San Jose State University in California is teaming up with Udacity, the for-profit pioneer of massive open online courses (MOOCs), to start a pilot program that will create three introductory mathematics courses online that can be taken for credit from San Jose State if the enrollee chooses. The courses sound like a godsend to high-school and community-college students, plus anyone else who would like to learn some college-level math in a course bearing the imprimatur of a well-respected state university. The courses will be free for non-credit enrollees, and students who take them for credit will pay only $150 per course, a bargain compared with the $450 to $750 that they would pay for a brick-and-mortar credit-bearing course.
There is one group, however, that isn’t very happy about the California State University system’s experiment with MOOCs in order to cut education costs: the professors and instructors who teach at brick-and-mortar colleges and universities. A January 15 report in the Chronicle of Higher Education on the San Jose-Udacity joint venture drew dozens of comments. Nearly all the comments were negative, and many of them displayed the panic that the mere mention of MOOCs instills in the minds of faculty members who sense–and rightly so–that their jobs may be rendered obsolete by cheap, standardized educational offerings that can teach students more efficiently and effectively than the grad students, adjuncts, and tyro professors who typically teach introductory courses. One commenter accused the MOOC system of seeking to “devalue the labor of university instructors.” Another contended that Udacity, founded in 2012 by Stanford computer-science professor Sebastian Thrun, will be essentially ripping off San Jose State by keeping 49 percent of any revenues the project generates after costs are covered. Still other commenters complained that the project would exploit “cheap student labor” (in the form of mentors for the for-credit enrollees) and pay San Jose State professors only $15,000 apiece to develop the pilot courses.
The main beef, though, was that Udacity is a for-profit venture–and professors seem to be categorically opposed the idea of profits. “It almost treats students like they’re industrial products,” a professor interviewed by the Chronicle complained.
One hopes that cooler heads will eventually prevail. Introductory math isn’t rocket science (and the professors developing the courses will retain their intellectual-property rights in them). Such courses currently have a reputation for being poorly taught–or taught in huge classes where the professors have little contact with individual students in the first place. The after-cost revenues that Udacity–and San Jose State–will generate are likely to be modest, since so far most MOOC courses, including Udacity’s are taken for free by non-credit students. And it is students who stand to benefit most, in terms of better-taught basic courses that cost them less. It is then perhaps not surprising that it was California’s Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown, concerned about mounting student debt, who first contacted Thrun and set the Udacity-San Jose State project in motion. Higher education is supposed to serve students, not professors, after all.