Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad MOOC? (Me.)


In a previous post on this site I announced a plan for the creation of MOOA, or massive, open, online administrations that would supplant the thousands of separate administrations currently managing the affairs of America’s colleges. The MOOA idea was, of course, satire. However, I must report that two educational consultants contacted me to offer their services in bringing my MOOA to the market. Additionally, three separate reporters called to discuss the MOOA concept. When I explained that MOOA was a satire, one asked, “Are you sure?”

To my surprise, the MOOA post generated tens of thousands of page views on the Minding the Campus website, as well as thousands of reposts and so forth.  I personally received hundreds of laudatory emails from professors throughout the U.S.  Reading the emails, I realized that the stir caused by my modest proposal was a kind of professorial Schadenfreude. Academics were titillated by the idea that if the ship sank, the rats (vice provosts) would go down with it.

We are all aware that the ship is, indeed, taking on water and listing to port.  Counting both two and four-year schools, there are currently about 4500 degree-granting colleges and universities in the United States.  Many of these will not survive into the next decade.  They, along with their professors and deanlets, will be driven under by online education. Many of the professors will survive, teaching online courses for the remaining schools. Most of the vice provosts and deanlets will be seeking employment in the other industries, such as retail sales, mentioned in my previous post.  

At the present time, most of the proponents of MOOCs and conventional online education are college administrators, especially at community colleges, who believe that online instruction will allow them to shed faculty and contract with outside vendors, such as EdX, Udacity and Coursera to provide most of the courses currently taught on their campuses. This would be a small step for the many schools that already rely mainly on adjuncts to teach their students. 

Administrators are in for a rude awakening.  Traditionally, only a small number of schools competed for students on the national or regional basis that required them to offer–or at least claim-superior faculties, curricula and facilities.  Most schools, particularly the commuter colleges, enjoyed a geographic market niche in which competition was limited.  Online education will destroy these niches and subject their occupants to price competition, brand competition and competition based upon perceived quality. Many schools will fail when students, freed from the constraints of the local highway or transit system, will shop nationally for better programs and more prestigious degrees. 

To be sure, online education per se does not diminish the quality of a student’s education. Taught properly and limited to 10 or 15 students, online seminars can require a good deal of student engagement and interaction with one another and with the instructor. Some professors aver that they actually can become more familiar with a student’s work online, where students must participate in discussions, than in a conventional seminar where some students sit quietly.

The MOOC, however, changes the character of online instruction. In a MOOC, one professor can lecture to tens or even hundreds of thousands of students with whom he or she has no interaction at all.  To that end, college administrators tend to view MOOCs as cheap substitutes for rather than supplements to existing classes. They generally don’t want to pay to enrich their course offerings, as doing so would raise costs. They want to MOOCify their curricula and cut costs. Administrators envision a curriculum in which students watch canned lectures and take computer-graded exams. Such unfortunate students would receive a paltry and pathetic education.

What is to be done?  Faculty must make a stand against the abuse of MOOCs.  Let me suggest three possible tactics.  The first is shame and censure.  Professors who lend their names and reputations to MOOCs should not be allowed to simply ignore how their lectures are used.  Those willing to allow their lectures to replace real classes should be named, shamed and censured by their colleagues. The second is accreditation.  Professional associations can and should challenge the accreditation of schools whose curricula are essentially MOOCified.  The law generally permits “third party comment” on accreditation issues and I would suggest loud comment.  Finally, there is the matter of college credit. Credit should be refused for classes taken away from the campus that are adjudged to be all-MOOC and lacking in other elements of pedagogy. When students begin to wonder whether their MOOCified credits are transferrable, the foundations of MOOCery may crumble.

Some may see these suggestions as the effort if a frightened professor to protect his job in the buggy whip industry.  Let me anticipate this assertion by pointing out that I teach at an R1 private research university which views itself as a producer rather than a consumer of MOOCs. I have, moreover, reached the age when retirement will come before I can be MOOCified.  My own selfish concern is to make certain my grandchildren will be able to attend a college, not a MOOC. 


  • Benjamin Ginsberg

    Benjamin Ginsberg is the David Bernstein Professor of Political Science and Chair of the Hopkins Center for Advanced Governmental Studies in Washington, DC.

5 thoughts on “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad MOOC? (Me.)

