The Huge Growth of MOOCs Threatens America's Great Public University System

In a college-level course about social justice issues, you can often find students sitting in a circle discussing society’s inequalities with one another. But in Harvard professor Michael Sandel’s JusticeX class, a massive open online course (MOOC), tens of thousands of students watch Sandel lecturing on, among other things, affirmative action, income distribution, same-sex marriage and property rights all from their laptops.

When philosophy professors at San Jose State University were encouraged to have their students take Sandel’s MOOC, they were strongly against their students taking an online course in justice. So they wrote an open letter to Sandel (signed by all of them).

“The move to MOOCs comes at great peril to our university,” the letter said, “We regard such courses as a serious compromise of quality of education and, ironically for a social justice course, a case of social injustice.”

MOOCs have been in the news lately, from the Chronicle of Higher Education to the New York Times to the Wall Street Journal, and legislation in California calls for public institutions to use MOOCs for students who can’t get into overcrowded courses. MOOCs differ from regular online course in that they are free (although students can be charged for credit), and tens of thousands of students can be in one class. Often grading is done by computer or by peers. The biggest three providers of MOOCs are edX, a nonprofit formed by Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard; Udacity, launched by Sebastian Thrun, a Stanford professor and the founder of Google’s autonomous-car program; and Coursera, a nonprofit started by two other Stanford computer science professors, Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng.

Hundreds of universities in the United States are now offering MOOCs, and millions of students throughout the world have signed up for them, although completion rates are extremely low, around 7 percent according to a study cited in Inside Higher Ed.

The business model for MOOCs is unclear, with providers charging the universities for the platform, and some planning to charge students for credit.

Proponents hail MOOCs as a way to provide access to students and cut costs. In an article in Smithsonian Magazine, Thrun said that when he opened up a class he taught in artificial intelligence to anyone with an Internet connection, upwards of 100,000 students signed up for the class (more people, he said, than the number of attendees at a Lady Gaga concert he went to). Thrun also said he got heartfelt emails from the students saying how much the class meant to them.

But critics, like those at SJ State, see MOOCs as providing an inferior education, increasing the digital divide, cutting human interaction out of learning and opening the door to privatizing public education while turning professors into glorified teachers’ aides.

“This looks like a transfer model of education,” said Noam Cook, a professor of philosophy at SJ State, referring to what Brazilian educator Paolo Freire called “banking education” — where the teacher deposits information in the students’ minds. “I don’t think that’s what higher education is about. It’s about helping students think critically and develop understanding.”

Cook pointed out that anyone can already watch a Sandel lecture on YouTube or buy his book, so why should universities pay edX a $250,000 base fee to develop the platform, then $50,000 for each additional time the course is offered? Cook added that the professors at SJ State know their students and design classes with them in mind.

“Specifically of concern to us is what message it’s sending,’” he said. “There’s a message there that Harvard students deserve to have a living, breathing professor answering questions and SJ State students do not.”

Patricia McGuire, the president of Trinity University in Washington DC, agrees MOOCs will create two tiers of education: those who can afford it will still go to elite schools where they can meet professors and peers, make connections and have discussions face-to-face about what they are learning, while middle-class and poorer students take MOOCs. She adds that if education were fully funded, there wouldn’t be a need for MOOCs.

“Those of us who educate predominantly students of color or predominately low-income students see them shunted off into a form of education that is not tested,” she said. “Their education is being cheapened because of legislators de-investing in higher education.”

Anyone can sign up for a MOOC online without being enrolled in a university. But many colleges are offering them on their own or "blended" with regular classes for credit. Now the push seems to be to offer them for more remedial classes.

Until about nine months ago, McGuire hadn’t even heard of MOOCs, and she finds it disturbing how quickly colleges have rushed to sign up for them. Trinity uses technology pervasively, she said, but classes tend to be small with the average size around 25. When someone told her MOOCs were the solution for underperforming students, she was more than skeptical.

“Fifty percent of our students come from the DC public schools and need a lot of support,” she said. “I know from experience they need tutorials. The idea that they can take an online course with 10,000 others and benefit — I found that preposterous.”

Nor does McGuire buy the idea that MOOCs were created with "educational access for all" in mind.

“The idea that this is going to stay free and these companies have the best, most altruistic motives is just not believable,” she said. “Somebody is going to make a lot of money off of this.”

In an interview in the Wall Street Journal, Koller, one of the founders of Coursera said the company has already started to make, as she called it, “nontrivial revenue.” She said more than 10,000 people opted into the company’s verified certificate program, and Coursera had made almost $500,000 in a few months through this program.

Officials at Coursera said they were unable to grant an interview “due to the high volume of requests that [they] regularly receive,” but sent an overview of the company and responses to frequently asked questions. The company, which has students in more than 220 countries and partners with more than 60 universities, has received $22 million in funding from Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, and also "partner universities" Penn and Caltech. Besides charging students for credit, it stated in the overview, the company might charge for connecting students with prospective employers.

Cook questions the ethics.

“So they’re using public education as a way of making money for investors in private corporations,” he said. 

Proponents see MOOCs as a much needed revamp of education (Secretary of Education Arne Duncan called them “disruptive innovators”), but McGuire doesn’t think they break new ground.

“They’re not very innovative. You’ve been able to buy CDs for years of things like great lectures from Harvard,” she said. “It’s just the fact they’re delivered on the web. The tech community wants us to believe anything they invent is going to save us.”

