Ma, There’s a MOOC under my bed

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The irony about MOOCs is that hardly anyone opposes them except many of the academics qualified to teach them.

Recently academics, including groups of faculty at Amherst College, Duke University, and San Jose State University, have been publicly skeptical of, and even hostile to new forms of teaching online courses. Amherst faculty voted down a proposal to create MOOCs with edX, a nonprofit collaboration between Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Duke professors narrowly defeated an online teaching partnership with the for-profit 2U. Nearly 60 faculty members at Harvard itself recently issued a letter expressing angst over the cost of MOOCs and the “impact online courses will have on the higher education system.”

But many of the concerns driving opposition to MOOCs and other new forms of higher education aren’t compelling.

One of the most common doubts about MOOCs in higher education, for example, is that some numbers suggest fewer than 10 percent of enrollees complete the classes (though figures vary widely for different MOOC models).

Well, so what? Most dieters quit; does this mean universities should abandon wellness education? Should they cut smoking cessation programs? Should rural schools in Pakistan be shuttered because many children in the area won’t or can’t walk four miles from home to learn?

Another common forecast from academics is that universities will use MOOCs to eliminate tenure-track positions, fire vulnerable adjuncts, and commodify higher education.

But wait, we were just told that only 10 percent of MOOC enrollees finish. Doesn’t that mean colleges and universities will still need professors in the flesh and brick facilities to educate people who don’t thrive in online classrooms? Yes, because online learning is just a natural component — not a replacement — of higher education in our age of screens.

The fear that MOOCs and other online teaching will whittle academic departments is overstated, but even if it isn’t, who are we trying to benefit here? If, say, a Yale University MOOC allows 200 students in Honduras and Hawaii to complete an Ivy League chemistry class, and the same MOOC results in the elimination of an adjunct position in Honolulu, I’m not sure I see a clearly defined catastrophe.

Philosophy faculty at San Jose State University recently sent an open letter to a Harvard MOOC professor, publicly refusing to use any of the academic’s MOOC in their curriculum. Now, is the decision to never use any of the Harvard MOOC, made available by a trial partnership between San Jose State and edX, the ideal verdict for every San Jose State student who ever takes philosophy? Doubtful.

There are far more students than professors in higher education, and the system is supposed to be set up for the aspirants, not the academics. I want universities to have robust, supported faculty, and I’m a professor myself, but MOOC-triggered alarms that that focus solely on faculty positions put the teacher first, learner last. Online learning (both MOOCs and other new models) should simply be viewed as another way to reach learners where they are, and as a way to acknowledge different learning styles.

The grandest warning against MOOCs is that the online courses will devastate in-person education as we know it, erasing all the dynamics of classrooms, the pheromones, and instantaneous feedback.

But forms of communication don’t die; devices do. The best way to teach will always be in person, but technologies can be utilized to also help those who can’t be in the room. Why does Eric Schmidt fly around the world to expand Google’s business? Why do tech elites at Apple still gather in meeting rooms like the cast of “Mad Men”? Because the best way to forge meaningful ties is face-to-face. We still need to seize online technologies, though, to connect more learners to teachers.

One of the more legitimate concerns regarding MOOCs and other new forms of online instruction involves intellectual property rights. Who retains copyright privileges for online courses that can cost a university a lot to produce, but are also the fruit of professors’ creativity?

Some MOOCs and other initiatives literally require hundreds of thousands of dollars to launch. With sunk costs like that, universities want to retain ownership of the course. Rightfully, though, professors want to be able to take their course material with them, say, if they leave one university for another, or, in the age of monetized curriculums, to earn fees from their courses promoted by for-profit companies.

But the intellectual property concern doesn’t make people want to eliminate MOOCs, and rather hinges on who will retain distribution and financial rights to an online course.

Professors who want to teach MOOCs, not those who fear them, raise copyright concerns. Professors, presidents and provosts must reach acceptable agreements on rights to the moolah, just as they do for other contentious issues.

Online education is happening and we’re going to see more of it, and educators can’t hide under the covers.

Northwestern University, where I teach, will begin in the fall a pilot year of “Semester Online,” a consortium project in which Northwestern students can take and receive credit for online courses from schools like Boston College, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Emory University and elsewhere. Northwestern professors, likewise, may teach classes online to students at colleges in the consortium. Such expansive online offerings could be especially useful in the future to my students, as I teach in Northwestern’s journalism program in Qatar, over 7,000 miles from Evanston, Ill.

And that’s the idea: to give students more options while jealously guarding quality. Colleges in the consortium will not accept credit for a “Wayne’s World” MOOC broadcast from a basement, but rather courses from faculty at proven universities. This is a much better approach than closing one’s eyes and hoping online learning goes away.

Author Bio: Justin D. Martin teaches journalism at Northwestern University in Qatar and serves on Northwestern’s Faculty Distance Learning Workgroup, though his views do not necessarily reflect the group’s perspectives. Follow him @Justin_D_Martin.

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