Presidents / chancellors

Essay says faculty involved in MOOCs may be making rope for professional hangings

The rush toward the creation of massive open online courses (MOOCs) is catching on in higher education like wildfire. All it takes, it seems, is to wave a bit of money around, talk up the brave new world of technological innovation, bash the “failed” world of higher education as we know it, and the privatization troops have administrators in a fit of unexamined, swooning technophilia. These “courses,” however, in addition to offering false promises, also undermine shared governance, run roughshod over established curriculum development procedures and move colleges toward the era of “teacherless classrooms,” which destroy the academic integrity of our institutions and demean the value of the education our students receive. 

MOOCs are designed to impose, not improved learning, but a new business model on higher education, which opens the door for wide-scale profiteering. Public institutions of higher education then become shells for private interests who will offer small grants on the front end and reap larger profits on the back end.

At present, MOOCs are being proposed as solutions to enrollment shortages, among other things, in open-access institutions such as community colleges. The MOOC crowd promises cost savings, efficiency, improved access and the answer to our “completion” woes. The concern as voiced by Arne Duncan himself is that in our quest to increase completion, maintain quality and save money: “The last thing we want to do is hand out paper that doesn’t mean anything.” Wethinks he doth protest too much. 

And that’s the big lie behind this allegedly noble quest to provide much broader access to higher education and improve student learning. There is not a bit of proof that MOOCs will do so in any meaningful way. The notion is to turn community colleges into Petri dishes for MOOC experiments, principled objections be damned. There are costs to cut in the public sector and dollars to be made in the private sector.

The much-hyped arrival of MOOCs has been made possible by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and a host of the usual corporate education reform suspects, who have long been involved in a full-court press propaganda campaign for their venture/vulture philanthropy.

Some of these interests are trying to figure out schemes for monetizing MOOCs in such a way that the small percentages of students passing MOOCs in cyberspace would pay institutions for certificates of competency awarded for completion of prescribed course regimens. Indeed, colleges and universities conceivably might even cash in further by recommending the most successful students to corporate interests … for fees.   

Critics, meanwhile, are easily dismissed as part of the corrupt old world of failed higher education, troglodytes as afraid of this bold new magic as cavemen were of fire. And to the consternation of the self-proclaimed “change agents,” those reactionary faculty shielded by union contracts and powerful academic senates stubbornly resist the next new wave. Never are the implications of the MOOC offerings — typically announced with fanfare — outlined with respect to faculty and classified staff workloads (e.g., registering students and setting up and maintaining the technology infrastructure for individual course sections which, in some cases, have enrollments in excess of hundreds or even tens of thousands of students). Students will grade each other, or course work will be evaluated through word recognition computer software programs. Faculty, the promoters tirelessly stress, just must stop lecturing, instead becoming “facilitators” for student engagement in experiential education. And what of the student support services? Or, perhaps, in this idyllic (or should that be dystopic?) educational space, those needing support are just left out in the cold, after corporate partners first have made their millions though software sales.

In the San Diego Community College District we have dared to step in front of the vaunted train of progress that many of us see as nothing more than a repackaged Taylorism for academia. The San Diego City College Academic Senate recently passed a resolution decrying the move toward MOOCs. The resolution followed on the heels of a faculty presentation at the San Diego Community College (SDCCD) Board of Trustees meeting in response to administrative attempts to circumvent the departmental and collegewide shared governance process so as to rush through grant applications for MOOCs at both City and its sister college, San Diego Mesa College, before any campuswide discussion had occurred. This resulted in Chancellor Constance Carroll declaring a one-year moratorium on MOOCs in the SDCCD while a task force investigates the appropriateness of this new form of instruction for our district.

In our view, the central philosophical flaw in the MOOC paradigm is that proponents believe that there is nothing to be lost in turning professors into glorified tutors, parts of a larger information delivery system. What this misses is the key fact that the heart of what we do as college educators has to do with the immeasurable human interaction that we have with our students and the vital social experience of the face-to-face classrooms. This is something that simply can never be reproduced by a new technology, no matter how advanced. 

Demoting professors to the level of information delivery systems may be gratifying to our detractors and financially attractive to bean-counters but it won’t improve education in the process of “transforming it”; it will degrade it. But to the academic Taylorists, who don’t believe in anything that can’t be quantitatively measured, this kind of thinking is destined for the dustbin of history. 

No doubt the brave new world of MOOCs will give lots of people who can’t go to Harvard access to “Harvard,” but it won’t be same. Indeed, the future of higher education will be less egalitarian and far more two-tiered with the sons and daughters of the elite still receiving real top-quality educations while other folks will get something different, quick, cheap and easy. 

But this tale of two futures is perfectly in line with the thinking of the plutocrats who brought us the “productivity revolution” in the business world. There they got a smaller number of American workers to labor longer hours for the same money and fewer benefits while increasing productivity and bringing record profits for those at the top. In the realm of higher education, they can blame the colleges for the fact that fewer graduates are prepared for employment in the austere marketplace that they fostered while milking our schools for profit and transforming them to their purposes at the same time. It’s nice work if you can get it.

In the meantime, our job as professors, according to the dictates of the emboldened technocrats, is to become rope-makers for our own professional hangings. The debate here is not really one about technology and higher education, as most of us know that online education is now a permanent part of the educational landscape with legitimate uses. No, what this MOOC debate is about is whether we blithely open the door to the gutting of what is most precious about what we do. 

