How to stave off the MOOCpocalypse

College faculty are not yet an endangered species, but they are pressured as never before. Full-time tenure track faculty comprise a shrinking portion of faculty at all degree-granting institutions, and the majority of faculty have part-time, adjunct or contingent faculty appointments with low salaries and no benefits (AAUP 2009 report). In the face of declining state higher education budgets, increasing demand for college education, and increasing tuition, we faculty are asked to increase our productivity, or else.

For some legislators and university administrators, the “or else” is the use of MOOCs for college credit, and the possibility of degrees based at least partly on MOOCs. The premise of MOOCs is that students can experience classes taught by “star” professors at elite universities. Class lectures can be videotaped with high production values, and delivered on-line to tens of thousands, or even millions, of students at very little additional cost per student.

IF such on-line video lectures, supplemented with computer-graded or peer-graded homeworks can substantially approach the educational experience delivered at brick-and-mortar colleges and universities, then most college and university faculty will be marginalized. Colleges and universities could vastly expand their student enrollments, reduce tuition, and shrink faculty by designing their curricula around MOOCs.

Initial results from early trials at San Jose State suggest that MOOCs may be a poor fit for less prepared, more needy students, because of the rigid, one-size-fits-all design and delivery of content by MOOCs. Most people who complete MOOCs are self-motivated, self-directed learners; most already have degrees.

Where did these self-motivated, self-directed people get their degrees? From elite colleges and flagship state universities. Indeed, the students who would seem to be able to benefit the most from MOOC instruction are the students who populate the elite colleges and universities.

MOOCs are a creation of research university faculty, and reflect one common view of teaching at research universities. For many faculty (and students), their vision of great teaching is the great lecture. The larger the audience, the better. Why waste your time and effort to prepare and deliver a great lecture to only 20 students each semester, if you can record it and deliver it to tens of thousands of students at once, over and over again with little additional effort?

But this vision is highly flawed and ultimately self-destructive. Lectures, whether live or on-line, are a passive mode of learning, and one of the least effective pedagogies, ranking below reading (see Twenty Terrible Reasons for Lecturing). Lectures do not teach essential skills such as analysis and problem-solving, or teamwork and collaboration, or professional communication. Making MOOCs the centerpiece of the curriculum also marginalizes the faculty and threatens the university’s business model. Why should students pay high tuition for an education that others can get for free, except for the privilege of getting exams proctored, and perhaps having questions answered and graded by teaching assistants?

However, criticizing the MOOC model will not be enough to stave off a pending MOOCpocalypse, or reverse the decline of full-time tenure-track faculty ranks. Faculty at research universities must clearly articulate, and visibly demonstrate, their added value in the classrooms and lecture halls. If your idea of teaching is a 50-minute lecture, how is that any better than a MOOC?

So I urge my colleagues at research universities to re-imagine what goes on in their classrooms. Use the inherent advantages of live classrooms over on-line experiences: face-to-face interactions among students, collaborative learning, building relations student-to-student, student-to-faculty. Use MOOCs to “flip” your class, so students watch video lectures to get structured content outside of class, and interact with each other and with instructors in class. Use problem-solving and formative assessments to diagnose and correct misconceptions and learning difficulties while your students are still in class. Because, as As Cathy Davidson says, “if you can be placed by a computer screen, you should!”



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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