Sections

Services

Information

UK United Kingdom

Dear Harvard Arts & Science professors, it is not MOOCs you have to fear

macchiavelli http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Niccol%C3%B2_Machiavelli

Not a day goes by now without a story about on the one hand foretelling great change in higher education brought about by revolutionary changes in open online education, and on the other, loud wails of the doom that awaits us if we take that particular path. The escalating range of attacks on both MOOCs and their facilitators has been quite wide reaching. This week it was the turn of Sir John Daniel, former Vice-Chancellor of the Open University who slammed MOOC provider Coursera for not making its materials available under creative commons licensing. Amongst all of the things you could criticise Coursera for, this is probably the silliest since it is not Coursera that determines the licensing arrangements of the content in its courses but the universities and academics providing those courses. Holding Coursera to account for this would be the same as asking why Open University itself doesn’t release all of its content under Creative Commons or provide all of its qualifications for free.

But it hasn’t stopped there. 58 Faculty of Arts and Science staff at Harvard University recently wrote to their Dean about HarvardX and edX stating that they were “deeply concerned about the program’s costs and consequences”. They didn’t believe that there had been enough discussion about the “ethical and educational principles” around Harvard’s involvement with MOOCs.

In another letter, this time from Philosophy professors from San Jose State University addressed to Harvard Professor Michael Sandel, they complained that their University had requested that they integrate Sandel’s course, JusticeX, into the curriculum. In this case, the fear was made tangible as they saw this as a move to “replace professors, dismantle departments, and provide a diminished education for students in public universities". Again however, it was not Sandel that had initiated the move, nor did he necessarily advocate its use in this way.

And then there is the oblique attack on MOOCs and the disruptive change they threaten in which the sanctity of the university campus is extolled and of course the idea that the true secret of a successful university education lies somewhere in the sandstone. My university unfortunately had neither online education nor sandstone and I remember it more for its location on the Kings Road in London than for any attributes that its shabby classrooms and lecture theatres brought to my educational development. This was obviously a sentiment shared by the government of the day who cut funding, making it unviable and resulting in its merger with Kings College.

In answer to the concerned Harvard professors, their Dean politely declined the suggestion of a new committee and replied that he would continue to support those faculty members “who have chosen to undertake these innovative efforts”. The argument of the complaining professors was probably weakened by their appeal to costs given that cost is usually only a concern expressed by academics when it is used by the University against them to justify economies.

It is understandable that there will be resistance to change, especially if that change requires people to change their work habits or re-evaluate their ideas of their role in an organisation. Unfortunately for them however, change is rarely optional, especially when it is being driven by reduced funding, spiralling costs to the student or simply because there are better ways to deliver a tertiary level education.

The fact that MOOCs have acted as a catalyst, threatening change to the tertiary education market is not necessarily because it will be MOOCs themselves that actually brings about dramatic change. The excitement about MOOCs is simply a reflection of the fact that we are at a tipping point of unsustainability in the current world order. MOOCs will be one of a range of events that will bring about change to an industry that has so far resisted the transformations happening to all other industries around it. This is outlined well by Sir Michael Barber in a report called “An Avalance is Coming” which describes the multiple threats to universities’ current monopoly on awarding degrees. The authors of the report detail a future in which there are different types of universities that offer a distinctive value through being elite, niche, hyperlocal or global. In all of this however, content is the least important part of the proposition.

Not facing up to these challenges risks the fate of men outlined by Niccolo Machiavelli in The Prince:

“A man who is used to acting in one way never changes; he must come to ruin when the times, in changing, no longer are in harmony with his ways.”

Join the conversation

14 Comments sorted by

  1. Gavin Moodie
    Gavin Moodie is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Adjunct professor at RMIT University

    It would be good to offer some evidence for some of these more dramatic assertions. For example, what are the transformations 'happening to all other industries around' higher education? Sure, we all know about changes to recorded entertainment and newspapers, but are these 'all other industries'? How is health changing radically?

