State of the Profession: Much Ado about MOOCs

By Martin D. Snyder

In case you haven’t noticed, massive open online courses (MOOCs) are all the rage these days, at least in the press. “Campus Tsunami,” “Instruction for Masses Knocks Down Campus Walls,” and “College May Never Be the Same” are but a few of the sensational headlines cropping up in the popular and educational press. Is all the hype justified?

Just about a year ago, Stanford, Harvard, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, followed quickly by other top-tier institutions, began to offer MOOCs. The goal was and is laudable: to offer free, world-class education to anyone and everyone with Internet access. The MOOC represents the ultimate democratization of education, at least in theory. What quickly followed was the usual capitalist scramble to figure out how to make a buck from a great idea. Start-up companies were formed to commodify and deliver MOOCs, determine standards of mastery, and establish vehicles for credentialing. Moody’s also saw revenue opportunities in licensing and advertising. Ka-ching, kaching! Free education for all has a price tag, at least for some who may need it most.

MOOCs are a work in progress and may well turn out to be the educational game changer they are predicted to be. Before that happens, however, some serious issues have to be resolved. First is the “fraud factor.” Cheating scandals continue to bedevil higher education, as Harvard discovered earlier this year. Verifying that the student who has signed up for a MOOC is the same person who has completed the work and taken the exam is, at the moment, a daunting obstacle. On-site testing provided by for-profit businesses is a feasible but cumbersome (and expensive) option.

More complicated is the issue of credentialing. Those who enroll in MOOCs for personal improvement and need no official verification of content mastery present no problems. But most students will want official credentialing to testify to their successful completion of the course. Some of the entrepreneurial start-ups are offering a “badge” of completion, a sort of faux credit. At the moment of my writing, only Colorado State University is known to be offering university credit for a single MOOC, an introduction to computer science.

What should faculty members be wary of when the inevitable MOOC discussion begins on their campus? The first issue is almost certainly governance. Curriculum is the special preserve of the faculty, and whether to MOOC or not to MOOC is primarily a curricular issue. Any decision to sign a contract to deliver a MOOC as a part of the educational curriculum is a matter for faculty discussion, debate, and decision making. And a faculty member who develops a MOOC must have clear assurances about his or her intellectual property rights.

For many faculty members, the question of whether to incorporate MOOCs into existing curricula will likely be the most pressing issue. Will MOOCs replace current courses and displace faculty members? Will they serve as enrichment for more advanced students, or perhaps as instruments of remediation for the underprepared? (The Gates Foundation is providing pilot funding for remedial MOOCs.) Will a student lacking in motivation and self-discipline even complete a MOOC? Completion rates for MOOCs are notoriously low. Perhaps MOOCs will become key components of hybrid courses, providing world-class online education combined with personalized, face-to-face instruction. The possibilities are myriad, but the success of MOOCs will depend on the degree to which faculty members are involved in the entire process, from development to testing and credentialing.

Reporters are enraptured with the MOOC mystique. Not many are asking whether the predicted dominance of MOOCs is actually good for the quality of education or, more importantly, whether an accumulation of MOOC credits actually amounts to an education at all. David Brooks, writing in the New York Times on May 3, 2012, raised some troubling and difficult questions: “Will online learning diminish the face-to-face community that is the heart of the college experience? Will it elevate functional courses in business and marginalize subjects that are harder to digest in an online format, like philosophy? Will fast online browsing replace deep reading?” These are the sorts of questions that faculty members have the expertise to pose and consider. And answering them is far more important than figuring out how to make a fast buck from “free” education.

Martin D. Snyder is senior associate general secretary of the AAUP.

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