MOOCs? This has been a recent topic of conversation around my campus, in part due to the $7000 MA in computer science that our neighbors over at GA Tech are offering. The argument for is that more people will have access to an affordable BS degree. The argument against, as I see it, is two fold–it leads to less tenure track jobs (in computer science, but this can/could be applicable to any discipline if this becomes the new model of higher education) and two, it would likely flood the market with BS students, looking for programming jobs, and I think it will drive down salaries for those jobs, probably more so than workers coming on work visas. I have a stake in both of those, so I’m probably biased (I’d like a tenure track job and my spouse is a programmer). Our president immediately jumped on the MOOC bandwagon after Tech made their announcement. So we had to figure out what that meant, and how we might think about implimenting such a thing if our university decided to run with it (and it’s not clear that they would, although it is pretty clear that have a centralization plan to take as much autonomy away from the departments as possible–especially the “luxury” departments in the humanities - obviously, I object to that, but I’m just a lowly grad student).
I think the questions we need to ask is what should a university be and what should a liberal arts degree be in the 21st century. A liberal arts education emerged directly out of the enlightenment and trained middle class people to be… well, middle class. The working classes were not expected to go into a university, but to go directly to work, in a factory or a farm, where they learn on the job more than any where else. There were of course all sorts of ideological implications to this, but that’s the facts as they are about the roots of the modern university. This is still the model we’re on, but obviously, as you state, more people go to school, because, the BA is the new high school diploma. I get to teach some of these kids. And you’re right, especially where I am, it’s more like 13th grade, etc. This is doubly true because we take more than Tech or UGA or Emory, and often times, these kids are not fully prepared for a college education. I often have to teach a course required by the university, so many of the students have no real interest in what I have to offer. Why should they care what happened after the civil war or during the cold war? They don’t see how it impacts their ability to get a job. So I have to try and convince them that knowing how the world works and how we got there actually matters and in some cases this is an uphill battle. I want them to be able to question everything they hear and see, but of course, this is a tough thing to teach–anti-authoritarianism. But the thing is, most of them are smart kids, even if they aren’t “ready for college”, and I think they deserve the chance to do something in this world and this is now their chance, because as we’ve established, getting a job requires a BA now, except when it requires an MA or PhD. As such I think at least a BA should be a public education now, but that’s an argument for some other time.
So, I guess the main question is if there is value in the model of a liberal arts education. I’m loath to give it up, because I see value in the humanities and if we give up a liberal arts education, THAT is what you’re really giving up. STEM fields are sort of being bandied about as the solution to all our problems, and I have no quarrel with STEM fields, but that doesn’t mean that knowing how to write a good paragraph, or knowing how to do historical research or some knowledge of human psychology is unimportant. It tends to be the humanities that often teach us the value of questioning the way the world works. And I think, as a consequence of that, the humanities are more often under attack than STEM because they are seen as having a political edge to them. But these departments are in some ways pretty conservative. Department heads, especially now, are loath to rock the boat, especially if it means their own security. In some ways, the heads of the sciences can be more radical, but even there we can see the university trying to curb that in it’s centralization drive. The humanities, meanwhile, want to be seen as progressive bastions, yet they want to circle the wagons and protect what they have, even if it means throwing the rest of us to the wolves known as endless adjuncting. This is what neo-liberalism in the university means–more focus on what creates a profit and less funding and support for the things seen as “luxury”. Learning about history is now deemed a “luxury”. Sure, we can fill our knowledge holes with MOOCs on history, but that isn’t the same as being in a class room and learning history from a professor who is passionate and welcomes debate. Too many people treat the lecture course as that–a lecture. I think most of us want it to be more of a discussion on the topics at hand and as such, I don’t think a MOOC can fill that hole in the same way… but I digress.
And honestly, it seems many of the MOOCs are run by private corporations (the ones administering the Tech ones are, I think… though they may be non-profit working with big corporations like AT&T–I do know that AT&T is involved), much like many of the charter schools that are taking over some school districts. I think we do well to question the motivations behind such initiatives–are they really about the benefits of education or about the bottom line. Many people have been asking this about for-profit universities and they have often been found wanting–deeply indebting people and then those people not being able to find work as promised. In other words, should education be commoditized in this way? Is there a value to education outside of fattening wallets? If so, we need to figure out a way to spread the benefits of an education out across as much of society as possible. I realize this is communistic mumbo-jumbo, but that’s the way I see it.
So, that’s my $.02 on these issues. Take them with a grain of salt, because of the position I’m coming from, but that’s it.