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Professors Running Scared, MOOC Future is Now


MOOCs are attracting resistance from professors across the country. In early May San Diego State’s philosophy department wrote an open letter to Harvard professor Michael Sandel, complaining that soon enough MOOCs like his popular online course on justice “will replace professors, dismantle departments, and provide a diminished education for students in public universities.” The Duke faculty recently voted against the school’s participation in a for-credit online education consortium, for similar reasons. And last Thursday, 57 Harvard professors called on the Dean to allow for greater faculty oversight of the HarvardX MOOC platform, which they claim was built without their involvement.

We don’t share all these concerns, but can see why professors would be alarmed by the rapid changes. Georgia Tech, for instance, is already offering a full degree program entirely through MOOCs. The contract between Georgia Tech and MOOC purveyor Udacity reveals something that may confirm their fears, as Inside Higher Ed reports:

Georgia Tech is also working to hire a new class of university employees. These will be “people with domain expertise,” Isbell said, who can work with faculty and the course materials. These employees will be a new professional class of employees and not graduate assistants.
Umakishore Ramachandran, a computer science professor who chaired the working group that prepared the internal report, said moving away from graduate assistants might be a good thing. He said graduate student teaching assistants face a learning curve and do not remain T.A.s for life. A professional aide, he said, could “help in retaining uniform quality.”

In other words, colleges will hire instructors who can add value to the MOOC experience rather than teach courses themselves. These teachers may lead smaller discussions and supplement the information provided by the MOOC. Professors may well dread the prospect of ceding ground to this “new class of university employees.”

The Georgia Tech-Udacity agreement also addresses the important question of how MOOCs can make money. Over the first couple years, the program may just barely break even. But after the third year, both groups predict a healthy annual profit of nearly $5 million. The agreement clears up some other financial issues, too, like how much professors should be paid for creating a MOOC ($30,000, plus royalties every time the course is offered), and how profits should be shared between colleges and the companies that host the MOOCs (in this case, a 60-40 split, respectively).

If these estimates are even close to accurate, and if other colleges adopt this model, MOOCs have a bright future ahead. Even the most reluctant professors may have no choice but to adapt, and soon.

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  • Nick Bidler

    Well, good. As someone with a worthless degree in history and trying to learn computer science, this cannot come soon enough for me.

  • bpuharic

    As a scientist, I wonder where the first class research will be done if ‘brick and mortar’ schools go away. Applied research will always have a home in industrial labs, but the pure research is almost always done by universities. Just another sign of the economic reductionism of modern times.

    • rheddles

      As the one footing the bills, I wonder why the scientists who allowed their universities to become anti-American forces expect us to continue to fund their science projects. What ever benefits they produce are now outweighed by the costs of an ill educated generation that does not understand how the world works, why our civilization is superior, or any means of making a living. If we can’t afford health care, education or housing, we sure can’t afford science projects. Too bad the scientists couldn’t leave the labs when a key cultural institution was being subverted.

      • bpuharic

        Let me know when you come back to earth. I was primarily addressing humans.


        • rheddles

          That is the kind of argumentation that lost the academy.

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