Will the MOOCpocalypse kill graduate science programs?

There is intense debate about what MOOCs will do to or for higher education. Recent articles by Jonathan Rees on Slate (The MOOC racket) and responses by Tim Worstall on Forbes (What MOOCS will really kill is the research university), by Jonathan Chait (College Professors are about to get really mad at President Obama) and Historiann (Historiann stumbles out of the wilderness to find the Lords of MOOC creation have successfully placed an advertorial in the Washington Post) are recent thoughts I’ve read on the topic. Jonathan Rees is one of the loudest critics of MOOCs on the grounds that they are bad for students and bad for college faculty. The fear is that, if colleges and universities award credit for MOOCs, and if large numbers of students use MOOCs instead of traditional classes to complete college degrees, the teaching faculty ranks will be drastically culled.

Tim Worstall has little sympathy for the plight of college faculty, but he points out that MOOCs could adversely affect research universities as declining tuition dollars would no longer be sufficient to subsidize faculty research. I’m not sure that he’s right about tuition subsidizing research at large research universities that receive large amounts of research grant dollars and indirect cost reimbursements. But I do agree that MOOCs may kill the research university, for an entirely different reason.

If MOOCs cause faculty numbers to diminish, I foresee massive disruption of graduate programs and the academic research enterprise, especially in the sciences. In the natural sciences, graduate students and post-doctoral fellows perform most of the research in academic labs. They constitute a highly educated, highly skilled, but low-paid labor force that makes academic research a great bargain for the nation’s research portfolio. A large fraction of science PhDs eventually become teaching faculty at one of the thousands of undergraduate colleges. Permanent positions for PhD scientists at research universities, government labs, research institutes, or industry are too few to accommodate more than a small fraction of the output of research university graduate programs. If college teaching jobs disappear, what will happen to these graduate students and postdocs?

I very much doubt that federal and industrial support for research will increase substantially. Many science PhDs already struggle to make a living as contingent faculty, or go from one temporary postdoctoral appointment to another (see this article in The Atlantic magazine about worsening career prospects for new PhDs). With no college-level teaching jobs, unemployment and underemployment for PhD-level scientists will rise to intolerable levels. How many students would then choose to undergo the rigors and privations of graduate school to earn a PhD?

If faculty ranks are the first casualty of a MOOCpocalypse, graduate programs will be inevitable follow-on casualties. A decline in our graduate programs will starve academic research labs and imperil the future of science in this country.

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About jchoigt

I'm an Associate Professor in the School of Biology at Georgia Tech, and Faculty Coordinator of the Professional MS Bioinformatics degree program.
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