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If You Read One Thing about MOOCs This Week…


…make it this excellent and refreshingly evenhanded New Yorker piece by Nathan Heller. It traces the rise of MOOCs at Harvard while carefully examining their many pros and cons, how they fit into the broader higher ed landscape, the roots of cost inflation in the education sector, and much else besides.

It’s hard to recommend the multifaceted piece based on only one passage, but we thought the debate between academics who have embraced the new technology and those who feel threatened its growing prominence was particularly well done.

One professor describes his nightmare scenario:

“Imagine you’re at South Dakota State,” [Professor Peter J. Burgard] said, “and they’re cash-strapped, and they say, ‘Oh! There are these HarvardX courses. We’ll hire an adjunct for three thousand dollars a semester, and we’ll have the students watch this TV show.’ Their faculty is going to dwindle very quickly. Eventually, that dwindling is going to make it to larger and less poverty-stricken universities and colleges. The fewer positions are out there, the fewer Ph.D.s get hired. The fewer Ph.D.s that get hired—well, you can see where it goes. It will probably hurt less prestigious graduate schools first, but eventually it will make it to the top graduate schools. . . . If you have a smaller graduate program, you can be assured the deans will say, ‘First of all, half of our undergraduates are taking moocs. Second, you don’t have as many graduate students. You don’t need as many professors in your department of English, or your department of history, or your department of anthropology, or whatever.’

We’re not sure whether things will play out exactly as this professor describes, but higher ed may very well be headed in this general direction: a few superstar professors dominating the video lecture field, leaving less room for the middle-tier of professors that fill most college faculties. This could be a painful transition for many currently in academia, but it’s important to keep in mind that the core business of the vast majority of American schools is to educate students, not to provide work for PhD holders.

And anyway, as the article goes on to point out, higher education is already adapting in interesting ways:

I asked Michael Smith, the Harvard dean, whether he worried about the effects of MOOCs on the academic job market. “I think oftentimes this question is oversimplified,” he said. “We’re working very closely with our graduate school and our graduate students to think about how they can be involved in this process.” Job offers today, he said, will necessarily “be different from the ones I saw when I finished up graduate school.” Some Ph.D. students are being trained in MOOC production as “HarvardX fellows.” […]

“I have a hard time seeing how this makes an already dire situation for the humanities worse,” Stephen Squibb, a graduate student in English, said.

This is only a small taste of what the article has to offer, including a fascinating description of some of the challenges of putting together successful MOOCs in the humanities. Read the whole thing. It’s very much worth your time.

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  • Corlyss Drinkard

    “The fewer positions are out there, the fewer Ph.D.s get hired. The fewer Ph.D.s that get hired—well, you can see where it goes.”
    He makes it sound like a bad thing. Depending on the areas the Ph.D.s are in, that could represent the demise of the unfit. Take English, modern languages, sociology, history (pace WRM), literature, arts, and psychology Ph.D.s . . . please. The world would be a better place for the fewer of these creatures whose only function in life is to produce more of them. I see that as a definite plus.

  • Fat_Man

    I liked this quote:

    Nagy has been experimenting with online add-ons to his course for years. When he began planning his MOOC,
    his idea was to break down his lectures into twenty-four lessons of
    less than an hour each. He subdivided every lesson into smaller
    segments, because people don’t watch an hour-long discussion on their
    screens as they might sit through an hour of lecture. (They get
    distracted.) He thought about each segment as a short film, and tried to
    figure out how to dramatize the instruction. He says that crumbling up
    the course like this forced him to study his own teaching more than he
    had at the lectern.

  • Anthony

    Article covers lot of ground; poses many more questions than it answers regarding MOOCs going forward (what area may fine MOOC delivery most expeditious for example). Also, as I read article I considered comparison with Disqus (open in theory, anybody with an internet connection can sign up) on-line communication and delivery mode but I think Mooc precludes anonymity – which is good and permits a more democratic reach.

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