Economic surplus

As the MOOC counter-revolution starts, how will Australian universities respond?

Sydney University quadrangle. Source: wikimedia.

Professors of philosophy at San Jose State University have refused to teach using a MOOC (i.e. a ‘massive open on-line course’) and have written an ‘open letter’ (via the subscriber only Chronicle of Higher Education) rejecting the use of MOOCs.

Nominally the letter is written to the Harvard University professor who has designed the MOOC.

In fact, the letter is one of the first shots in the MOOC counter-revolution.

The counter-revolution had to come. And it had to come from university academics because the development of on-line courses has serious implications for these academics.

The authors of the letter note, the potential of MOOCs to create a world of higher education ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’. The authors fear two classes of university:

“[O]ne well funded colleges and universities in which privileged students get their own real professor; the other, financially stressed private and public universities in which students watch a bunch of videotaped lectures and interact, if indeed any interaction is available on their home campuses, with a professor that this model of education has turned into a glorified teaching assistant”.

This anti-MOOC protest highlights a simple point. On-line materials, like MOOCs, can be a complement or a substitute for the on-campus experience. As a complement they can improve student learning. As a substitute they can save money. The question for Australian academics is simple. Which way will our universities go?

MOOCs are simply an early stage of on-line education. Poor quality MOOCs involve videoed ‘chalk and talk’. Higher quality MOOCs are based around short videos that use a variety of approaches to communicate with students. One example, by Kevin Werbach from the University of Pennsylvania is discussed here.

But as Professor Werbach notes:

“The biggest thing I learned is that MOOC students want to feel like they are interacting with a real person”.

This is a problem for MOOCs. How do you have a ‘massive’ course but maintain interaction between the teacher and the students and, more importantly, between the students themselves? While MOOCs can deliver excellent on-line material that can replace lectures, they cannot easily create the environment where students can interact and learn from each other.

One potential future for MOOCs and other on-line material is as an input to an inverted classroom. Courses will be redesigned so that students do the preparatory work (on-line) before class, are tested (on-line) before class then come onto campus for interactive learning such as moderated question-and-answer session and facilitated problem solving and debates. If used in this way, on-line materials will revolutionise university education and improve student learning.

Is this possible? Yes! I am beginning the process of ‘inverting’ my large first year microeconomics course and I am not the first by a long way.

However, on-line materials may also be used as a substitute for on-campus learning. Rather than enhancing the classroom, on-line materials may be used to replace lectures, reduce student contact hours and push the professors out.

This risk is real. Universities are businesses, whether we like it or not. University administrators have budgets to meet and the demands on scarce university funding always exceeds the size of that funding. Administrators may see an opportunity to reduce the funding for teaching (along with academic headcount) by using on-line material as a replacement for student face time.

This risk is greater in an ‘undifferentiated’ university sector like Australia.

In the United States, some universities compete on teaching excellence. It is not surprising that the elite liberal arts Amherst College decided not to follow the MOOC route. Its reputation depends on its teaching. In the competitive US higher education market, Amherst competes by the quality of its teaching and its on-campus experience. When you depend on quality teaching for your student income, on-line materials will be a complement, not a substitute for on-campus interaction.

So in the US, liberal arts colleges will have an incentive to use on-line material to improve teaching. And, hopefully, they will drag other universities in their wake.

In contrast, Australian universities generally do not compete on teaching quality. Student demand depends on history and research reputation. When student demand is, at best, loosely connected to teaching quality, the incentives to use on-line materials as a substitute to save money will be tempting for university administrators.

So Australian tertiary education is fast approaching a tipping point. Will on-line material be used to complement and improve the on-campus experience? Or will it be used as a money-saving substitute that downgrades student learning and reduces academic employment?