If the unthinking technophilia and new Taylorism which MOOCs represent ends up killing face-to-face education as we know it, it won’t be because the technology offers a superior form of education. It will be because our visionless political and educational leaders have almost entirely abandoned educational values for market values. As many scholars have noted, in the era of neoliberalism we have just about given up on the notion of education as a public good rather than a mere commodity. Let’s hope we don’t allow this near-total triumph of market values to destroy one of the last public spaces in our society not completely determined by greed and instrumentalism. As opposed to the creed of the forces of privatization, we believe that there are still things whose value cannot be determined by the market and that education in a democratic society should be much more than an instrument of our economic system.

Six community college faculty members
Author's email:

Jennifer Cost is chair of English department at Mesa College.

Jim Miller is professor of English at San Diego City College.

Jonathan McLeod is professor of history at San Diego Mesa College.

Marie St. George is professor of psychology at San Diego City College.

Peter Haro is president of San Diego City College Academic Senate.

Jim Mahler is president of the American Federation of Teachers for the San Diego and Grossmont–Cuyamaca Community College Districts.


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“We don’t do nimble.” 
--A college administrator on change in higher education

In “Lincoln at the Movies,” Louis P. Masur argues that Spielberg’s film about Lincoln reiterates “a faith in slow, deliberate, incremental transformation, in proceeding on an issue only when time is right, and then pouncing.”  Masur’s excellent analysis of Lincoln’s thoughtful but tactical approach to change has relevance not just for today’s political leaders, as Masur argues, but perhaps more urgently for today’s campus leaders, for whom the imperative to change has never been more urgent, or widely shared. 

Consider the results of a recent national poll where 83 percent said American higher education "needs to change to remain competitive," or Vartan Gregorian’s call for a president’s commission on higher education. There is widespread recognition of the unprecedented and inexorable drivers of change -- demographic, social, technological, and economic. Few people on or off a campus would defend the status quo in American higher education today, as it does not appear to be serving anyone very well.   

Since 2005, I have served as a dean and provost at two regional campuses in the University of Wisconsin System, a time of extraordinary change, disruption, even upheaval, where political leadership has been a significant driver of change, not just in how we fund public colleges and universities but in how we deliver college degrees.  These have been tumultuous years for higher education in the state of Wisconsin, with 2011 our annus horribilis, beginning with UW Madison’s move for independence and ending with the UW system intact but redesigned to allow more independence for, and increased competition among, campuses within the system.

Through these difficult years, I have not heard anyone seriously defend the status quo.  For the most part, there has been consensus that institutions need to adapt to the brutal new realities.  For the most part the debates have been not about whether to change but about how to change and at what pace.

“I have been described as an incrementalist.  It is true,” University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan said last June in response to concerns of the Board of Visitors that she wasn’t moving the campus to change fast enough. “Sweeping action may be gratifying and may create the aura of strong leadership, but its unintended consequences may lead to costs that are too high to bear.”  Many people have said many things about the state of American higher education in 2012, but none resonated more for me than those of President Sullivan. Her firing and reinstatement may be read as a cautionary tale for ready/fire/aim-style leaders who believe that urgency justifies acting first and thinking later. 

What are the unintended consequences of acting first and thinking later that may “lead to costs that are too high to bear”? 

For one, the sacrifice of the core values of our profession -- the academic freedom to pursue knowledge wherever it may lead and the value of shared decision-making.  Too often quick, sweeping action -- what is sometimes, benignly, called “nimbleness” -- leads us to compromise our core value of shared governance.   

I have been told that over ten years ago, as they faced the reality of what the Internet meant to the future of the news industry, the leaders of one of our national newspapers sat down and, after some discussion, identified their core value as providing objective, accurate information and analysis to citizens of a participatory democracy.  As long as the core remained unchanged, everything else was on the table.  We need to have the same conversation in higher education (a presidential commission should begin here) and on each campus:  What are our core values?  How do we adapt to the current realities without compromising those values?  I contend that thoughtful, deliberate, inclusive decision-making remains a core value. 

We hear from politicians and the public the lament, why can’t universities be more nimble, like businesses?  We must be careful in looking to business for inspiration and guidance, as theirs is an industry built on a different set of values, values that are good for business but not for educating citizens of a democracy.  We must be mindful of the alienating effect of bottom-line thinking on our faculty, staff and students. 

A faculty colleague at a university in the UK, someone who has inspired me with the example of her outstanding accomplishments as a teacher and scholar, recently admitted that, after a brilliant, 30-year career, she was feeling “miserable” about the state of higher education.  A fellow administrator on a campus in the U.S. broke down in tears over her frustration at working for “five provosts in three years.”  On too many campuses faculty and staff feel bone-deep fatigue or calloused cynicism brought on by a spaghetti-against-the wall approach to change that sends people scrambling in different directions, expending diminishing energy on counterproductive strategies without effective coordination or communication. 

It is true that we are faced with an existential choice: adapt or die. But if in adapting we lose who we are, we have not survived. I encourage campus leaders to put down their Harvard Business Review and go see Spielberg’s "Lincoln," whose example of leadership in the midst of great social turmoil has more relevance to the context of American higher education which was itself founded on “a faith in slow, deliberate, incremental transformation.”  

Terry Brown is interim senior special assistant for academic and student affairs in the University of Wisconsin System, and a former dean and provost at two campuses in the system.

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Date Announced: 
Fri, 11/09/2012


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