Tech Mania Goes to College
Psychology professor Ron Rogers, who had been eager to combine his statistics materials with Udacity’s much-touted pedagogy, learned that clever technology cannot substitute for educational maturity. It takes discipline to sit for hours in front of a computer, and among a subset of ill-prepared undergraduates, this discipline is often in short supply. “These students need the structure of going to school as part of their motivation,” Rogers told me. That’s no surprise: two years earlier, an analysis of community college students concluded that those taking online courses fail and drop out more often than those in classroom-based courses. Although Udacity’s MOOCs were doubtless more sophisticated than the earlier generation of online offerings, the critical factor—“high touch”—was still missing.
This past spring, when SJSU invited the philosophy department to teach JusticeX, an edX MOOC in social justice featuring Harvard celebrity professor Michael Sandel, a public relations nightmare ensued. The philosophy professors, believing that they were being pushed to offer a prepackaged class, circulated an angry letter to Sandel. MOOCs delivered by “elite” academics, the professors fumed, are part of the push to “replace professors, dismantle departments, and provide a diminished education for students in public universities.” Peter Hadreas, chair of the philosophy department, resented the fact that “while Sandel was talking, live, to students at Harvard, San Jose State students would be watching Harvard students, getting the sense that they are second class.” This was class warfare, elite versus mass universities, and the professors were fighting back.
Junn felt blindsided. “There was never any pressure,” she insists. “I just told the faculty that these courses were available, and that they could use as much or as little of the material as they liked.” Quickly, tempers cooled. At a July meeting with the top administrators, says Hadreas, the conversation was “genial. We never meant to embarrass the university.”
But as the protest, fanned by an article in The New York Times, gathered steam nationwide, the facts came to matter less than the symbolism. The professors’ furious letter resonated with a widespread faculty fear that MOOCs represent the ultimate triumph of the corporate university, a destructive innovation that will undermine real education and render them obsolete.
The Shakedown-Cruise Moment
This is the shakedown-cruise moment for MOOCs,” says Dan Greenstein, who runs the higher education program at the Gates Foundation. In a July column on the website Inside Higher Ed, Greenstein—who had previously promoted the University of California’s online initiatives—described MOOCs as “a perfect storm of hype, hyperbole, and hysteria” and wondered whether they are “a viable thing or are just a passing fad.” That’s a remarkable observation from a senior officer at a foundation that has invested heavily in initiatives like the San Jose State MOOCs.
The MOOC movement is in the midst of what’s become known as the technology “hype cycle.” According to Gartner, the IT consulting firm that developed the model, a “technology trigger” leads to the “peak of inflated expectations,” followed in short order by the “trough of disillusionment.” Today, MOOCs are oscillating between those two poles. In recent months, the Amherst College faculty voted not to join edX, and Duke University’s faculty forced it to back out of a deal to create a pool of for-credit MOOCs. At the same time, Udacity announced a partnership with Georgia Tech to deliver a $6,600 MOOC-based master’s degree in computer science, while Coursera, the biggest MOOC, has attracted millions in new venture capital. Meanwhile, students have been voting with their feet: at Colorado State, the nation’s very first for-credit MOOC class, also designed by Udacity, didn’t attract a single student. Although the tuition was higher, the undergraduates chose the live alternative.
It’s time to push the pause button, not just on the San Jose State experiment but on MOOC mania generally. While modified MOOCs like the flipped classroom hold great promise, the pure MOOC model looks like a failure. New technologies have indeed made it possible to reach more students—MIT’s OpenCourseWare materials, free to all, have been visited by 125 million people the world over—and, sensibly used, can improve teaching as well. But there’s no cheap solution to higher education’s woes, no alternative to making a serious public investment, no substitute for the professor who provokes students into confronting their most cherished beliefs, changing their lives in the process.
Low-paid adjunct faculty, who are mostly female, have started unionizing for better pay—and winning, writes Kay Steiger (July 11).