Any time a new technology challenges someone’s livelihood, watch for the blowback. The spinners and the weavers tried to wreck the power looms that upended their livelihood; more recently, journalists spent years slamming electronic media and bloggers.These days the disruptive technology is aimed at the professoriat, and we can expect libraries filled with learned journal articles “proving” that any educational change that makes professors uncomfortable is a lousy idea. We are now seeing the Great Pushback on MOOCs, with the naysayers and doom preachers really piling on. NPR, most readers will not be surprised to discover, is the latest outlet to run a gloomy piece, largely recapping the spate of setbacks we’ve noted throughout 2013: the low completion rates, the failure of Udacity’s partnership with San Jose state, the professorial rebellion against MOOCs on campus, and Sebastian Thrun’s pivot away from the first generation of MOOCs.Nevertheless, the piece ends on an up note, pointing out how providers are beginning to react to their critics:
Enter MOOC 2.0. Udacity and other leading MOOC providers now realize that a more expansive, human-centered support structure is key to helping students retain information, stick with the course — and finish.“We [added] human mentors,” says Thrun. “We have people almost 24-7 that help you when you get stuck. We also added a lot of projects that require human feedback and human grading.“And that human element, surprise, surprise, makes a huge difference in the student experience and the learning outcomes,” he says.
The lack of interaction between student and professor, the inability to discuss lectures or readings with your classmates—these are areas where MOOCs have thus far most underwhelmed. For the clearest and most impassioned argument beating MOOCs up for these failures, look no further than this fine essay by Jakub Grygiel in the latest issue of The American Interest.Dr. Grygiel hits on many important truths in his piece, and we have some (very) anecdotal evidence of our own to back him up. Two TAI staffers took a Coursera class on algorithms over the summer, and they were both quite satisfied with how it turned out, both feeling like they had gone through the equivalent of a college-level computer science course. One of the staffers subsequently took a Coursera class on mathematical reasoning by himself, and came away less impressed.The opportunity to discuss lectures and problem sets with a colleague face-to-face—as well as the element of friendly competition—made the algorithms course more rewarding and enriching. And though the mathematical reasoning course set up a system where students could grade each others’ proofs, it didn’t quite provide the same spark. And if humanities courses where relationships between students and more senior scholars communicate all kinds of intangible knowledge present one kind of problem for MOOCs, the need for science students to do hands-on work in supervised labs may pose a more important obstacle to a high-tech, no-touch approach to higher ed.Some MOOC promoters with stars in their eyes (and PayPal buttons on their websites) made the critics’ job easy by overselling tech-only solutions to education. But the real case for MOOCs, and the reason the professoriat (except for stars like Dan Drezner) needs to stay braced for big change has to do with empowering TAs and cutting the cost of highly paid, tenured and mediocre senior faculty. It is a lot cheaper to train people to be brilliant and effective TAs than it is to train and tenure senior faculty at third tier institutions. An education based around highly trained and motivated, often non-Ph.D instructors working with MOOCs that give students access to the best professors and biggest names in the academic world may not be as good as what kids get at Harvard now—but it can be a lot better than what many students are getting today on thousands of campuses in this country and all over the world. And it is substantially cheaper to provide.This strikes at the business model of many university departments in two ways. First, it is clear that many existing colleges and startups can substantially reduce the cost of enrollment for students while still offering real classes with real, personal instruction. No doubt the AAUP and other guild-based institutions will do everything to delay change, but unless academia can get the Federal Reserve to dedicate a special printing press to cover its costs, the rising need of American society for ever more education at a reasonable price will force change.Second, as higher ed shifts away from the senior scholar/starving adjunct model to one of better paid non-PhD teachers helping students master ever improving and upgraded MOOCs and post-MOOC courses, graduate schools will have to repurpose themselves. PhD degrees will likely become rarer in subjects where the only demand for PhDs comes from the academy, and graduate schools will have to refocus on master’s programs (which is presumably the terminal degree that many of the super-TAs of the future will have).Worse, from the professoriat’s point of view, there is a lot of work that brings good money into higher ed institutions that really can be done through distance learning. Highly motivated adult students who want to get job or professional certification are less dependent on hand holding and face to face contact than 18 year olds who are going to college mostly because all their friends went and their parents are willing to pay for it. We wrote earlier that the big threat to academic business models isn’t that distance learning will challenge upper-level philosophy seminars. The internet pushed the newspaper industry into crisis simply because it killed the classified ad business. Universities don’t have to lose all their business to distance learning to get into a crisis; higher-ed is not in good financial shape as it is, and even relatively modest inroads by distance learning on the business model could be quite problematic.Those are at least some of the ways in which the internet is going to reshape higher ed. But just as nobody knew what printing presses and railroads would do when they first appeared, so we really don’t yet know how the information revolution is going to reshape education at all levels. MOOCs are only the first stage of the coming revolution, and even they are still at an early state of development. Some of us are old enough to remember the earliest video games, like Pong; there were plenty of scoffers then who said that video games would never compete with pinball machines.The MOOCS around now are much more like Pong than Halo. But that will change, and the change will come much faster than the scoffers and skeptics want to believe. Education is a big industry, and better, faster, cheaper ways of learning are desperately needed. We professors can yell “Get a horse!” as much as we want from the hallowed windows and ivy covered walls of our venerable buildings, but we can’t make time—or technology—stop.In the end, students are going to learn more and pay less. That will be good for the human race as a whole and, for anyone who really cares about social justice and the condition of the poor, it will be a step forward. And for colleges and universities smart enough to surf the waves of change rather than lying passively on the beach waiting to be crushed, the ride will be thrilling and transformative, rather than horrifying and bone-crushing.