mead cohen berger shevtsova garfinkle michta grygiel blankenhorn
MOOC Backlash
Just How Important Are MOOCs?

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.

Features Icon
show comments
  • Anthony

    Power of data: MOOCs are theoretically new modes of course delivery at university (college) level. The model is not going anywhere but will undoubtedly refine itself and become componebt utilized by more enterprising institutions (once cost factor and return reaches identified ratio).

  • Jacksonian_Libertarian

    I’m struck by the statement
    in the article “Despite this background, developing the MOOC was almost a
    full-time job. It took 50 to 100 hours of preparation for each lecture.”,
    without any mention of how long it took to write the text book or to prep for
    normal lectures, and most important that once the video lecture is in the can,
    no additional work is EVER required. In this way once the course is in the can,
    all the professor need do is sit back and collect the royalties.

  • mgoodfel

    If they split the awarding of a degree (testing for competence) away from the university that does the education (sitting in classes), that would be transformation enough. Most students are just paying for the degree, not the process.

    Motivated students could learn a lot on their own, through the net, cooperating in small groups, etc. The MOOC is nice, but it’s not the only way to learn.

  • MarkE

    MOOCs seem to be attracting the kind of students who are basically “complexity workers”, i.e., they support all the complex mechanisms in our world that often require advance degrees. The way these courses are presently designed they are ideal for becoming instruction manuals for complex tasks. Since they are online they can be updated, frequently and easily which is another requirement of continuing education for complex tasks. We already see this for computer programming qualification courses and continuing education for the licensed professions.
    For those with shorter attention spans education set in a game format like “Modern Warcraft 3” would work better. In fact we are told that many soldiers (regular and irregular) practice with these games. I’m pretty sure the complexity workers would appreciate a little bit of this spice also.
    But there will always be some place for education that requires hands-on-experience, laboratory facilities, physical presence, and face-to-face social interaction. Perhaps more than ever with the advent of more widely consumed MOOCs, but just more selectively chosen and prescribed.

  • Fat_Man

    You are welcome.

  • Joseph Blieu

    I don’t think these classes will replace a significant portion of
    Bachelors Degree requirements for a long time. They will be used as
    supplemental texts in regular courses and in “Instructor guided
    learning” classes when the particular institution does not offer
    advanced courses itself. The most useful and grand idea is to allow
    high school students to break free of restrictive boundaries and take
    college calc chem and phys classes early and allow them to be more
    competitive with ivy students of advantage. Some bright kids have a
    special tutor or friend, or go to some summer programs that let them get
    an advancement over less sophisticated peers. It will be interesting
    to see if a regular kid who fights through linear algebra or multi
    variable calc in a mooc at 17 yrs gets the same leg up.

© The American Interest LLC 2005-2016 About Us Masthead Submissions Advertise Customer Service