We often think or hear of the MOOC as the great equalizer of higher education, a medium to disseminate college-level education to billions, regardless of their income bracket. But recent events should lead us to reconsider this overly-optimistic perspective.
In January 2013, just after the announcement that San Jose State University planned to partner with Udacity to create open, online courses for its students, New America Foundation’s Director of Education Policy Programs, Kevin Carey, claimed, “A well-regarded public university giving credit for free or inexpensive MOOCs . . . is like a crack in an enormous dam.” According to an excited Carey, if one college began accrediting MOOCs, many would follow, which in turn would shake the world of higher education by dramatically reducing costs nationwide.
In a debate with Carey in May, Arizona State University President, Michael Crow, insisted that technology should be used to augment the traditional classroom experience, not replace it. He warned against over-reliance on MOOCs to “cure” the fast-rising costs of higher education. “The problem that I have with an overgeneralization of this lightning bolt technology,” he stated, “Is that we will find ourselves on a trajectory where the rich get face-to-face with professors and everyone else will be taught by some type of robot…the [class] separation will grow deeper.” Carey responded that the system of higher education is already “radically unfair.”
Crow is not alone in fearing that group segregation will result because of MOOCs. University of Nebraska Professor, William G. Thomas, expressed his disapproval of Thomas L. Friedman’s opinion that MOOCs were the cure for special-needs learners, claiming that simply giving them a link to an online course will segregate them from children with “normal” learning needs. “The frightening and retrograde idea that people with special needs can be set apart (to be special somewhere else) should be seen for what it is—exclusionary.” Professor Thomas is currently working on his own MOOC-like course on History Harvests, a project he helped create at Nebraska to “democratize” American history.
Meanwhile, San Jose State announced earlier in July their decision to discontinue their courses with Udacity, as students failed at alarming rates. The university plans to continue their partnership with edX, which devised courses that merely supplemented traditional, in-class learning. Reports show that less that 51% of students enrolled in the Udacity program at San Jose State passed their courses, while students enrolled in the edX hybrid program faired better even than students enrolled in traditional classes.
With the recent failure (and success) of the San Jose State experiments, it appears that Crow was wise in cautioning against the full implementation of MOOCs in place of traditional, in-class learning. If the mission of MOOC-makers is truly philanthropic, they need to consider the full consequences of their endeavors.
This post is part of a series on “Making History Online” that involves an examination of open online learning. Students and faculty at the House Divided Project at Dickinson College are collaborating this summer on a new open, online course called, “Understanding Lincoln,” taught by Prof. Matthew Pinsker and covering ways to teach Abraham Lincoln’s legacy using close readings of his most important writings. This new type of online course represents a unique partnership between Dickinson College and the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. The course is available for both graduate credit and free participation. Registration for the course closes on Friday, July 19, 2013. For more information, go to https://www.gilderlehrman.org/programs-exhibitions/understanding-lincoln-graduate-course.