Oliver's Observatory

The Blog & Observations of Oliver H. Evans

MOOCs and the End of the World

  "When outstanding becomes so easily available, average is over." – Thomas Friedman

"When outstanding becomes so easily available, average is over." – Thomas Friedman

I keep intending to say something about my experience with MOOCs--that is, about what I experience when I go into the classroom of either Mathematical Thinking or Model Thinking. And I have just signed up for Michael Sandel's Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do. But I keep getting sidetracked. This week, for example, I got sidetracked because an argument erupted not as to how, but as to when, MOOCs would spell the end of the world--or at least the end of the world according to the conventional wisdom of higher education.

The rider on the eschatological white horse bent on destroying the world as we know it appears to be Thomas Friedman, whom most know as the author of The World is Flat. By an interesting coincidence, Upper Iowa University, which does not see MOOCs as the end of the world, does invoke Friedman's book as one of the foundations--or sets of assumptions--on which an institution of higher education should base its educational philosophy and mission. But that is a subject for another day.

Friedman rode forth on the white horse of the apocalypse by writing a piece in the March 5, 2013, New York Times, a follow-up to an earlier piece he had written. Friedman believes in the potential of MOOCs to change higher education in some fundamental ways. And to get at those ways, here is a quick summary of what a number of people are assuming at present about MOOCs:

 1. The creation of MOOCs belongs to the premier institutions of higher education and to the celebrity faculty who are the source of the credibility of those institutions. Put another way, institutions in the tributaries of higher education have neither the resources, including the technology, nor the faculty, to mount a serious MOOC effort. Thus it is not surprising that a stir is made when Taylor Branch is going to offer a MOOC or when, as was recently announced, Michael Sandel of Harvard, famous for his course on justice, will offer that course as a MOOC beginning just recently, on March 12 to be exact.

 2. In some instances, the credible institutions are beginning to demonstrate some potential for MOOCs to change not only the way in which students may learn, but the ways in which institutions may understand the nature of the faculty. For example, according to Friedman, Harvard Business School no longer offers first-year accounting, but will make use of the MOOC developed by a professor at Brigham Young University, because of the excellence of the BYU course. As Friedman put it in his March 5 piece, "When outstanding becomes so easily available, average is over."

 3. The implications of item 2 can be exciting and threatening. Suppose, for example, that an institution in the tributaries decides to offer the first year of accounting in the same way that Harvard is reported to be offering first-year accounting. What are the implications for the role of the faculty in the coming years? How will the role of faculty change? How will the classroom change? For some, this is a continuation of what is sometimes referred to as the "unbundling" of the role of the faculty. Traditionally, faculty have been the developers and the implementers of the curriculum, as well as the assessors of students and the evaluators of the curriculum itself. When those roles are "unbundled," new ways of thinking about faculty identity emerge. And new kinds of classrooms become possible,

Suppose, for example, that an institution has both a residential student population and a large population of students at sites spread throughout a given state or even several states. Could a learning community be formed that makes use of a MOOC and that through technology creates a "classroom" of learners different from the classrooms the institution currently creates? And given the pressures on institutions in terms of the question of quality of adjunct faculty--not to mention the impact of healthcare on the costs of continuing to use adjunct faculty--might an institution be drawn to the excitement Friedman feels in imagining a shift in higher education from education as "time served" to education as what a student can demonstrate and to the possibility that students might suddenly have access in some sense to faculty famous in their disciplines, as opposed to those in the local neighborhood? How, indeed, would one keep them down on the farm?

It is important to remember that most people talking about MOOCs and their potential use--including Friedman himself--see the MOOC as giving rise to a blended model of education. But the sight of the white horse issuing forth filled many in higher education with fear, loathing, and anger--emotions that arise when people see a threat to their traditional identity and--identity and work being closely aligned--a threat to their traditional conditions of employment.

Although compared with some academics Rebecca Shuman is an amateur when it comes to high dudgeon and invective, her piece in the March 8, 2013, Chronicle of Higher Education may amuse you if you are new to higher education's version of reasoned discourse. Friedman has upset Schuman, to say the least. 

The potential for MOOCs is very much in the process of being defined. Personally, I am confident that institutions that seek to be part of that definition will discover ways to extend access and value to their students. Friedman ends his March 5 piece by referring to Clayton Christensen's comparison of today's higher education with the General Motors of the 1960's. Interestingly, Maureen Dowd ended her March 9, 2013, New York Times column on Time Warner's "breakup" with its magazines; including Time, by pointing out for journalists what is true as well of MOOCs. "It will be good if this moment provokes a reckoning about what really needs to be preserved in the culture, about what is valuable." Dowd notes that while appearing on the cover of Time no longer means what it once did, the need for reporters and commentators who can provide content for the new forms of reporting will not go away. The same holds true for those professors who know how to embrace the new possibilities of "professing."