Sunday, December 22, 2013

Why Aren't Faculty Driving the Conversation About MOOCs?

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) continue to be all the rage.  Institutions of higher education are offering them in ever-greater numbers and an entire industry has sprouted up in the private sector seeking to deliver them.  They're often touted as innovative vehicles for expanding access to higher education and as a potential savior for cash-strapped universities.

However, as Susan Meisenhelder asks in this month's journal of Thought & Action, why isn't the professoriate driving the conversation about MOOCs?

Meisenhelder takes issue with both primary claims about MOOCs being a force for good.  First, she cites that, rather than expanding access to higher education for low-income people who might not otherwise be able to afford it, MOOCs are more likely to increase the digital divide.  Here are the telling statistics:  drop-out rates in the courses hover around 90 percent, and out of that tiny percentage who actually do obtain a "pass" for the course, 85 percent already had a BS or BA degree, and 80 percent said they had taken a comparable course in a regular university before enrolling.  Thus, she refutes the access claim because those who are most likely to benefit are already "technologically-savvy, academically well-prepared people" and that the data suggests MOOCs are "just the latest push toward a two-tiered higher education system based on social class".

Second, she questions MOOCs claim as a component of higher education at all.  Most consist of little more than "sage on the stage" lecture videos, offer no interaction with the professor, there is little to no required reading, tests are multiple choice, there are few, if any, writing assignments, and because of class sizes that can be in the tens of thousands, student assessments and grading is performed almost exclusively by other students while the search continues for "satisfactory" robo-grading programs.  She rightly states that "any faculty member teaching an in-person course with these characteristics could expect the harshest criticism".

I would like to chime in at this point to express my agreement, particularly with her "quality" argument.  Having enrolled in a few MOOCs myself, I will attest that they should in no way, shape, or form be thought of as a replacement for traditional university classes.  If nothing else, how can someone claim to be receiving an "education" when they often have no ability to ask questions?  However, I'll also stake out a middle-ground position and simultaneously argue that, while MOOCs surely are no replacement for traditional classes, they definitely should be considered "another tool in the box".  Certain types of courses - particularly, on technological subjects that are more instructive and less conversationally-driven, by nature - can indeed be valuable.  They just shouldn't be worth any college credits.

Which brings me to the "access argument".  The jury is still out on the extent to which MOOCs can realistically serve low-income populations, but one thing that's not in dispute is that higher education is inaccessible to too many Americans, mainly due to cost.  In that context, is it so bad to have "Intro to Programming" classes free and open to everyone - including those with maybe only a passing curiosity on the subject?  I think not.  In fact, higher education may actually benefit in the long run from people being able to freely sample different academic fields and indulge their curiosities.  Again, so long as they're not perceived as a replacement for the genuine article, the more free educational content, the better.

In the end, Meisenhelder considers how the professoriate can contribute more towards the MOOC conversation.  She recommends 1) pushing for those private institutions offering MOOCs for credit to inform students about the data on success in MOOCs - empowering students to make their own informed choices; 2) conduct further independent research on MOOCs so as not to rely on the "research agenda" driven by universities sponsoring them and corporate providers; 3) follow the money being made by corporations and "the cottage industry of consultants driving the MOOC train"; and 4) reaching out more effectively on these issues to students who "will answer these questions themselves if we ask the right ones".  I'd like to also suggest that faculty members actually enroll in a MOOC to experience the positives and negatives first-hand, and let that experience, rather than emotions or preconceptions, inform their opinions.

The original promise of MOOCs was expanded access to quality education.  It remains so.  Teaching faculty, in becoming more proactive in the debate, have an opportunity to directly improve upon that promise.


  

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