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MOOCs and the Professoriate

May 23, 2012

Last week, New York Times columnist Tom Friedman wrote with evangelical zeal about the arrival of Massive Online Open Courses, the free courses from top institutions available to students anywhere in the world. Not only would MOOCs be a huge industry in five years, he said, but financially strapped community colleges could use the online lectures while their own professors could work “face-to-face” with students. Friedman has been wrong before with this kind of technology related over-earnestness: In 1999, he wrote about how easy it would be for mom-and-pop online stores to compete with Amazon.com. But even so, Friedman remains a global trend-spotter.

Also noticing and reacting to Friedman’s column last week were a bunch of faculty members who took to the blogs, complaining about his column, but worrying about their own future. A post by Mark Brown, an associate professor of government at California State University, Sacramento, criticized the notion that MOOCs could be a solution to the scarcity of public funding in higher education.

Another blog post, entitled, “Professors of the world unite. You have more to lose than just your jobs,” by Jonathan Rees, a professor of history at Colorado State University, Pueblo, said: “…the kind of technologically-induced educational and financial disaster that would make Tom Friedman cackle with glee is a lot more likely if you decide to stand silently and let other people make your university’s decisions for you without your voice being heard.”

At the campuses that have announced their participation in a MOOC, administrators have pointed to top faculty members who are on board to teach and who were consulted about the project. And officials say that they believe MOOCs, though currently not offered for credit, can provide valuable lessons about teaching and learning.

So with all this rumbling, what do the three national unions that represent faculty members think about the MOOC movement and the faculty role? So far, they are dubious at best, and say that they are studying the issues involved.

Cary Nelson, the outgoing president of the American Association of University Professors, said that online models such as Coursera – an online entity offering free courses from Stanford University, Princeton University, University of Michigan and the University of Pennsylvania – can be terrific for delivering educational materials to retirement homes, “where folks are unlikely to assume any social responsibilities for the ‘knowledge’ they have acquired.”

“But it's not education, and it's not even a reliable means for credentialing people,” Nelson said. Education calls for real interaction with faculty members and a consensus through which faculty members can design, manage and evaluate degree programs, he said. “It’s fine to put lectures online, but this plan only degrades degree programs if it plans to substitute for them.”

Martin Snyder, senior associate general secretary at the AAUP, said the organization has principles in place asserting that faculty must have control over the constitution of the curriculum and the delivery, structure and assessment of a course. “If this kind of a system takes off, you might have a situation where the very wealthy students go to a campus to interact with real professors, while the rest of the world takes online courses… what appears to be a democratization process might be more aristocratic than democratic.”

Faculty groups should be concerned with curriculum control, said Mark Smith, senior policy analyst at the National Education Association. “I think it is important to look at quality; this mode of education might be more effective for more advanced students and less so for introductory students,” he said. “Of course, we need a larger public discussion on the importance of public higher education.”  Smith said students who venture into higher education through these online courses may be lost to the educational system forever if they try the courses and are unsuccessful.

Unions should strengthen contracts when it comes to curricular control and intellectual property, Smith said in an article called “Negotiating Virtual Space,” which he co-authored in 2011 for the NEA Almanac. “More important, faculty members must offer an alternative, compelling framing of work, education and quality,” the paper said.

Sandra Schroeder, chair of the American Federation of Teachers Higher Education Program and Policy Council and president of AFT Washington,  said that many questions remain about “about how, when and for whom these course options are valuable, particularly about the extent to which these programs can address the needs of students who require the most help.” AFT surveys show that students desire more structure and stability in their coursework, Schroeder said. “These students are not likely to succeed without the structure of a strong and sequenced academic program,” she said.

Schroeder suggested that instead of focusing on the “latest magic bullet,” educators need to address declining investments at the state level and on instruction at individual institutions. “If it proves that MOOCs are valuable for all students, faculty will certainly consider them,” she said.

One role that faculty groups can play is to ensure that MOOCs aren’t touted as a cost-cutting device for traditional universities, said Brown, the professor at CSU Sacramento. A dangerous scenario that Brown envisions: Super professors at elite universities replacing lectures by faculty members at other universities. “That would represent a de-skilling of the faculty. It would harm faculty morale and engagement, and it would reduce the dynamism and intellectual excitement of the classroom experience for students. It would also give administrators an excuse to increase teaching loads and reduce faculty pay,” he said. And if this happened, the faculty member would be nothing but a teaching assistant for the online professor, Brown said.

Margaret Soltan, an associate professor of English at George Washington University who was the first at the university to offer a MOOC, said that organizations such as the AAUP might not have any role in the conversation at the moment. “Things are too new – a few universities are only in the last year or two beginning to look into how to incorporate this activity into their professors’ lives,” said Soltan, who is also a blogger for Inside Higher Ed.

As for those professors worrying over MOOCs threatening their livelihoods, she has one word for them: relax. “Online is clearly inferior, even if done very well, [compared to] face-to-face education and to the social rites of growing up which college represents for many, many people,” she said.

 

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