    Even more extraordinary is the assertion 'of the fact that we are at a tipping point of unsustainability in the current world order'. So the power of the US, UN, China, India, etc, are unsustainable and are about to be overthrown?

    report
    1. Ryan Tracey

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Gavin Moodie

      I'm no expert on the health sector, but how about the emergence of self-diagnosis using the Internet? Or the introduction of robotic surgery?

      report
  2. Deirdre Whitford

    Un-Worker

    Yes, David, I'm with you and this glance at the MOOCs debate.
    I imagination there was also blowback when Gutenberg made higher learning more available to more people way back then.
    If knowledge is powerful, then surely its increasingly wider dissemination amongst the citizenry is a vital democratic project indeed.

    report
    1. Gavin Moodie
      Gavin Moodie is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Adjunct professor at RMIT University

      In reply to Deirdre Whitford

      Interestingly, there is little evidence of resistance to printing when it was initially introduced by Gutenberg. Recall that Gutenberg's first major production was the bible and printing was widely and enthusiastically praised as a means of extending the church's influence and then, it was thought, godliness. However some champions of the catholic church started having misgivings when the press was used so effectively to promulgate the reformation and (other) heresies.

      The signal exception is…

      Read more
    2. Deirdre Whitford

      Un-Worker

      In reply to Gavin Moodie

      Thanks for the reference, Gavin.

      Sounds like a number of clever academics have been looking into this intriguing little section of the history of ideas, and that's good news for everyone like me who's trying to establish some realistic perspectives, not only about MOOCs, but also regarding every aspect of our Digital Age.
      .
      I''ll try to supplement my imagination about Herr Gutenberg and his associates with a few facts and and a bit of analysis by getting hold of A. Pettegree's tome, if I can…

      Read more
  3. Bruce King

    Emeritus Professor

    It would be nice if basic facts were correct. Sir John Daniel has not been Vice Chancellor of the Open University for several years and has more recently served at both UNESCO and the Commonwealth of Learning.

    report
  4. David Wright

    Electrician

    Educational facilities have long suffered from "Baumol's cost disease"
    E.g. It takes the same amount of labour to teach someone in the 19th century as it did in the 20th - no productivity growth.

    BUT NOW!

    There is productvity growth, with MOOCs. Courses can be automated. This is nothing short of a revolution in the tertiary sector. I think that universities are in terminal decline. What I see happening is, as the recognition of online courses accelerates, and their cost rationalised against traditional teaching in universities, and the outcomes of each are measured; traditional teaching will be abandoned.

    Just think of all those lefty academics in the real world, or out on the street! Wow, I can't wait!

    report
  5. Keira Lynn

    Blogger

    I've recently been hearing a lot about the future of education and how some people concerned about MOOC's but I think it's a beautiful idea! I've just found out about a new online university called World Education University (WEU). It's a free online, degree granting university that allows you to work at your own pace. It's definitely something I've been looking into and considering more since my private school is so expensive.

    report
  6. Bronwyn Hanna

    Historian

    The essay by the San Jose professors is the only thing referred to here that I have read previously, but I found it very thoughtful, wise and disturbing. I am sad to see it so twisted in this hostile and careless account of academics' concerns about the introduction of MOOCs.

    report
  7. Pearl Helms

    Academically inclined at Higher Education.

    Thanks for the history lesson---apparently studying history can help avoid repetition.

    One of the points of the change in the industry of higher education is an increasing reliance on a casual workforce. Managing a large casual workforce---tutors, demonstrator, etc for 15 or 16 weeks. Seasonal casual workforce like in the hospitality industry. ONe of the ironies is that these 'casuals' are the people who have the closest teaching relationship with the students. I wonder if the students know the people they talk with the most are seasonal casual workers? Like fruit pickers.

    report
  8. Pearl Helms

    Academically inclined at Higher Education.

    "A crucial part of making MOOCs work will be ensuring that skilled intellectuals can continue to enhance society at large, and can do so with dignified working conditions and appropriate remuneration." Nicely said Deirdre.

    report