MOOCs | Viewpoint

MOOC Shake

MOOCs will change higher education radically, but not in the way we expect right now.

This story appears in the August 2013 digital edition of Campus Technology. Click here for a free subscription to the magazine.

Like everyone else in higher education, I have watched the frenzy surrounding MOOCs with great interest. Much of the hype, I believe, stems from an earnest desire for a tangible solution to the issue of cost. But the expectations outweigh the reality. While I believe MOOCs will have a major role to play in higher education, the predominant format of massive, largely anonymous courses--xMOOCs--is unlikely to be as pervasive as many pundits think. Yes, these courses can work for motivated learners, postgraduates (in some disciplines), and professionals seeking additional qualifications. But it's a stretch to expect other students--especially young adults--to thrive in this format; the courses require too much discipline at a time when student minds are often on other things.

From my perspective, the blended MOOC has greater possibilities. In some ways, it's the best of both worlds: first-class course materials paired with in-person support, reinforcement--and credentialing--from local schools. Early results from San Jose State's blended MOOC pilot with edX appear to bear this out.

But the cost crisis in higher ed is not going to vanish miraculously, so the key question is: Can blended MOOCs bend the cost curve? Not if you expect to keep your existing faculty on staff. The only way to reduce costs significantly would be to replace professors with TAs or low-paid instructors. Radical? Yes, but if you take the concept of blended MOOCs to its logical endpoint, they start to look every bit as disruptive as xMOOCs.

In fact, if blended MOOCs become a dominant model, we might see a schism in the structure of higher education. Instead of the current setup where faculty juggle research and teaching responsibilities, undergraduate education may well morph into something closer to today's K-12 setup: low-paid instructors hired to help students achieve competency in courses that are almost identical to those at other schools.

At the same time, full-time faculty would dedicate themselves to their research. While this has its benefits--brilliant professors are not necessarily good teachers--something would be lost, too. As San Jose State professor Janet Stemwedel says in our cover story, "The Rise of MOOCs," "College students should have direct contact with people who are actively engaged in building knowledge in their fields of study."

What's more, the very nature of university research might change. For years, student tuition has subsidized research. If faculty no longer interact with students, justifying this redirection of dollars would be difficult--plus, there would be less tuition money in the first place. Under this scenario, faculty may find themselves battling to secure grants and corporate backers--or face losing their positions. It's an unhealthy prospect that jeopardizes the health and independence of academic inquiry--and it bodes especially ill for the humanities, which cannot fill a product pipeline.

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