According to a March 18, 2013, article by Rob Jenkins in the Chronicle of Higher Ed, California is currently in the early stages of considering legislation that would allow, even encourage, students in its overburdened higher education system to take introductory level MOOC courses in place of residential classes that are overenrolled. Additionally, building off of a competency-based assessment program implemented at Empire State College, the SUNY system is pushing its faculty members to develop MOOCs that would allow top performers to receive SUNY credit. Finally, a recent survey of all faculty members who have taught a MOOC netted some interesting results that indicate that, despite the increasing move towards the massive format, faculty are neither optimistic about the future of the MOOC nor sold on its efficacy as an instructional medium. Here’s a look at what the faculty behind MOOCs think.
The Chronicle survey of MOOC faculty reveals some very telling information about the opinion of those on the front lines of the movement, both about the efficacy and the potential of the classes.
(Source: Chronicle.com – March 18, 2013)
The answers to these three questions shows a disconnect between the effect that faculty see MOOCs having on costs at their home institutions and in higher education more broadly. Some of this could be attributable to the fact that many or most of those currently teaching MOOCs are doing so for elite institutions such as Harvard, MIT, and Stanford, where there will never be a shortage of students who are willing and able to pay their tuition.
What is most interesting for non-MOOC experienced faculty, however, is the answer to the third question about MOOCs distracting from other duties. Most who have never been in the professorate do not understand that it is a FULL time position. Many professors (educators in general) work long hours planning, teaching, grading, researching, serving on committees, running extra-curricular activities, and more. Adding the added pressure of teaching thousands, possibly hundreds of thousands of students for the same or even no pay cannot be a happy feeling.
In addition to these questions, the survey presented several other revealing opinions:
- 72% of the respondents do not believe that students should receive formal credit for MOOCs – this is from the people teaching the classes! It would be interesting to have qualitative responses to these questions so that we could understand why they don’t think their students deserve credit for the classes they are teaching.
- 66% do not believe that their institutions will ever grant credit for MOOC coursework. Again, these are the institutions driving this movement; yet, they do not support it in the most fundamental and meaningful way.
- 79% however, do believe that "MOOCs are worth the hype." This assessment seems to directly contradict the responses to the two previous questions. The follow-up question of, "why?" needs to be asked.
There are also an abundance of qualitative responses reported in the Chronicle article, but most of them refer to the altruistic reasons that faculty give for offering MOOCs, the strain of preparing and teaching the classes, and the future impact of the model. Extrapolating from those comments, here are the top five reasons that professors should hate MOOCs.
Reason #5: Teaching Tens of Thousands of Students is Intimidating
While many of the faculty members quoted in the Chronicle survey insist that they enjoyed the challenges of the massive format, or that it taught them much about teaching online, it still must be an overwhelming prospect to the average professor. Some disciplines, such as foreign languages, which rely on an interactive, communicative approach to help students reach levels of proficiency, simply cannot be taught in a massive format. Regardless of the technology used, there is no way for all the students in a MOOC to interact 1-on-1 with the professor. It is daunting to imagine teaching large numbers of students in any format, but the overwhelming numbers possible in a MOOC would scare off all but the most adventurous faculty members.
Reason #4: Fear of Technology
There can be no doubt that a single individual cannot manage a class of thousands and give any kind of meaningful feedback on assignments without the aid of a mass of teaching assistants or computer assisted grading. The Plaid Avenger, John Boyer, teaches 3,000 students at a time at Virginia Tech and he relies heavily on both TAs and technology to provide the kind of personal interaction that he sees as essential to learning. Not all professors have the inclination or, more importantly the time, to explore the technological innovations that would make teaching a MOOC engaging in ways that would make faculty feel as if they were really reaching their students.
Reason #3: Fear of an Uncertain Future
While many of the MOOC faculty cited in the Chronicle article claimed altruism as the motivation for their willingness to offer free online classes for the masses, the reality is that higher education is currently teetering on the brink of a precipice brought on by the recession and the high cost of providing a higher education. Changing demographics have and will have a significant impact on the future of many colleges and universities as well. All of these factors lead to a situation in which professors at many traditional institutions cannot feel particularly secure about their future let alone with the introduction of a slew of free alternative options reducing the student body further. There is a very real possibility that a confluence of societal pressures is pushing higher education to a weeding out of many of the less prestigious colleges and universities. Faculty members must feel this and thus, supporting MOOCs is like digging their own graves.
Reason #2: Teaching Massive Classes Dilutes Learning
Most teachers teach because they love the material and cherish the opportunity to forge relationships with students so that they may pass on their knowledge. While it may be possible to convey information in a MOOC, it is certainly impossible to help students come to true knowledge (Marquis, Changing the Nature of Knowledge – Aug. 19, 2011). If educators want to help students develop knowledge in their field, teaching a MOOC is absolutely the wrong avenue to travel.
Reason #1: College Professors Believe in a Just Society
The most important reason that college professor should be opposed to MOOCs is because educated and enlightened individuals should be able to see MOOCs for what they really are – the opium of the masses. A substandard educational alternative meant to appease the poor, uneducated masses who are clamoring for equal opportunities and societal equality as seen in the 99% movement and the Occupy Education movement. Professors can see that MOOCs are just the latest attempt to squelch the voices of dissent by throwing the downtrodden something that looks flashy and educational, but that really is a poor substitute for a real higher education.
Are MOOCs the Future of Higher Education?
Judging by the responses of the faculty members who are currently teaching these behemoths, it is unlikely that MOOCs are destined to supplant traditional higher education anytime soon. Really, the problem that I have with them is in their massiveness. The age of mass-production education is so far behind us in the United States that it is shameful to see a reawakening of the factory model repackaged in the shiny new wrapper of the MOOC. If our goal is to give everyone the same basic-level knowledge, then MOOCs are fine. But in a rapidly changing, innovation-based, global economy, that just isn’t good enough. Students need the kinds of personal engagement and meaningful interactions that turn information into knowledge, and knowledge into power. MOOCs simply don’t offer than, and that is why every educator should hate them.