Anya Kamenetz’s newest piece in Fast Company is a love letter to Coursera. Honestly, considering her history this is not at all surprising. Perhaps that’s why the Coursera folks were so open with her about their true aims.
For one thing, Coursera’s founders openly admit that they have no business model whatsoever. However, for purposes of this blog and what I presume to be its audience, this part is much more important:
For universities, the greatest economic boon of online education may lie in driving down the costs of on-campus teaching. A local institution, lacking its own star professors, could use its resources to guide, motivate, and support students while they make their way through the free curriculum. The University of Helsinki, Finland, announced in May that it will award credit to all students who take Coursera’s human-computer-interaction course. And as state education budgets fall, an option that improves access for all at lower cost is pretty appealing. “Does it really make sense to have thousands of community-college instructors developing the same courses?” asks Koller. “We see this as an easy, very natural direction for the world to take.”
Well, that depends upon what constitutes teaching in the future. Kamenetz, like Koller does in this article and elsewhere, compares a Coursera course to a giant lecture hall:
The face-to-face lecture dates back a thousand years. It still consumes hours of class time at even the best universities, and it doesn’t scale up well. The lecture hall might be suitable for attending to a charismatic orator, but most learning benefits from give-and-take. And the greater the number of students in the room, the lesser the chance for interaction and, hence, for education in the classical sense of the term–educere, to draw out.
I get the point. When I was in college, I never had a class with less than thirty people in it. Of course, there were still teaching assistants who led sections back then, but it would have been nice to have had more direct contact with my professors. However, there is another option besides sending everything into cyberspace. You could actually fully fund colleges and universities so that tenure track professors wouldn’t be quite so lonely and bogged down in service obligations.
Coincidentally, Phil Hill has trodden down this exact same path this morning. He posts a note from his daughter, a Cal State undergrad complaining about course availability:
At 9 AM, MySSU [portal and administrative system] went live, and students scrambled to get units. Unfortunately, there were very few units to be had. People are stuck taking classes they don’t need or want just for the unit value, and even they are better off than the ones who couldn’t even register for 12 units (the amount which makes you a full-time student). To make matters worse, MySSU shut down before it even reached 10 AM. Students who had taken off work or postponed plans were stuck refreshing their webpages in the hopes they’d be the first person on when it came back.
My kid starts Colorado State this semester and we just went through the exact same frustrating process (although she actually got into all her required classes off the waiting list). But again, online classes are not the only solution to this problem. Hire more faculty and incentivize them to teach and things will also get better. In the short run, the spending on infrastructure needed to make MOOCs or online classes viable is actually going to make the course availability problem worse rather than better. And I can hear the complaints already about the lack of personal interaction when MOOCs do become the new normal.
Unfortunately, by that time most of the professors in the world will already be gone and the only ones left will be on videotape.