Which side are you on?

24 05 2012

Normally, I have far better things to do than read the comments at Inside Higher Education, but you can’t blame me for looking when the article in question actually quotes me. Oddly enough, I think this seemingly banal complaint is quite telling:

Tom Friedman wrote. 7 educators responded. All negative.

But the topic of the article isn’t MOOCs. It’s educators’ reactions to MOOCs. On that score, the divide is 6-1. Six people (including me) have grave concerns about how they’ll effect the quality of education and conditions of employment for faculty. And then there’s this:

Margaret Soltan, an associate professor of English at George Washington University who was the first at the university to offer a MOOC, said that organizations such as the AAUP might not have any role in the conversation at the moment. “Things are too new – a few universities are only in the last year or two beginning to look into how to incorporate this activity into their professors’ lives,” said Soltan, who is also a blogger for Inside Higher Ed.

As for those professors worrying over MOOCs threatening their livelihoods, she has one word for them: relax. “Online is clearly inferior, even if done very well, [compared to] face-to-face education and to the social rites of growing up which college represents for many, many people,” she said.

Like many of you I’m sure, I’ve been reading University Diaries for a very long time. I don’t think I’d be blogging about what I’ve been blogging in this space about for months now if Margaret Soltan hadn’t gone there first. So I’ve been puzzled about how the woman who coined the term “Click-Thru U.” could be teaching a MOOC for a for-profit company.

Now I know. This can’t possibly last, she’s telling us. No student in their right mind will put up with online ed of any kind because they’ll know it’s a farce. Besides, they’ll miss the beer and football too much to sacrifice it.

But what if that’s wrong?

I understand her position because I used to believe it myself. Here’s why I’ve changed my mind: Even students who want the social aspects of college will have to settle for the online experience when they have no other choice.

Consider the long view for a moment. I saw the first article of this series when it came out, but I didn’t see this until it appeared in Reclaim UC’s contribution to Zunguzungu’s Sunday Reading:

Moody’s Investors Service, in a report earlier this year, said it had a favorable outlook for the nation’s most elite private colleges and large state institutions, those with the “strongest market positions” that had multiple ways to generate revenue. Ohio State, for instance, received a stable outlook from Moody’s last fall, though the report cautioned about the school’s debt and reliance on its medical center for revenue.

But Moody’s issued a negative outlook for a majority of colleges and universities heavily dependent on tuition and state revenue.

“Tuition levels are at a tipping point,” Moody’s wrote, adding later, “We anticipate an ongoing bifurcation of student demand favoring the highest quality and most affordable higher education options.”

This explains how Clayton Christensen’s prediction will come true. Students priced out of the face-to-face experience will demand online college because it’s cheaper, not because it’s better. That’s how the bad can easily push out the good.

What happens to the professors who teach students from the put upon middle class face-to-face in this scenario?

Margaret Soltan writes about so many important issues because she wants to make higher education better. I can’t believe that she won’t eventually care about the fate of soon-to-be displaced professors of all kinds too.

I only hope by that time it’s not too late.




12 responses

24 05 2012
Rohan Maitzen

“I’ve been puzzled about how the woman who coined the term “Click-Thru U.” could be teaching a MOOC for a for-profit company. ” I’ve been wondering about this too. And I don’t think her comments add up to an explanation. If it’s “clearly inferior,” why engage in it? Why put your resources of time into it? Why put your expertise into it? Participating is a form of advocacy. But then, not participating will not help it be *less* “inferior.”

24 05 2012
Music for Deckchairs

I have some reservations about the assumption that participation and advocacy are the same thing. I can imagine situations in which this might hold, but “online learning” is just too diverse for participation in one kind of activity to be mistaken for advocacy for another.

This for-and-against thinking is a denial of complexity, and I’m just not sure that’s the peg on which historians typically hang their hats.

Some students will choose to undertake some or all of their classes online. Sometimes that will be a mistake for them. The best thing we can do is advocate for choice so that we don’t prejudge students who will work best in that way.

24 05 2012
Jonathan Rees


It’s not where do you stand on online anything? It’s do you stand with your colleagues or not?

Ultimately I believe that UD will join us because she is obviously a very principled person.

24 05 2012

Have you read UD’s posts reflecting on her experiences teaching in this model? I won’t call it a real MOOC when it’s just another Dalek, albeit a newer model, but at least she speaks from 1st hand experience.

24 05 2012
Music for Deckchairs

Is there an implied criteria for loyalty here? That is, can we argue carefully that running a MOOC and being concerned about industrial issues aren’t in conflict? Any more than accepting tenure and minding about adjunctification aren’t incompatible?

24 05 2012

If we “relax” because the bad idea obviously can’t win over time, when it clearly HAS won and we wake up, we can do nothing to stop it and little to change it. Witness: using part-time faculty. Witness: entire online schools and degrees.

24 05 2012
Lisa M Lane

Students will not be demanding online classes for convenience if they are not easier than on-site classes.

The issue is online class quality, not whether a class takes place online or in classroom. MOOCs that explore and engage students in self-directed learning are no threat to colleges. For-profit (or soon to be for-profit) MOOCs that think that factual information (whether given by a website or high-ranking university faculty) followed by automatically graded quizzes are a real “class” is the problem.

There are many professors, like myself, who spend much time and effort creating quality online classes that engage students in deep learning and community at a distance, and having our efforts lumped in with all of this as “online learning is inferior” is insulting, to say the least. So I’m not sure which “colleagues” I’m supposed to stand up with to stand up for quality education.

24 05 2012
Jonathan Rees


The ones who would be replaced by the second arrangement you describe. If the bad drives out the good, that might very well include yourself.

24 05 2012
Enjoy Quality

The fence is a distraction, so I’m hovering 10k feet above instead of pretending I’m sitting on it because I’m not. One real story. Adjunct faculty at large public university moves course online. One semester she has 200 students, next 700. No TA. No extra compensation. No choice.
The issues are big and deep and not pretty. http://www.aaup.org/AAUP/pubsres/academe/2012/MJ/Feat/Kuma.htm

24 05 2012

When you speak of quality education, remember that sustainability and access count too. The current system fails on both counts. Come up with an alternative that does.

Call me Quixotic (just don’t expect me to pay much attention if you do), but this sticks in my mind: “With all this talk of MOOC and scaling, isn’t it high time for a locally sourced, sustainable, handcrafted education” movement?”

Occupy the MOOC, dammit. Wooden shoes won’t work this time either.

24 05 2012
Music for Deckchairs

Handcrafted education is such an interesting concept. Elsewhere I’ve had a tiny, stimulating exchange about potlatch as a model. The scaling up of collaborative learning is potentially capable of offering a significant alternative model to traditional universities. This is why initiatives that have at least a rudimentary focus on empowering and recognising learners don’t worry me nearly as much as those at offer cut-price (but never free) access to content and testing, and depend on appalling and exploitative hiring practices.

25 05 2012
“Then who do we shoot?” « More or Less Bunk

[…] faced with this predicament, who do we shoot? Don’t shoot Margaret Soltan because if you do they’ll just find some other super-professor who has to feed their family […]

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