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Assuming the Distance Learning Can Opener


While conceding that Johnathan Rees’s argument against MOOC’s focuses too much on the self-interest of faculty members and not enough on the massive problems of distance learning, Jon Chait’s touting of the promise of MOOCs is suffers from two major flaws.

First, Chait seems to be making an implicit assumption that tuition increases — which are indeed a serious problem — are driven primarily by spending on faculty. The problem is that this just isn’t true — the additional revenues that don’t go to increasing infrastructure expenditures have been much more likely to have been captured by administrators than faculty (especially outside of a few specialized areas like law and business.) Which brings us to a related problem — Chait’s even more crucial implicit assumption that cost savings from using MOOCs will be passed on to students rather than captured by administrators, used for physical or marketing expenses, and/or taken as profit when applicable. Given that the turn towards extremely low paid adjuncts instead of decently paid tenure track faculty has coincided with skyrocketing tuition, I’m not sure what the source of Chait’s faith that students will be the primary beneficiaries of reduced education costs is.

There’s an ever bigger problem with the argument — namely, the idea that MOOCs have any realistic possibility of meaningfully replacing college education:

MOOC stands for “massive open online course,” which is a super-cheap way to provide college instruction. It’s one of the tools Obama referenced as a solution to the tuition crisis. The concept is extremely new, and the trick is to develop it in such a way that you can weed out cheating, and ensure that students really learn. If you can do that, then prestigious universities can start providing degrees for their online courses, and you would have a powerful, extremely affordable new path for cash-strapped kids to obtain the benefits of a college degree.

There’s rather a lot of hand-waving going on in this paragraph. Sure, if there’s a way of weeding out cheating without in-class exams or any contact with students and ensuring that most students can learn effectively solely from videotapes, without any meaningful supervision or direction, MOOCs may well be a good idea! And, similarly, if there was a magic pellet we could shoot into the air that would reduce carbon emissions to 1960 levels global warming would be much less of a problem, but this doesn’t make the solution plausibly viable.

As Reihan Salam notes, far more likely is that online education can be cheap, or it can be good, but almost certainly not both:

But as Jason Dearen reports, earlier this month San Jose State suspended five of its new online courses, all of which were offered in conjunction with Udacity and had no classroom learning. The courses — in elementary statistics, college algebra, entry-level math, introductory programming and introductory psychology — were in theory exactly the right kind of courses for an online instructional provider to teach, as they covered basic introductory material. Outsourcing this kind of teaching could in theory be an enormous boon to the bottom line of colleges and universities, as the most effective providers could spread their online courses across the country, sparing the need for large numbers of expensive faculty members. Indeed, Udacity’s entry-level courses were offered for $150 each, far less than the $620 San Jose State charges for traditional classroom-based courses.

The problem, however, is that between 56 percent and 76 percent of students who took the final exams ultimately failed them. Udacity has acknowledged that the results of its collaboration with San Jose State have been disappointing, and the startup is committed, in classic Silicon Valley fashion, to learn from its mistakes. That online learning will experience growing pains is to be expected.

But what if there is no free lunch to be had? That is, what if the only way to reduce the failure rate in online courses is to blend them with some of the more labor-intensive — and thus, more expensive — aspects of traditional education?


True MOOCs that make almost no use of faculty labor will be very cheap to deliver, but one can easily imagine that they will be plagued by an attrition rate at least as high as what we see in today’s for-profit colleges. Blended online courses that stream lectures while also making use of face-to-face teaching assistants might have a success rate closer to land grant public institutions, where interaction with senior faculty is limited but there is a human support system for students. It should go without saying that the latter are going to be much more expensive than the former.

One way of thinking about higher education, and education more broadly, is that once you get past the students who are the most prepared and most eager to learn, you have to apply increasing amounts of both help and hassle. That is, you need to offer personal attention and tutoring as well as discipline and structure, all of which are labor-intensive in the extreme.

And it’s for this reason that noting the cost-cutting (of things other than their own salaries) of administrators is relevant beyond the self-interest of tenure-track faculty members. That MOOCs are being highly touted by some administrators when as of now there’s no good reason even in theory to believe that they can deliver quality education to most students, what does that tell you? Shouldn’t that raise red flags, particularly in a context in which wages for most people but not those in the positions of greatest power, are stagnating?

