The debate over MOOCs has quickly become polarized between defenders of the old higher-ed order on one side, and futurists predicting a total transformation of the industry on the other. (As regular readers will know, we’ve tilted more toward the latter group, though we admit that the technology has seen some setbacks in recent months.) Over at The American, however, an excellent new piece by Edward Tenner threads the needle between these two views, positing MOOCs as both less dangerous and less transformative than either their critics and admirers claim. Instead, Tenner argues, MOOCs are a promising technology which nonetheless may serve to further the dominance of elite universities and professors in the higher-ed marketplace, due in large part to the resources it takes to create one:
But the real threat to faculty members, especially younger professors, isn’t the MOOC at all, it’s the profession’s growing stratification and creation of a permanent adjunct underclass, like the split between elite law firm partners and contract attorneys. The global scope of MOOCs gives an advantage to renowned researchers like Thrun, to the disadvantage of the many outstanding teachers without such visibility or resources for course development. And the real problem of MOOCs may not be the low completion rate either. In fact, Professor Thrun’s program, without screening or prerequisites, did well indeed: it yielded fully 7,500 successful students. That’s more than twelve years’ enrollment in Stanford’s most popular on-campus computer science course, CS106a. Judging from comments by MOOC students, it appears that many register to sample a number of courses and complete only the minority that interest them strongly enough. That’s a feature, not a bug, of the genre; dropping courses can be a costly ritual in conventional universities. Besides, low yields are part of elite education: Stanford accepted only 6.6 percent of applicants in 2012. […]In the end, the biggest surprise about MOOCs is how conservative they are. They work to the advantage of elite universities, first in providing a social benefit at a time when some critics wonder whether they are truly charities, and second in further stimulating overseas interest in enrolling for the conventional residential course at full tuition. While in principle they increase opportunities, in fact a large proportion of students are professionals who already have degrees. And there’s a third unexpected finding. Far from replacing conventional textbooks like Sedgewick and Kevin Wayne’s Algorithms, fourth edition (600,000 copies sold), it has resulted in record orders. Sedgewick expects his royalties to double between 2011-12 and 2012-13.
It’s a convincing argument, though perhaps not surprising. Tenner focuses mostly on elite universities. We’ve always believed that MOOCs are likely to make their biggest impact on the lower end of the market while leaving elite schools more or less intact. These schools receive less media attention than their elite peers, yet they still account for a large share of the total higher-ed marketplace. If MOOCs from elite universities are able to siphon off a significant number of students from schools at the lower end, this still amounts to a pretty significant change.Read the whole thing.