Teaching at Harvard means never having to say you’re sorry.

20 05 2014

I’m afraid that this is going to destroy grad students,” one professor told me. “Not because of what it will do to elite universities, but other places. Why should a community college hire a new PhD when they can pipe in Stephen Greenblatt?”

That quote comes from the Harvard alumni magazine via a post I wrote last year. I titled that post “Stephen Greenblatt will not take questions,” which happens to be the answer to the question in that quote. This was particularly true at that time because Stephen Greenblatt did not have a MOOC. In the future, Stephen Greenblatt will still not take questions even though he’s now making a MOOC of his own.

Should the English grad students of the world be worried? On Sunday, the Boston Globe offered a behind-the-scenes look at the making of his MOOC (along with another one being developed by the Harvard historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich). Toward the end we find out that Greenblatt shares precisely these concerns about MOOCs:

Yet Greenblatt also counts himself among the many Harvard faculty worried about the potential downsides of Harvard’s foray into online courses. He and Ulrich were among several dozen professors who wrote a letter to the administration last year seeking more discussion about the “costs and consequences” of HarvardX.

Among his worries: Will cash-strapped colleges park their students in front of MOOCs and cut back on hiring professors? What will that do to the careers of up-and-coming scholars, and what will it mean for students’ access to faculty mentoring?

“There are serious, completely unresolved questions all over the place here,” Greenblatt said.

One of the concerns in that letter Greenblatt signed was “the impact online courses will have on the higher education system as a whole.” His quote in that story strongly suggests that Harvard has yet to address that concern (or in fact any concerns at all), but Greenblatt is becoming a superprofessor anyway.

To be fair to both Greenblatt and Ulrich, there seem to be concerns about the misuse of MOOCs all over Harvard amongst the people working on them. This is from HarvardX’s Justin Reich:

The faculty who teach MOOCs and see potential are among the same faculty who are concerned with cost, value, and ethics. The HarvardX team has the same combination of idealism and caution; we had a staff retreat on the Friday before the article came out, where we talked very explicitly about the ways in which MOOCs could exacerbate educational inequalities. Of course, on balance, the team leans towards optimism, and so they are there under the sewing machines, trying to make them work. But nearly everyone on this project is looking carefully at the consequences.

Of course, they’re still all doing MOOCs too. There’s lots of introspection at Harvard apparently, but absolutely no restraint. MOOC first, answer questions later.

What makes this attitude doubly infuriating is that future problems are readily apparent just from the information in that Boston Globe article. Here’s the key part:

As for the cost question, Harvard officials insist HarvardX must and will find a way to support itself and not detract from campus needs. The goal is a mix of funding sources, including philanthropy and licensing software and courses to other institutions. A donation, for example, paid for the deluxe studio in Widener Library.

And Harvard is beginning to experiment with ways to charge MOOC learners for extras, like a verified certificate or even course credit.

Peter K. Bol is one of the professors who taught the MOOC on China and is a vice provost overseeing HarvardX. He thinks every MOOC should have an automated version available for free. But for virtual office hours and other interactions with professors and teaching assistants, he imagines a small fee. A modest $10 or $20 from thousands of students could cover the cost, he said.

“As we go forward we have to always ask the question, how can we afford this?” he said.

Leave aside the obvious problem associated with asking students to pay up in order to “make magic happen.” People paying edX for course credit will not be paying local community colleges or public regional comprehensive universities for the same thing. And of course the fastest way to raise money is to convince colleges to award credit for MOOCs with ordinary faculty serving as the people who students can see for help.

To me, this suggests that the future of MOOCs will not be determined on the production side. Coursera, edX and the rest of them are going to keep on chugging MOOCs out until the money disappears. The future of MOOCs will be determined on the consumption side. MOOC producers will not be satisfied with revenue that comes from certificates or from charging bored people who already have college degrees to do Google hangouts with their superprofessors. MOOCs for credit is where the money is.

How will faculty at community colleges and public regional comprehensive universities respond when their administrations sign secret deals with edX or Coursera and then try to shove MOOCs down their throats? I’ve seen many hints that this is already happening and the faculty at such schools have already responded badly. It’s time for education and edtech journalists to stop focusing on the Stephen Greenblatts and the Harvards of the world and start doing stories on what happens out in flyover country when the MOOC rubber meets the less-selective university road.

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4 responses

20 05 2014
RAB

I’m beginning to see them like mass murderers: they’ll take themselves out eventually, but first they’re going to take out everybody else.

20 05 2014
Jonathan Dresner

I am more than a little unhappy to see the Asianists heavily involved. MITx courses featured a fair bit of Asian content, too.

20 05 2014
ksfinblog

Education has now become the virtual cow that they can milk for eternity.

1 06 2014
Weekend Reading | Backslash Scott Thoughts

[…] Teaching at Harvard Means Never Having to Say You’re Sorry. […]

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