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  • Sharculese

    Reading that piece it hit me how much of Chait’s ideas about education seem to be driven by a burning, uncontrollable hatred for teachers that borders on the pathological. I wonder if there’s a story behind it.

    • AcademicLurker

      It’s not just Chait. It seems to be trendy among the chattering classes lately.

      • Sharculese

        Yeah, but I feel like he takes it to another level. Like, with a lot of these assholes you can tell that they reflexively assume the worst about teachers, but with Chait, you can practically hear the giddiness in his voice at the thought of bad things happening to teachers just because.

        • AcademicLurker

          but with Chait, you can practically hear the giddiness in his voice at the thought of bad things happening to teachers just because.

          Maybe it’s because I’m foolish enough to occasionally read the comments sections at Inside Higher Education, but I see this from a lot of people besides Chait. There’s a whole little subculture based around frothing hatred of teachers and professors.

          • There’s a whole little subculture based around frothing hatred of teachers and professors.

            You forget to mention the key thing. The sub-culture you’re talking about are comprised of supposed liberals. Chait and Yglesias are two that spring immediately to mind. And that doesn’t even count douche-canoes like Rahm Emanuel.

            • shah8

              I don’t really mind Yglesias, but one of the areas he *is* genuinely insane about, is that whole teacher thing…I always thought it was kind of weird.

    • Chait is far from alone among the supposed liberal chattering class. Yglesias hates teachers, and their unions especially, just as much. Their class hatred is showing through.

      • sharculese

        I don’t read Yglesias because I already have a prescription for Ambien, but duly noted.

    • Clearly they let him down and now he’s forced to write nonsense for a living.

    • Linnaeus

      I knew Chait in college, though I can’t say I knew him well. Given that, I never detected any such animus from him, but perhaps I didn’t interact with him enough to notice it.

    • Incontinentia Buttocks

      A lot of money has been spent over the last several decades — on both the “left” and the right — to convince the American public (and especially the chattering classes) that what’s wrong with American education at all levels is teachers. Opinions like Chait’s are the rewards of these investments.

  • Gregor Sansa

    Computers make some teaching jobs easier and/or cheaper. Students and teachers can get a distraction-free place to sit and interact, teachers can get real-time feedback to see how a lesson is going, grading paper-shuffling can be marginally simpler, and taking attendance is easy. But all of these are marginal changes which would, at best, slightly improve effectiveness without making things fundamentally less labor-intensive. And every one of them is very easy to do badly wrong if you see it as a magic money-saver.

    So I’d expect that OOCs have a future and offer some marginal savings, but that MOOCs are more often than not a dangerous mirage.

    But in a bubble economy, mirages are golden.

  • Kurzleg

    Whether it’s MOOCs or education reform, the upshot is the marginalization of the human teacher in the education. What makes us think that as beings who’ve evolved to this point to need interpersonal interaction that the best way to educate someone is to remove that interaction as much as possible, or at least to minimize its importance to a large degree?

  • Aaron B.

    I feel compelled to point out, yet again, that there ought to be space for innovations that are lower-quality but way, way, cheaper and more flexible and therefore filling a need that traditional college courses, by and large, can’t. When a four-credit course at my local community college approaches $400, excluding fees or textbooks, why isn’t it reasonable for me to say “yeah, I may get a less-good education from a MOOC, but at least it’ll be a fraction of the price, or free”?

    • Kurzleg

      Yes, but that’s much different than touting MOOCs as the thing that will “save” higher education.

      • Ken Vedaa

        I would argue that in a manner of speaking, things like MOOCs can indeed save higher education. The cost of many programs is prohibitively high for many people. Even those who can afford a traditional ‘higher education’ need to do so with an eye towards practicality (i.e. will this lead me to a job that will pay enough to help me cover the debts that I have acquired for my education).

        For some these pressures will limit their willingness to explore in areas that they are not confident are right for them. With something like a MOOC, the cost are lower, the threat/impact of failure is lower. It provides an opportunity to dabble in areas one may not otherwise wander into, to expand their knowledge, not only of the material at hand, but of themselves. They can discover if this is something that I truly wish to explore in depth?

