Since this blog is getting kind of popular, I think it’s time for me to scare off as many readers as possible with an extended Monty Python analogy. And rather than go for a scene from a movie that almost everybody’s seen like “Life of Brian” or “Holy Grail,” I’m going to discuss a skit from the Flying Circus that only diehard fans like me can remember (since it comes from the season after John Cleese left the show), let alone quote without watching the whole thing again.
Here’s the video:
And part II:
And part III:
If you want the short version: Giant blancmanges from the planet Skyron in the Galaxy of Andromeda are turning Englishmen into Scotsmen. Why? Because Scotsmen are the worst tennis players in the entire world. When the blancmanges are discovered practicing on tennis courts throughout the country, the Graham Chapman scientist character logically concludes in a very alarmed voice, “They mean to win Wimbledon!”
This is a long way of saying that I thought of that line on Friday morning when I read a similarly absurd but obvious conclusion in the IHE article about Amherst College rejecting MOOCs:
“They came in and they said, ‘Here’s a machine grader that can grade just as perceptively as you, but by the way, even though it can replace your labor, it’s not going to take your job,’” [Adam] Sitze [Assistant Professor of Law, Jurisprudence and Social Thought] said. “I found that funny and I think other people may have realized at that point that there was not a good fit.”
Gee, ya think? The Amherst faculty are like that plucky Scotsman, Angus Podgorny, fighting off the scourge of the alien blancmanges at Wimbledon before they get a chance to eat us all.
But I also have a more serious point to make here that’s a little less obvious. The blancmanges could only win Wimbledon once all the real competition had disappeared (either by being eaten or being turned into Scotsmen). Similarly, I think Amherst’s liberal arts college model is a threat to the MOOCification taking hold nearly everywhere else in academia.
In order to take over, MOOCs have to worm there way into places where they might not obviously belong. That requires something that has come to be called wrap-around. [Kind of reminds me of a boa constrictor, now that I think of it.] As Michael Feldstein recently wrote:
I was able to ask edX’s Howard Lurie about whether the course design for the blended classes in the SJSU project will be the same as the fully online one. He acknowledged that there would have to be a variant. We’re going to see more of that. To the degree that MOOCs are going to used in this way, they need to (1) have the curricular wrap-around that scaffolds the classroom use, and (2) be designed to be modular so that faculty using them in their own classrooms can customize them to the local needs of their students. In other words, we need to be able to draw different and more flexible lines between where the course-as-artifact ends and human-directed course experience begins.
In one way, this would be a pretty good future. MOOCs as textbooks would restrict MOOCs to the role of tools and professors couldn’t possibly replaced by tools, but what if we don’t need MOOCs at all? Why should we blow up the entire concept of courses [Feldstein calls the concept of the course an "artifact."] just to facilitate a technology that plenty of professors don’t want and won’t use? Indeed, if we’re going to go ahead and question everything, then the need for professors at all would inevitably find its way onto the table.
This seems to be what bothered the faculty at Amherst most. From that IHE article again:
Some Amherst faculty concerns about edX were specific to Amherst. For instance, faculty asked, are MOOCs, which enroll tens of thousands of students, compatible with Amherst’s mission to provide education in a “purposefully small residential community” and “through close colloquy?”
Yes, there’s a reason tuition at Amherst is so expensive. An Amherst education is labor-intensive because faculty there are primarily concerned with educational quality rather than price. Yet partnering with edX has the potential to make Amherst even more expensive! That makes as much sense as blancmanges playing tennis.
For people without access to higher education, the ability to enroll in MOOCs is certainly better than no higher education at all. If you’re already in college, then the question becomes whether the cost saving that MOOCs might offer can offset the inevitable decline in quality. [Claiming there's no decline in quality is just a way to justify the unjustifiable.] Amherst students who have the qualifications and the means to attend that school have little to gain from MOOCs.
MOOC providers are in a different position entirely. If they want to convince the public that their education is not just sufficient, but somehow superior to face-to-face instruction, liberal arts colleges become a nagging reminder to everyone who cares about such things of the road not taken. In other words, they can never win Wimbledon as long as this kind of competitive counterexample remains MOOC-free.