My Favorite MOOC Skeptic

Readers of the Degree of Freedom newsletter may have stumbled on an Easter Egg I included in one of the links section a week or so ago which pointed to a hilarious article by Johns Hopkins professor Benjamin Ginsberg who – responding to the notion that college administrators might start replacing living, breathing professors with MOOC recordings – made a modest proposal that they too should be replaced by Massive Online Open Administrations (MOOA).

Under this MOOA scheme, the thousands of Vice Presidents, Deans, Provosts and other non-teaching titled staff that currently suck up vast resources in terms of salaries (and the costly projects and schemes used to justify those salaries) can be consolidated into a single group of online experts, each of which could be responsible for dozens or even hundreds of campuses.

After all (at least according to Ginsberg), most of these administrators all do the same thing: long-term planning (much of it is inspired by looking at and replicating what other colleges are doing), marketing and branding (most of which involves managing contracts with outside consultants to come up with obvious recommendations), or other administrivia that could be outsourced much more painlessly than could jobs that require interaction with students.

After publishing his MOOA piece, Ginsberg’s was surprised that some people (including a few of those aforementioned educational consultants) took his Swiftian satire seriously, inquiring what they might be able to do to help his project along.  But mostly, he was startled by the sheer number of readers and responses his mock recommendations received, indicating to him a “sauce for the gander” delight among academics who feel threatened by the latest MOOC craze.

As he put it: “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.”

That quote came from this follow-on story which is a bit more serious regarding what he thinks should be done to contain the MOOC threat.

In this new piece, Ginsberg (whose criticism of the current way campuses are structured can be found in his book The Fall of the Faculty) points out that the majority of America’s 4500 institutions of higher ed are selected by students based on convenience (i.e., students choose to go to the closest school they can get into) and that these campuses will face enormous pressure once online options remove geography as a consideration for where to go to school.

But while he does not seem as troubled by online education per se (as long as it’s done well and is used to preserve reasonable class sizes that can foster intimacy and connection between participants), he has little patience for massive classes which administrators might love as a way of cutting costs (while boasting of bringing Ivy-League quality to their campuses), even as they deliver to students what he describes as a “paltry and pathetic education.”

Ginsberg has a more serious set of proposals for the academy as a way of heading off what he sees as a hideous MOOC-led threat, including:

(1)    Naming and shaming professors who participate in MOOC-related projects, turning their participating from a point of pride into a  source of scorn among colleagues and peers

(2)    Refusing to allow MOOCs to become accredited by intervening in the accreditation process whenever public comment is allowed

(3)     Not allowing MOOCs for credit under any circumstances

Harsh medicine indeed.

And as much as I enjoy Ginsberg’s verve inspired by what he perceives as threats to academic quality (and intimacy) from cost-fixated administration-MBAbots looking to exploit the MOOC craze, his latest jeremiad reminded me of one of those “Space Westerns” sci-fi cartoons that assume cowboys will still be around in 500 years except that their horses will be rocket powered and their six shooters will fire laser beams.

For like the future of anti-gravity and ray-guns, the future of technology-based education has yet to be defined.  Previous iterations of the computer-learning vision (from the teaching machine to AllLearn) have crashed and burned, and it’s not entirely clear that MOOCs (currently a charitable exercise in search of a business model) will survive in the long term.

And even if they do, it may turn out that the market for complete MOOC packages are adult learners who have already gotten a formal degree program out of their system or Unschoolers who have happily chosen to opt out of residential college entirely.

In contrast, traditional teachers teaching traditional students might look at MOOCs as just one more resource to pull apart and pick the best pieces from in order to populate live or online presentations that already integrate external resources (including YouTube videos of some of the same lectures included in existing MOOCs) into formal (smaller) classes.

In other words, rather than be replaced by a MOOC, a skilled instructor may be able to create valuable learning experiences by drawing from them (and other content sources) to create hybrid learning experiences that maintain the intimacy Ginsberg is calling to be preserved.

Now the future I just described is no more certain than one in which the professorate is eviscerated by Deans thrilled at the notion of managing a campus without a faculty.  But my point is that before we begin defending ourselves against an educational dystopia in the making, let’s make sure we’re not pointing our guns at a target we might regret not having at our disposal once we’ve blown it off the map.

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One Response to My Favorite MOOC Skeptic

  1. Back2basic July 4, 2013 at 12:10 am #

    Dear Dr. Jonathan:

    Thank you for all of your blogs. I really enjoy reading them with joy. According to Dr. Benjamin Ginsberg of Johns Hopkins university, MOOC and MOOA are like “love me, love me not”. It is a very interesting concept for the doers to feel their end needs. Commanders and soldiers cannot separate because without one, others die sooner or later.

    Overall, the absolute truth behind MOOC’s intention belongs to only doers and thinkers who will and can turn things around the way that their intention is, not for the consumers’ expectation (students and public). However, my mother’s advice to her children is that “watch out for the backfire” for “good deed return good deeds, and evils follow evils”. The superficial care and share without experience and knowledge will get burned and abused by bad people’s intention.

    I must admit that greed and ego are the major force to propel human race that leads to self-destroy their own civilization when technology conquer humanity. I have a lot of respect for good conscience in you. Best regards. May King.

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