  1. I am a prof that teaches at a small liberal arts college and also teaches some online (not MOOC) classes on the side for another university. Here is my take on all of this for whatever it is worth.
    1. Critics of universities have reason to be cynical. Too many profs indoctrinate rather than teach and the content is often lousy, and the rigor lacking. BUT, not all department at all universities. There are pockets of rigor and real teaching going on in places. Assigning of challenging reading, analysis based upon logic and evidence, and consideration of multiple perspective (not just the politically correct) still does occur, albeit in far too few classrooms.
    2. MOOCs are not the solution. I have invested effort in trying to make my online courses as rigorous as I can. Despite this, I have to cut the content by as much as 1/3 and dumb down that which is left. Why? because in person, even in a lecture of 100 students, I can feel when a groups does not get a concept, redirect the lecture, pose questions, break them into groups, etc. SO I can push a class harder, make them reading more difficult material because I can get instant feedback and correct uncertainty, confusion and misunderstanding. In asynchronous online education you just cannot do this, so instead you have to simplify the material. Yes I have them read, submit analysis of the reading and then have them do online discussions, but there is a mutli-day lag between exposure and my ability to observe what they have done with the material. And since everyone is n their own schedule, I can not correct one student’s issues and have that serve as example to others. There is a certain finger-tip feel (Fingerspitzehgefuhl according to Clausewitz), that is impossible to recreate in the ether.
    3. There is value in having lectures viewed prior to class, but this “flipping” the classroom can be done by any motivated professor with the need to make higher education a mass commodity.
    4. If you care about the possibility of intellectual diversity , MOOCs are terrible,. Yes intellectual diversity f nto fantastic now, but the inevitable outcome of MOOCification is an even greater oligopoly of knowledge, commodified and standardized. Gaining information is not the same and developing analytic and writing skills. MOOCs have no plausible way to accomplish those later tasks. If factory models of production are giving way to small-run and customer-specific manufacturing, why would be looking to turn education into a Fordist behemoth.
    5. MOOCs will likely exacerbate the stratification of education. The mass-education of the post WWII era diluted the value of a BA, and MOOCS will only magnify that. Credential creep will get a huge boost.
    I sympathize with those that see a broken professoriate, I observe it too often myself. But that does not mean MOOCs are the answer. I can tell you that even here at a very liberal small college, there are students who seek out good challenging classes. While things are dark in higher education, they are not hopeless. The current economic conditions will push students away form the most politicized majors, and as the 60’s generation retires the professoriate will get a little less radical. While they are only small tentative improvements I can say there are advances being made. At this point entrenched administrators who suckle off the PC programs are the main impediment. MOOA, while satirical, would be a better reform than MOOC.

  2. Textbooks and other materials allow the professor to have students read something about all the relevant topics while reserving class time for the most interesting or challenging ideas. A MOOC might function in a similar manner. An outstanding lecturer might address some of the major topics to be covered in a particular class while the professor leads the class in discussions of particularly challenging or intriguing questions. Unfortunately, the administrators who control most of America’s colleges envision a different use of MOOCs. They believe that MOOCs can take the place of professors. I refer readers to the recent exchange between the San Diego State Philosophy department and Michael Sandel.

  3. Ginsberg is “grabbing leather”, as rodeo bronc riders term it. He isn’t afraid for his own job, he’s just afraid that he can’t ride the change out till the buzzer sounds, so he is hanging on to his saddle.
    And that isn’t surprising because his cri de cul lacks any recognition of what the real problem is.
    It is simply that academic standards have sunk like a rock. The destruction of core curriculum and the accompanying grade inflation as students are treated to a faculty play pen of theses rather than knowledge based course work are so unmeasurable, that employers can’t evaluate what recent college grads can do for them.
    MOOCs offer a marvelous opportunity to first build an external accreditation and evaluation system that can normalize academic achievement for first the MOOC students, and then in the current campus bound university as it becomes a mix of classroom and MOOC course offerings.
    Don’t be surprised if the MOOC pressure for objective educational standards for achievement and graduation at various levels of certification is the salvation of many residential campuses.

  4. “Professors who lend their names and reputations to MOOCs should not be allowed to simply ignore how their lectures are used. Those willing to allow their lectures to replace real classes should be named, shamed and censured by their colleagues.”
    Professors write textbooks and monographs, which some college students and many adults use as substitutes for a college class on a subject. Many professors also put course materials such as lecture notes and homework assignments on web sites accessible to the general public. Some professors have produced videos for The Teaching Company. Does Professor Ginsberg think those professors should also be shamed? Or is it only the posting online of a lecture in a MOOC that deserves opprobrium?

  5. There’s not much to disagree with here. I think my university in Illinois is a sign of things to come. Here’s what’s happening:
    *We’ve been bleeding students. FTE dropped from 9,800 students in SP2007 to 8,100 in SP2013.
    *There have been several months in the past few years where the university wasn’t sure if it could meet payroll. This had never happened before.
    *Many local businesses are really hurting because of this constantly decreasing customer base.
    *Retiring faculty are often not being replaced.
    *All departments have been ordered to cut 20% from their operating budgets next year. Yes, 20%!
    *All faculty travel budgets have been eliminated for next year.
    *The state has cut funding in recent years, so the university has had to dip into reserve funds to meet expenses. Those reserve funds are now gone. If enrollment continues its decline, we face HUGE deficits in the next few years.
    *Until this year, the university has been able to avoid outright lay-offs. It now says lay-offs are unavoidable.
    *We’ve raised tuition and fees every single year. As a result, it is much more frequent for me to know students only as juniors and seniors – because more of them are going to community college the first two years to save a LOT of money.
    *25% of our students come from families making less than $30,000 per year, but one year at our college now costs $21,000 (tuition, room, board, fees). Oh, that doesn’t include books. AND we just raised costs another 4.5% for next year.
    *We’ve closed three major dorms in two years (housed more than 2000 students).
    *Many summer classes have been converted to online, so very few students stay for the summer anymore. Add another hit to the local economy.
    *I know of several younger professors who are looking for jobs elsewhere because they want to jump ship before it sinks.
    *I don’t know of a single faculty or staff member who isn’t scared about their job right now. To say the mood is grim is an understatement.

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