        For this reason, I do not find the higher percentage of students not receiving passing grades in some MOOC courses to be an issue. A sizable percentage of these students would likely never have taken the course had it not been available in such a manner. Even without a passing grade, they have likely learned something about the subject at hand, even if it is only that their interest in the material is insufficient for them to put in the effort to really learn the material.

        • I think you misunderstand the students of which you speak. The idea that students failed but still learned something is laughable. Do you know how easy it is to pass most college classes? Particularly courses like Psychology 101? It’s incredibly easy. You have to show up and turn some things in. And probably you never need to show up at all if you just read the textbook. You could probably get a D that way. These people almost certainly dropped out immediately or got frustrated and dropped out later on. The vast majority learned nothing except to feel bad about themselves and that college is boring and doesn’t engage people.

          • And the failure rate doesn’t address the non-completion rate issue. MOOCs on average have a completion rate of less than 10% – which means 90%+ are simply dropping out before they can fail.

            Honestly, the research on MOOCs isn’t ambiguous – MOOCs work in one specific niche. They work with professional courses where there’s an explicit link between the course and a specific career, and where the audience is highly self-motivated.

            • Davis X. Machina

              For CLE, or other professional development duty-dances, they’re lifesavers…

              But that bar is already pretty low. It’s an exercise in ticket-punching to begin with, everyone has a baseline of knowledge going in, no one expects to learn much, and the alternative — doing the same thing after another commute, in meatspace — is simply too horrible to contemplate.

              • firefall

                This, exactly.

            • I’m not sure there really is much of an issue there considering the amount of people that sign up just to have the option of looking at something in the class, take a bunch of classes at a time an only stick with ones they like, want to brush up for a bit then stop, etc.

              • It’s a huge issue if MOOCs are intended to improve time to graduation rates as they’re being sold presently.

    • Bill Murray

      some of what you’re paying for is proof that you actually may have learned something. While companies could test you or pay for training, why do that when you can already have documentary attestation

      • ralphdibny

        Right. When I was living in NYC, I decided to give myself an American History education by buying well-reviewed history books at the Strand and reading them on the subway to and from work. I did a pretty good job, too, if I do say so myself. but I have no proof.

        Salam’s point is that MOOCs would work great for people who already have the skills to learn on their own, but that those people aren’t the ones actually using them. MOOC users are precisely the students who need traditional classroom instruction the most, not the least. And that fundamental mismatch dooms MOOCs.

        • For some people, you can learn a good deal by reading deeply in American history. But there are quite a few things you can’t learn. First, writing skills. Second, how to think like a professional historian, skills that can only be created through writing projects that engage with primary sources. Third, how historians think and write and the meanings of historiography. Fourth, it’s unlikely (although not impossible) that one setting on a course of self-learning would be exposed to some of the new and cutting-edge work in the field. More likely such self-taught readers would focus on old-school political and military history with an emphasis on grand narratives and great men. This isn’t saying that you did that, but most would.

          The vast majority of students though would simply never read a history book on their own.

          • burritoboy

            Oh, I don’t know if I agree about that. I do agree it’s highly unlikely that someone will do this all on their own, but it’s certainly possible.

            • To think that assumes that historians have nothing in common with a real profession and that there’s not things we do that you need actual professional training for.

              • Jacob H

                This seems overstated. I’ve been reading some Barbara Tuchman lately, and in addition to being a good read, my understanding is she influenced many professional historians, without coming from an academic milieau.

                The stronger case for MOOCS I don’t hear made is AP classes. I learned more from my high school teachers in AP classes than from most of my college professors, which makes sense, given that teaching and subject matter expertise really are largely (albeit not wholly) extricable from one another as skills, and the AP curriculum allowed some of the subject matter demands to be solved by committee rather than by the individual instructor.

                Now that was my experience, and having taught an APnclass in a high poverty high school I’m not going to pretend they’re solving everyone’s problems. But I do think that the problems of “what is to be taught”
                and “how do we know a student has learned it” are difficult questions that most college professors do a lousy job of answering, and which having some kind of commonality of curriculum and assessment can help with.