Cook, the professor at San Jose State, agrees that a lot about MOOCs sounds familiar.

“A lot of what they’re saying currently is virtually indistinguishable from what people were saying about role of classroom TV in the '50s,” Cook said. “It wasted time and talent and money, and it also delayed by many years figuring out what TV is good for. Then we all had technical amnesia and replayed it exactly with the personal computer in the '80s. Then we did the same thing with the Internet.”

Cook said he thinks university administrators feel pressured to leap on the MOOC bandwagon.

“We’re told by those promoting it, it’s the future and it’s happening and we’ll be left behind,” Cook said.

That’s been McGuire’s experience as well. Recently, she said, a university president told her that he doesn’t want to adopt MOOCs, but he feels he has to because everyone else is.

“What’s really horrifying about this lemming-like movement is we’re supposed to be a little thoughtful,” she said. “It has a Tom Sawyer quality to it, and it’s like everyone is trying to paint the fence.”

But other colleges besides SJ State have recently expressed skepticism about MOOCs: 58 professors at Harvard wrote a letter asking for more oversight of MOOCs, saying they are “deeply concerned about the program’s cost and consequences;” professors at Amherst College in Massachusetts voted against joining edX; and the provost at American University in Washington, DC, declared a moratorium on MOOCs.

“Faculty members don’t want to experiment with MOOCs until they know more about costs and benefits,” said Barlow Burke, a law professor and chair of the Faculty Senate at American. “MOOCs involve offerings to the world, and we’re engaged in offering education to particular students.”

Peter Jacoby, an English professor at Mesa College in San Diego, decided to try a MOOC out of curiosity. He joined 30,000 other students in a Coursera offering from the University of Pennsylvania, “Modern and Contemporary Poetry.”

Although Jacoby finished the course (one of less than 10 percent who did), he wasn’t impressed. He found the lectures disappointing and the feedback he got on discussion boards was nothing deeper than “Great comment!”

In the Coursera overview, it said: “Our peer assessment pedagogy draws on research regarding the process and efficacy of peer grading as well as crowd sourcing, with the goal of creating a system that produces a valuable learning experiences for both the students submitting and the students grading the work.”

Jacoby didn’t find it valuable, but rather crude and perfunctory with quizzes of just a couple of questions with three or four choices, graded by a machine, and 300-word essays, following a rubric. 

As for using MOOCs with remedial students, Jacoby is blunt.

“I think it’s stupid,” he said. “Nobody is going to learn anything. I’ve taught remedial students before, and I believe what they need the most is one-on-one attention. They need a teacher who can find out what they need and can give them attention, so they can get over hurdles.”

Another professor who took a MOOC out of curiosity was Larry Cuban, professor emeritus of education at Stanford. Cuban took one on artificial intelligence, and he said his experience was a good one—he liked the lectures and the way it was taught, but he felt too busy with his own teaching and a book he was writing and didn’t finish the course.

“Ninety percent drop out of these things,” he said. “You have to be highly motivated and you have to be interested in the content and have self-discipline, and those aren’t in large supply.”

This high dropout rate for MOOCs isn’t stopping administrators who see them as a way to increase access while keeping costs down. The president of San Jose State, Mohammad Qayoumi, an enthusiastic supporter of MOOCs, has presented his ideas to California governor Jerry Brown, and he has said that universities should take a lesson from Walmart by looking to expand online.

The philosophy professors who wrote the letter refusing to use edX don’t think universities should be looking to big businesses for inspiration, and believe California State University is trying to devalue their labor. In the letter they wrote:

"Let's not kid ourselves; administrators at the CSU are beginning a process of replacing faculty with cheap online education."

If Qayoumi and other administrators really want to cut costs, they should start with their own positions, said Laurie Essig, an associate professor of sociology and women’s and gender studies at Middlebury College, who wrote a tongue-in-cheek piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education titled "It’s MOOAs, [Massive Open Online Administrations] Not MOOCs, That Will Transform Higher Education.”

Essig cites a study from the conservative Goldwater Institute, which said the number of administrators between 1993 and 2007 grew by 39 percent.

“If you look at salaries of people in administration, they make way more,” she said. “There are deans of everything now, and they make twice to five times what teachers make. Rather than monetizing teaching, let’s look at the rising costs, and they’re in administration.”

About the idea of teaching tens of thousands of people at once, Essig uses the same language as Jacoby.

“You can’t teach 200,000 people,” she said. “That’s just stupid, and that’s not how teaching happens. It happens in something called human interaction and through dialogue and conversation. There are some rock star professors. … But with 100,000 students, that’s no more teaching than a Facebook friendship is a real friendship.”

Essig said costs for college have gone up partly because of credit deregulation and banks offering loans to students that they struggle to repay. We need to fully fund education so enough classes can be offered — not try and do it on the cheap. These massive classes that discount teaching and personal interaction won’t help students learn, she said — and they’re coming from the people who created the problem in the first place. While Essig, like MOOC proponents, believes there should be a radical change in education, she demands a path that addresses the fundamental problems with higher education.

“I’d love to try something completely different,” she said. “Let’s try making colleges about education rather than administration, and let’s try making them about education rather than making money for banks. Let’s have real, stable full-time jobs and not exploit people. Let’s follow the money. Who’s getting behind the MOOCs are administrators who are making huge amounts of money and the people who run these companies. I will never believe that people who stand to make hundreds of thousands of dollars have the best interests of students at heart.”


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