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Are MOOCs Teaching the Wrong Things?


MOOCs have their fair share of critics, but they generally fall back on the same few arguments: MOOCs offer a low-quality facsimile of in-person education, dropout rates are high, student interaction is low, and it’s difficult to assess how much students have actually learned. But over at the Financial Times Edward Luce attacks MOOCs from a somewhat different angle. In Luce’s view, the problem with MOOCs isn’t the low education quality or high dropout rates, but that, like much of the rest of the higher-ed system, they’re teaching the wrong content. Luce points to a recent study by the Harvard Business Review which suggests that, despite the enthusiasm surrounding STEM education, the job market of the future is going to involve more humanities and less technology than many think:

Given its implications, the HBR study has attracted less attention than it deserves. Its results show that Washington’s goal of boosting the share of Americans who study science, technology, engineering and maths – the so-called Stem subjects – may be ill-conceived. It also puts Moocs in their place. Moocs can reduce costs and broaden access, both of which are highly desirable. But they have no special insight into tomorrow’s labour market.

The trends in today’s jobs market should be startling enough. Since 2000, the number of US computer-related jobs, including hardware and software engineers, has fallen by more than 100,000, according to the HBR, while those in telecoms, including equipment and line installers, has dropped by a stunning 567,000. These are big growth sectors, in terms of revenue and margins. But they are also most vulnerable to automation. The same is true of jobs in telemarketing (down 44 per cent), electrical engineers (37 per cent) and desktop publishers (39 per cent).

Contrast that with the jobs that grew. The number of library employees in America has risen a third since 2000. Jobs in acting were up 12 per cent, music directors and composers grew 35 per cent and writers and authors were up 6 per cent. Technology is reducing the need for most kinds of labour. At the same time it is vastly expanding the number of channels for creative output. That ought to make humanities – and the study of humans – more relevant. It makes no more sense for most people to study computer engineering than it does for air passengers to master avionics.

This certainly goes against the prevailing wisdom regarding the importance of science and math and we wouldn’t be so quick to write off STEM education. Nonetheless, Luce may be right to think that this is where the job market is headed. Indeed, this seems relatively similar to what we have termed the Jobs of the Future—jobs where people take advantage of technology to deliver increasingly personalized services rather than creating physical goods.

That being said, this doesn’t have to spell doom for MOOCs. It may well be true that subjects like science and math are better suited to the MOOC format than literature and philosophy, where class discussion and engagement with instructors are more important. Yet as we’ve said before, we believe that MOOCs will work best when used in tandem with other educational techniques, such as personal tutors or in-person classes held at testing centers. Adding these components would allow humanities MOOCs to make more of an impact while still offering education at a much lower cost than traditional schools.

Read the whole thing.

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  • Taxpayer1234

    How depressing. Humanities scholars become TAs of auto-professors. I’m sure the pay will be commensurarely tiny. Yippee skippee.

  • Corlyss

    “to involve more humanities”
    Well, given the sorry state of humanities instruction in colleges and the equally horrid state of humanities instructors’ preparation at the hands of Bill Ayers’ ed. school curriculum, that sucks. I think just as in my day, employers want well-rounded individuals who know a good deal about their own culture, a smattering of other cultures, and ability to reason fairly effectively based on evidence, to order priorities, do research, and to problem-solve. I’m not sure any of that was the goal of university instruction in my day, but I graduated with them nevertheless. I don’t get a warm fuzzy that students graduating today graduate with similar attributes.

  • Anthony

    WRM, two observations worthy of consideration:

    “This certainly goes against the prevailing wisdom regarding the importance of science and math….”

    “…no special insight into tomorrow’s labor market.”

  • Dan King

    I’ve been predicting a shrinkage of STEM jobs for a long time now. For example, here:

  • free_agent

    If something can be taught well by a MOOC, its pay rate in the future will be low, because an infinite number of smart English-speakers in India will learn how to do it. But like China and manufacturing, the US, *overall*, will profit by it.

  • Jim__L

    I just don’t buy it. Library employment, up? Are they kidding?

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