                The responses of many college professors to this kind of critique seems often disingenuous: I read recently an article about some
                Dartmouth psych professors who were shocked, shocked! that students who had passed the AP the previous spring were unable to pass the Dartmouth Psych 101 final exam in September. “Standards for AP classes are too low to have any value!” We’ll, maybe, but more likely the Dartmouth assessment just wasn’t aligned with the AP curriculum, and probably equally unaligned with the Psych 101 courses taught at other, similar colleges.

                Now, all this is not to say that MOOCS are good: MOOCS are obviously terrible, and at best a complement and not substitute for other kinds of learning. But all kinds of learning are complements that depend on other experiences and other foundations in order to have value, and it seems silly to pretend that nothing, nothing can replace the college learning experience a professor can provide.

          • Agreed entirely.

            Especially about “how to think like a historian.” It astonishes me still how many of my students at the UC really didn’t understand how to deal with a text beyond a surface reading.

          • Davis X. Machina

            In my own narrow field, I.F. Stone was a helluva journalist.

            As a Hellenist, not so much.

            And he’s probably the best example I can think of.

        • MCN

          For years I’ve wanted to study machine learning techniques – I even bought several textbooks but I never found the time to open them. Since the invasion of MOOCs I’ve taken several classes and learned quite a bit in the process.

          The unused textbooks provide ample evidence that I do not have the skills to learn on my own. The MOOCs provided several things that I didn’t get “on my own”.

          1) Lectures from recognized top-level professors with deep understanding of the material and great talent in presenting that information.

          2) Feedback in the way of auto-graded problems. Try as many times as you want. For me it’s better than a textbook with problems that don’t provide solutions.

          3) Strong community of peers on discussion forum. The help and support from this resource is much better than anything I got from peers in college.

          I have no opinion on MOOCs vs standard higher ed. but it’s a great way for people with my learning needs to gain knowledge.

    • The Wrath of Oliver Kahn

      Sure, it’s reasonable. It’s also reasonable for employers to say “well, we have no way of knowing if you learned a goddamn thing in that MOOC, so we’re gonna hire someone who spent the $400 per class and actually has some kind of a certificate.”

      • The Wrath of Oliver Kahn

        In other words, MOOCs are fine for self-enrichment classes, but as a professional or actual academic credential, there are still waaaaay too many issues with quality control and academic integrity to place any kind of trust in them.

        • Philip

          This is why it always bothers me when Erik tries to claim that MOOCs are inherently evil. If you want to gain credentials or real skills, sure, they’re bad, and the ones that claim they’re good at it are a scam. But they’re a perfectly reasonable avenue for learning a little bit for the sake of curiosity.

          • Aaron B.

            I’m going to be taking ET3034TUx Solar Energy from edX, in which the curriculum revolves around designing solar panels. I’m not getting any credential other than the education itself, and I am psyched!

          • MOOCs are completely fine for taking a random class. They are not fine for getting a college degree. I never said anything against offering such a thing for some random person on the street or allowing someone in Senegal with an internet connection to listen to a lecture on European history.

    • L2P

      It sounds like your point is that we should absolutely have crappy, but cheap, education available. Sure, why not? Go nuts, telegenic college professors; make the very best crappy teaching videos you can!

      But why would we be confusing that with anything that colleges do? A college, at a minimum, offer a reasonable guarantee that its graduates have competently learned whatever a college offers. A nurse has competently learned how to nurse; an engineer has competently learned how to engineer; a historian has competently learned how to, I don’t know, historize?

      But MOOCs offer none of that. At best they will show that a student competently answered test questions. That’s particularly useless. For example, I can get a passing grade on basic college courses I haven’t taken, just because I (to pat myself on the back for a marginally useful skill) am an AWESOME test taker. I got a 5 on several AP tests for courses I hadn’t heard of, let alone taken.

      So yeah, no one cares if people offer MOOCs. People are very concerned that MOOCs might replace actual college courses.

      • sharculese

        a historian has competently learned how to, I don’t know, historize?

        blog :P

      • A history major has learned a great deal about writing, standards of evidence, using primary sources effectively, creating a historical argument, in addition to a tremendous amount of factual and contextual knowledge.

