MOOCs: has the counter-revolution started?

Philosophy professors at San Jose State University in California have rebelled against a suggestion by their management that they should start using an edX MOOC called “JusticeX” on their courses. They have sent an open letter (via Chronicle of Higher Education) to the Harvard Professor responsible for the MOOC, Michael Sandel, accusing him of being complicit in a process which imperils public universities and, ironically given the nature of the course in question, compromises social justice.

This follows the rejection by faculty at Amherst College, Massachusetts, of a proposal that the College should join edX, James Vernon, writing in the Guardian, thinks that the MOOC “avalanche” may yet be stopped and describes a campaign to thwart a Californian senator’s bill to promote on-line education for credit. Is this the start of a backlash by faculty and institutions against the MOOC revolution?

The SJSU professors argue that “There is no pedagogical problem in [their] department that JusticeX solves” and that the introduction of MOOCs into public universities is motivated purely by financial considerations.  They are not opposed to using technology in education, and, indeed, they have their own on-line and blended courses, but they say it’s “time to call it like it is”. The rise of MOOCs serves a financial, not a pedagogical, agenda.

Professor Sandel says that he offered his course to edX purely in order to make an educational resource freely available for anyone to use in any way they see fit. He seems to have no desire to see his course undermining the fabric of publicly-funded universities or the employment prospects of his fellow academics. SJSU’s provost Ellen Junn claims that the university merely suggested to the department that they use Sandel’s MOOC as a resource in much the same way that they might use a text book.

Are the philosophy profs right? Or are they latter-day Luddites, trying to destroy the 21st century equivalent of power-assisted looms in a doomed attempt to save their own jobs?

It would naïve in the extreme to think that those who control the purse-strings aren’t eyeing up MOOCs (and indeed other types of on-line offering) as a cheap option. If Harvard-quality higher education courses could be delivered to everyone via a computer screen at minimal cost, that would indeed be the answer to any finance director’s (or finance minister’s) dreams.

The problem, of course, is that the quality inherent in a Harvard education is not encapsulated in the typical MOOC, which is merely a recording of some lectures, with some additional material (such as on-line tests). To think that the quality of an education lies entirely in attending classes given by a rock-star lecturer, is to miss the point entirely. Indeed, we’ve long known that attending large group lectures is one of the least effective ways to learn. And what about the guided discussion, the individual feedback, the help with study skills, the library resources, the extended reading, the opportunity for submitting lengthy formative written work, the stimulation of peer group debate…..? Not to mention the pastoral care and advice and all the other aspects that go to make up a student’s experience at university.

This is not to say that on-line and blended university courses cannot be qualitatively equivalent to a face-to-face course. There’s plenty of evidence that they can be. But it’s not a cheap option: it requires investment, imagination and creativity and is unlikely to be successful if human interaction is eliminated.

It’s also not to say that MOOCs aren’t a good thing: the dissemination of knowledge and understanding to a wider audience, especially to those without access to universities, can only be beneficial.

But should MOOCs take the place of existing university courses? If that were to happen, many students would indeed be short-changed.

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2 thoughts on “MOOCs: has the counter-revolution started?

  1. Pingback: A shift in the MOOCmentum: coverage of and conversations around our open letter to Michael Sandel (part 2). | Adventures in Ethics and Science

  2. Pingback: This is not part 1 of a post about MOOCs | info-fetishist

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