliance on STEM, without stressing the importance of the humanities and social science in contributing to our understanding of an era of extreme and rapid change (including the lessons of history, the powerful analyses offered by artists and writers and filmmakers to our ability to understand our world and its many cultures and social forms).  This division of knowledge into STEM and non-STEM subject matter is an archaic aspect being promoted by policy makers, a carry-over from an older silo'd knowledge-structure (see below).

Internal threats:

The intransigence of university administrators and professors in rethinking the system and apparatus and assumptions of education inherited from the Industrial Age for this era is a real and significant threat.
Archaic institutions that fight for the status quo do not ensure their own future success.
o   Silo’d, discrete, disciplinary divisions of knowledge (going back to Diderot and institutionalized by the founding of the post-Humboldtian research university) does not map onto current ways of working or living in the world.  (NB: is a “web developer” someone with a degree in computer science or design or cognitive psychology?  Is an “event planner” a website designer?  Is an art and art history prof a webmaster? Is a geneticist trained in ethics?  You name a field today and it is likely multidisciplinary.)

o   Many fields—from Computer Science to English—act as if the Internet hasn’t been invented yet.  Many CS departments consider web-based programming (HTML, HTML 5, Javascript, or Content Management Systems such as Drupal) irrelevant to their students.  Many English Departments take no responsibility for the everyday reading and writing of their students online (who is teaching privacy, security, identity, IP, and other “digital literacies” in an era of everyday self-publishing)?

The bloated administrative costs of running universities today is a real and significant threat to the future.
o   Former corporate and government officials serving as top university administrators with very large salaries has forced all universities to compete by redistributing resources to the top, without evidence that this corporate recruitment trend has proven beneficial to universities.

o   But it is not just CEO salaries--it’s also the cost of running innovative new programs that are relevant to students’ future lives while also sustaining the traditional silo’d disciplines.

o   Parallel administrative structures are costly.

·       The investment of huge research universities in enormous research facilities partially funded by corporate, federal, and state grants with indirect costs coming back to central administration may have been cost-effective in the 1990s but the rapid withdrawal of funds from those sectors makes these costly investments with very high overhead.

·       The non-educational social apparatus of universities (sports teams, recreational facilities, extracurricular programs, outreach and in-reach programs) contributes to high tuition costs and may or may not (this is a subject worthy of serious critical thinking and research, not knee-jerk punditry) have long-term educational and learning benefit.

·       The technologizing of every aspect of education costs far more than people ever think it will and requires more not less human labor than previously.

The reliance on circular metrics for success, excessive regulation, standardized testing (SATs, GREs) and the lack of clarity about what really constitutes learning (in all fields) compromises higher education’s effectiveness and adds to costs

No comments:

Post a Comment

To eliminate spam comments at restricted to registered users. Additionally, all posts are moderated to further prevent spam and off topic discourse. We strive to post all on topic comments.