        MOOCs cannot provide any of these skills.

    • How is it “a need that traditional college courses, by and large, can’t” and not “don’t”?

      And regarding MOOCs, one of the things the article pointed out was that you won’t actually get the education. Failure rates of 50-70% at San Jose, non-completion rates of 90% in many cases, this is people not getting an education at all.

      • sharculese

        From what I recall of Aaron B.’s past comments, I get the impression that he actually makes the effort to get everything he can out of MOOCs. Which actually just makes me even more depressed that we’ve reached the point where some people see this watered down half-education as the best they can expect.

        Not a knock on you, Aaron. Just a knock on the system.

  • SKapusniak

    This whole MOOC debate, just feels *supremely* weird, when you spent the Saturday and Sundays of your 80s childhood, watching Open University course material on BBC2, because public service as concept hadn’t entirely bled out of British society yet and thus nobody had quite realized either the BBC or the OU should have been charging each other the privilege.

    Graph’s Networks and Design (MT-365) and Modern Art & Modernism (A-Idunno) those were good ones. And then there was the Foundation Science course with the animated periodic table, and rat developing resistance to wafarin.

    Also the TV alternatives for a young lad, usually involved Noel Edmonds, who was a slightly scary fellow even then. Watching electricity being shot through axon’s of dissected synapse in a baths of nutrients arguably much less disturbing :)

    • Davis X. Machina

      That’s a glorious British tradition that goes back to the Dissenters, who couldn’t get into the Oxbridge universities, and Humphry Davy and Michael Faraday, and the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures, and Birkbeck University, and the Mechanics’ Institutes, and the yellow Teach Yourself books…

      Shame it got lost somewhere recently.

    • Lasker

      Not lost, exactly, just not trendy. MIT’s OpenCourseWare is still around, an awesome resource for STEM topics. Encouragingly, MIT still seems to be putting a fair amount of resources into it even as MOOCs grab all the headlines.

      • MIT’s Open Courseware classes and MOOCs seem pretty similar to me. In fact, some are basically the same course, reworked a bit to work better online.

        • Lasker

          Even if much of the material is the same, the vision behind them seems to me to be very different.

          MOOCs aspire to disrupt university education, though exactly how remains to be seen. Some want it to augment it, others to at least partially supplant it. More importantly, the companies behind them aspire to be profitable in themselves aggressively marketing themselves to smaller colleges.

          OCW seems to see itself as a public service with a side benefit of advertising for MIT. They don’t offer any kind of certification and have not to my knowledge ever suggested that anyone should receive credit from any of their courses. Some courses are little more than a reading list and a syllabus, others have video lectures, textbooks, discussion boards, and automatic graders. I suspect that some of the most popular courses (like Gilbert Strang’s Linear Algebra for example) have led to increased textbook sales and made him and his publisher some money, but the underlying motive seems to me to be much more public-spirited.

          • Have you looked at EdX? MIT’s MOOC site? It’s a non-profit. I don’t think MIT’s goals for free OCW and free MOOCs are so different. One merely seems to be an outgrowth of the other.

            • Manny Kant

              I think Coursera and Udacity are what people are focused on when they are denouncing “MOOCs” in general.

            • Lasker

              I have taken several classes from edX and in fact have more experience with them than with OCW.

              Even though edX (unlike Coursera) is a nonprofit, I think they essentially share in Courseras maximalist vision of what MOOCs can accomplish, which makes me a bit nervous.

              Sandel’s “Justice” course that was the subject of the dispute at San Jose State was a course offered through edX, after all.

              I’ve posted here before as a defender of MOOCs, and against the kind of indiscriminate criticism they’ve received from some here, I still am. My experience with them as a student has been very positive. But I worry that their ultimate effect on the educational system at least has the potential to be a net negative, because the ambitions of those who push them can so easily be co-opted by those who are hostile to education. I don’t think the same could be said of OCW.

              In short, providing distance learning opportunities = unambiguously good, advocating for distance learning replacing traditional education = dangerous, possibly good but with harm, especially in current political environment, at least equally likely.

