Over at Inside Higher Ed, Paul Fain reports that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is funding $3 million in new MOOC-related grants. The idea is that MOOCs with credit attached can replace gen ed courses, thus rendering efficiencies in granting degrees.
Well, maybe, if you leave aside the quality of the education, which seems to be a complete non-issue with those promoting MOOCs, and if you don't think about the other functions of the university. I'm thinking of the economics of the whole thing.
Think about the Affordable Care Act. The reason given for mandatory signup is that if signing up for health care is voluntary, only the very sickest will sign up for care; healthy people will avoid signing up until they are sick. That's the principle behind all forms of insurance. The risk and costs are spread across a large population to improve affordability.
Now think about a community college or university with high-cost programs like lab sciences, engineering, or nursing courses--any courses that require intensive training and expensive equipment. Right now, the gen ed courses help to support those courses. Take away the gen ed courses and the other kinds of support that they provide for the university and leave behind the expensive hands-on lab courses--in Obamacare terms, exempt the healthy people and permit the most expensive patients to join the plan when they feel like it. How much will tuition, and financial aid, have to rise to cover the costs imposed by the missing gen ed revenue?
I would like to see some analyses that take this into account, but first someone will have to brush away all the confetti made of dollar bills being thrown at MOOCs and look seriously at the implications these proposals.
[Edited to add: Another of my posts on this issue; a post at edwired that does consult the experts.]
You've put your finger on a significant problem, but I'm not sure we'll avoid it even if the idea of delivering gen ed classes by MOOC is eventually discredited and/or discarded. Basically, the MOOC idea results from administrators (and businesspeople who think they know how to run universities) trying to find ways to teach the classes that are already taught most cheaply (making it possible, as you point out, for them to subsidize the more expensive ones) even more cheaply. The problem is that students and parents are beginning to catch on to the fact that gen ed classes at many institutions are taught by an almost entirely different, lower paid, faculty (made up of adjuncts, non-TT full-timers, and grad TAs) than the upper-level courses. As a result, both quality and coherence of overall university curricula have suffered (not because non-TT faculty are bad teachers, but because we're not tied into the overall structure of the university in the same way as TT faculty, through service, teaching of the upper-level courses into which the gen ed classes feed, etc.). And as a result of that, there's less and less reason for students to take their gen ed classes at the local university or 4-year college, rather than at the cheaper community college that offers similar classes (and, often, the very same professors). If MOOCs catch on as an alternative, the problem will be exacerbated, but even without them, it's here, and will probably only get worse, especially if an improving economy offers other alternatives to adjuncts who are beginning to lose their "foot in the door" illusions, and the general skepticism about the value of investing time and money in higher ed affects Ph.D. enrollments (which it probably should).
Universities are going to have to take a look, I'm pretty sure, at how they would function if their main role were to offer courses in the major (i.e. mostly junior and senior years). It is, indeed, hard to imagine how that would work. The other alternative is probably to reinvest in the core curriculum, to the point where the institution can argue it's offering something of clearly greater value than what is available elsewhere, both in terms of those two years of classes, and of the overall program. I like that alternative better, but I'm keenly aware that it's going to be expensive, especially if part of the draw is to offer smaller core courses that offer at least some access to "real" (i.e. at least full-time,and preferably TT, professors). For universities that have made significant recent investments in bricks-and-mortar infrastructure (not only classrooms, but dorms, dining halls, and the like), that's probably the better alternative.
(continued) My guess is that, either way, TT professors, especially in the humanities, are going to experience increased pressure to teach more students -- perhaps by MOOC, but perhaps also by teaching more sections of smaller classes. While tenure is hard to break (except, of course, by shutting down/restructuring whole programs, which we're already seeing to some extent), raising teaching expectations (especially if research expectations in departments where research isn't supported by outside grants are lowered) probably is possible. As someone who's currently teaching a 4/4 teaching-intensive load at an institution where my TT colleagues teach 2/2 (and have fairly high research expectations), I'm ambivalent about that. On the one hand, I recognize that a 2/2 with heavy research and service expectations is not easy. I'd prefer to have such a job, but I have no illusions that my work would be easier, just different and more satisfying. On the other hand, I know that it's possible to conduct research, albeit slowly, while holding down a 4/4, and I'd consider a 3/3 TT load that included service and modest research expectations a considerable improvement in my current situation. That's the shape that the TT jobs at my university took a few decades ago, before the school started trying to work from R2 toward R1 status (we're still currently R2). I suspect that, on a nationwide basis, we need fewer R2s trying to become R1s, and more universities where research expectations are somewhat lower, and teaching and service ones somewhat higher. That would make the revitalization of gen ed programs possible, and might just save the upper level and grad classes in something approaching their current form, albeit taught by people who have more responsibilities in addition to those classes. Otherwise, I'm not quite sure where we end up, though I suspect a severe contraction in the number of grad (even M.A.) programs, especially in the humanities, may be part of the picture.
You make a lot of good points, Contingent Cassandra. I don't know if TT professors would have pressure to teach MOOCs as much as they'd be pressured either to TA for MOOCs (the "tutoring that an in-person school can do so well" or however the MOOC cheerleaders put it) or to certify the results of MOOC teaching for credit--as an extra duty, of course, on top of the usual teaching and research load.
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