This is a bit outside our usual domain, but I think it’s interesting and it’s certainly relevant to anyone who has or wants an academic job, so I thought I’d post on it. Author and internet guru Clay Shirky has a provocative post asking whether higher education is about to be disrupted in much the way file sharing disrupted the music industry. He argues that the advent of massive open online courses (MOOCs), like the Introduction to Artificial Intelligence course that two Stanford profs taught to 23,000 (!) students (down from an initial enrollment of 160,000!), have the potential to be just as good, a whole lot cheaper, and accessible to way more people than most courses taught at most US colleges and universities. He suggests that too many of the arguments in favor of traditional colleges and universities implicitly assume that places like Harvard are typical. Just as most people now mostly experience classical music by playing back inexpensive recordings by the best musicians, rather than by attending expensive live performances by less-skilled local musicians, most people will eventually get their college education very cheaply from MOOCs produced by the best people, rather than expensively by attending lectures at their local university.
I don’t know that I agree with all of this, or even much of it, but nor can it simply be dismissed out of hand, I don’t think. For me, reading it was an excuse to step back and think about why I teach the way I do, and why it’s worth paying for. Plus, Shirky is trying to predict the future, and as we’ve just been discussing on this blog, that’s awfully hard, so I’m happy to cut him some slack. I may be somewhat skeptical of his predictions of the future, but it’s not like I’m totally confident in my own predictions either. I don’t have a fully coherent response to his post yet, but here are some thoughts:
-His remarks on the unsustainability of current trends in higher education financing in the US certainly are well-taken, although he doesn’t get much into the underlying reasons. This is actually one of the strongest aspects of the piece–his arguments read much better if you keep in mind the increasing levels of debt that many students are taking on in order to be able to attend college. (Which is not to say that MOOCs are the only possible response to current funding trends–far from it)
-His remarks on unbundling are well-taken. If you just want to ramp up your knowledge or skills in one specific area, taking a single MOOC might be a much more cost-effective way for you to do it than enrolling at your local college or university. Assuming you even have one. Which leads to my next thought…
-He seems to be lumping together the potential for MOOCs to greatly expand access to higher education with the potential for MOOCs to provide an alternative source of higher education for students who currently attend “non-elite” institutions. I think those are two different things that ought to be “unbundled”. Asking whether MOOCs are better (maybe even way better) than nothing is quite different from asking whether they’re better than something.
-Insofar as even the best lectures are bad, MOOCs will be bad. Not sure what to do about this. And I guess Shirky would respond by arguing that, for many students, the choice is really MOOCs or nothing, and MOOCs surely are better than nothing.
-I wonder if MOOCs are better suited to certain subjects than others. In particular how the inability to offer hands-on labs affects a lot of science courses, and how restrictions on the nature of the assignments and exams affects all courses. You can’t offer essay tests to tens of thousands of students in a single course, not without hiring lots of people to mark them, which would cost a lot of money. So I can’t see how anyone’s going to learn to write, or think through open-ended problems in any subject, or learn any “hands-on” skill, solely via MOOCs. Is the idea that we’re all supposed to learn all that stuff before we go to college?
-He takes for granted that the education offered at non-elite institutions mostly is poor compared to that offered at elite places, or at least not worth the cost to the students. Which seems like a pretty big thing to take for granted. As his own examples make clear, by “non-elite” institutions he means a huge diversity of places that charge a huge range of prices and teach a huge range of things, many of them things that aren’t taught at, say, Harvard. He’s lumping together less-selective colleges and universities (both public and private, I think), community colleges, agricultural schools, trade schools… Assuming that all these places doing all these different things are all poor value for money seems like a strangely elitist assumption to make in the context of what’s nominally an anti-elitist piece. Shirky’s argument here really only works in contexts where institutions of very different quality (or perceived to be of very different quality) are charging similarly-high prices for education in the same subject.
-His post makes you think about where you as an instructor really add value, and how having students in the same room as you three times/week adds value. Especially in big introductory lecture courses. Frankly, if you really are just standing in front of the class lecturing, I do think there’s a case to be made that students would be better off watching videos of a better lecturer. So I think much of the value added comes from having an instructor there to answer questions (both in class and outside of class), and also to do things besides lecture (“pair and share”, short discussions prompted by clicker questions, whatever). And while an instructor for a MOOC certainly can answer some questions, there’s no way one person can quickly address every single question from tens of thousands of students. Similarly, a MOOC certainly could include things like chat rooms where students can discuss their questions with each other, but again I’m not sure that’s a good substitute for things like TA-led discussion sections. To which I suppose Shirky’s response might be that this is making the best the enemy of the good, or the good-enough.
-Presumably if Shirky’s right, practices of accreditation and credentialing also get radically disrupted?
-There’s no discussion of the research function of colleges and universities. Not sure if that’s supposed to be another issue that only “elite” institutions and their employees care about. More broadly, colleges and universities of all sorts typically do lots of worthwhile stuff (and yes, some less-worthwhile stuff) besides teaching undergraduates. MOOCs wouldn’t do any of that.
-Shirky notes that many existing MOOCs are terrible, but argues that they’ll improve, just as recording technology did. Which is fair enough as far as it goes. But why can’t conventional colleges and universities improve too? Maybe not in terms of their costs (not on current trends…), but certainly in terms of the education they offer. Shirky relates an anecdote about the instructor of a bad introductory statistics MOOC responding quickly to negative feedback and promising to improve the course in future. Shirky’s bizarre implication is that nothing like this ever happens at regular colleges and universities, at least not at non-elite ones! Conversely, just as there are reasons why regular colleges and universities might not improve, there are reasons why MOOCs might not. Shirky has a lot of faith that just because something is online and “open” (in some rather vaguely-defined sense of “open”), it will quickly become awesome. I don’t share that faith.
-In passing, I’ll note that Shirky himself, like other leading advocates of MOOCs, didn’t himself get his undergraduate degree via MOOCs. Make of that what you will.
For pushback against MOOCs that gets into various larger issues I’ve intentionally glossed over or set to one side, see the Chronicle of Higher Education.
UPDATE: Evolutionary biologist Joan Strassman offers her thoughts on MOOCs here. She’s very excited by MOOCs, but not as a replacement for traditional classes, more as either a supplement/complement (online videos for “fact delivery”, in-class time reserved for discussion), or just as an act of altruism. Joan recommends Mohammed Noor’s thoughts on MOOCs. He just finished teaching “introduction to genetics and evolution” as a MOOC to thousands of students.