              OCW does only the former, edX aids and abets the latter.

              • Jacob H

                I mean, do we really think the way to get young people ahead in life is to get them to spend *more* time staring at screens?

                I feel this way in regard to K-12 education more strongly, but it applies to college kids as well. Having in person experiences is a good idea, and if they aren’t happening at school they are increasingly not happening at all. Why would we want school to be another place you stare at screens?

                • Davis X. Machina

                  Why would we want school to be another place you stare at screens?

                  Because it’s cheaper that way? And therefore better? Because cheaper is always better?

  • JustRuss

    elementary statistics, college algebra, entry-level math, introductory programming and introductory psychology — were in theory exactly the right kind of courses for an online instructional provider to teach

    Aside from maybe the psych class, that’s exactly wrong. All of those courses involve teaching concepts that can be difficult to wrap your head around at first, and expecting students to get it from a computer is asinine. When my wife went back to college she took her entry level math class at a community college so she could have more interaction with the teacher, and it made a huge difference. MOOCs might work for a subject like history, which is mostly listen to the lecture and read the material, but I’d expect most students to struggle in a math or programming MOOC.

    • fka AWS

      The thing is, most of the people behind MOOCs were highly self-motivated learners (think kids learning to program on their own, or whatever). It’s natural that they see a reflection of themselves in the MOOC phenomenon, and not the rest of the populace.

    • Anonymous

      This. MOOCs are not going to work well for courses that are typically designed to have a lot of back and forth with the prof, or that really need lab or tutorial sections. The courses that would translate best from my experience in undergrad would be Econ 101 and Psych 101 – both taught to 800+ students in enormous lecture halls with no opportunity to ask questions and no tutorial or lab sections. The MOOC experience would not differ that much from what we got, except that maybe you could target the really good lecturers or even have specialist lectures to drop in for the cool stuff.

      • firefall

        What? how could you do Econ 101 without tutorials? (well, any subject really, but this especially). That’s not teaching, just droning.

    • Manny Kant

      A good history class should involve considerably more than just listening to a lecture and reading the material. Even in my survey classes I aimed to spend about half the class time in discussions.

      • JustRuss

        Didn’t mean that as a diss on history classes, I just don’t recall having much back and forth in the classes I took. I think an online history course could actually work well with online discussion, although with 1000 students that could turn into a huge time sink for the professor, possibly.

        • smintheus

          Teaching history on line strikes me as a disastrously bad idea. It sounds like you have little appreciation for what historical study involves. Even introductory college-level history courses are not cut and dried presentations of received wisdom, as an algebra or chemistry class is.

  • tt

    I don’t believe MOOCs will or should ever replace most traditional college education. But I don’t understand the argument that, to the extent it does so, the profits will be captured by university administrators. Once a MOOC has demonstrated success, what stops the company that owns the MOOCs from contracting with individual profs, cutting out the middleman? Administrators may be promoting MOOCs for short-term cost cutting reasons, but in the long term their fate is tied to the success of physical universities.

    • Manny Kant

      It’s not the universities that employ the professors that create MOOCs. It’s the universities that use the MOOCs to replace their own professors who are going to be saving money.

      • It’s not the universities that employ the professors that create MOOCs.

        Universities all over the world are doing that. They just don’t have the hype.

      • tt

        Not sure what this has to do with what I wrote? My point is that universities may be able to save in the short term using MOOCs, but if MOOCs is all they can provide then they are making themselves unnecessary.

        • mch

          What tt says links to one of my questions about MOOC’s. Let’s assume (for the sake of argument — I don’t believe it for a moment) that MOOC courses work incredibly well for vast numbers of people (whether they get formal credit or not). To work so well, MOOC’s will require lots of TA’s to oversee discussion/chat rooms, conduct online meetings with individual students, and read and comment on (not to mention grade) papers and other assignments. Great! Hordes of fledgling professionals (grad students, struggling recents Ph.D.’s) will be employed until they can find a regular job as a professor.
          Here’s the rub. First, how many MOOC’s are actually using a horde of effective TA’s? For those that are, how many are paying the TA’s a sufficient wage? How many plan to pay TA’s at all? I know of one Harvard MOOC, with ambitions to provide the very best TA supervision to its students, that has appealed to former students in the course now employed as lawyers or financiers or whatever (including people employed as professors elsewhere — dream on!) to TA for no wage, just the sheer pleasure of re-engaging with the intellectual life their current work does not provide them.
          One way or another, the MOOC model for courses that will have extensive interaction among students overseen by a TA, and between individual students and a TA, depends, it seems to me, on an economic model that is unsustainable in the long-term. Who will have taught the professors who will conduct the MOOC courses of 30 years from now?

        • Manny Kant

          Okay, I misunderstood what you are saying. I agree with you that this is probably unsustainable in the long run, but for at least a while, you need the universities to provide the credentialing. At some point, though, the whole thing starts to fall apart.

  • evagrius

    See this episode of The Prisoner;



    That’s all you need to know about MOOC

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  • BoredJD

    As a way to spread knowledge, educate the citzenry, and maybe teach skills that are essential in certain decentralized industries, MOOCs are unparalleled. I’d definitely support a national university made up of MOOCs with all institutions receiving federal loan money required to submit courses.

    Of course, MOOCs will never replace the primary purpose of college, which is as a credentialing scam that tells employers that the job candidate was smart enough to get into however selective a college they graduated from. The MO part of MOOCs will always be in conflict with this benefit of the brick and mortar schools.

    That of course does not tell you whether a similarly motivated student would learn more or develop more skills taking a series of MOOCs or a series of in-class lectures at a typical state university. Maybe you teach differently, but a lot of my upper-level college courses might as well have been taught by an automaton through a screen.

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    • Lee Rudolph

      MOOCs: the ideal vehicle for Personal Training.

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  • Lola-at-Large

    While you make excellent points about the ratio of administrator vs faculty tuition increase capture, you also suffer from some of the lazy thinking you accuse Chait of, particularly with regard to your comment about learning “solely through video-tape.” A well-planned, well-executed MOOG or any online learning environment would not rely solely on videotapes, and generally would not use video tapes at all. A good online learning environment consists of a combination of readings, activities, and assignments, along with consistent interaction with the course instructor via things like e-mails, chats, and online whiteboard interactive lectures.

    This kind of learning environment, like it or not, is going to happen more frequently in the future, and for many general education requirements it will be the best format and forum for traditional college students. Most of the faculty arguments I see about it look like Luddites arguing at the factory gates, and some parts of your argument here are no exception. A better use of such energies is to learn the methodologies and work to ensure that such deliver is competent, consistent, and thorough. It would also serve faculty well to fight to protect their interests in capturing some of the cost savings, instead of fighting against it evening happening at all.

    • “A good online learning environment consists of a combination of readings, activities, and assignments, along with consistent interaction with the course instructor via things like e-mails, chats, and online whiteboard interactive lectures.”

      The problem with your comment is tied up in the sentence above. Yes, online courses can work like regular courses–if you hire a ton of faculty to do the grading, e-mails, chats, interactive lectures, discussion boards, etc. MOOCs don’t do this. They are designed to reduce faculty numbers in order to concentrate wealth in the hands of administrations. Online education can work in the format you describe, but that is counter to the MOOC planners goals and the reasons for most university administrations to embrace MOOCs.

    • Scott Lemieux

      Right — you seem to have missed the point of the article. MOOCs and online courses are not the same thing, and online courses that closely replicate brick-and-mortar teaching don’t promise large savings because they’re no less labor intensive.

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    But the things you are claiming that you need “tenured faculty” for to ensure quality are precisely those things than tenured faculty don’t do.

    Large introductory courses do have lots of small-class tutoring, and students going to see their tutor during office hours for 1:1 face-time. But at large universities (where most students are) the tenured faculty aren’t doing that. In the last 25 years they’ve dumped that work onto the teaching assistants and untenured “junior” faculty.

    This point doesn’t make MOOCs a great idea. But it does make protests by tenured faculty about how essential and important these tasks of close engagement with students are deeply ironic.

    • This just isn’t true. At most large universities, tenured faculty are indeed working closely with students. This might not be true at Harvard and Yale, but it is certainly true, say, of the University of New Mexico.

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