It turns out there is one comment on my Inside Higher Education essay that came out on Monday to which I do want to reply. Luckily, it comes from Alan Trevithick. Since he’s been known to visit this blog, I won’t feel like I’m deliberately fleeing for safer ground by posting my response here.
This is Alan’s comment in full:
Yes, good post, but I do question: for whom would it be the worst thing in the world to ignore this or that higher ed problem? Because, in fact, many will perhaps not be able to “save our jobs,” having never had decent secure academic jobs in the first place, while others can at least try to save the tenured jobs they have and the only practical penalty they may face, in the worst case, will be some early retirement package of a sort that the now-majority faculty, adjuncts and contingents, are not able now to imagine. If “real” faculty do become extinct, it won’t after all because they are hunted into oblivion, like passenger pigeons or (nearly) bison, but because they won’t be able to reproduce themselves, like that poor old tortoise who passed on a while ago, the last of his wonderful wrinkled and armored species. Well fed, attended by world-class veterinarians. No spawn. So, the only thing missing here is a plan, which requires a good breeding population, and a lot of chummy solidarity and organization.
Of course he’s right. The people with the most to lose should be the ones most concerned about MOOCs, and that would be tenure track faculty members. On one level, you could actually argue that being replaced by a super professor on computer video is the best thing that could happen to your typical adjunct faculty member as they would then be forced to go out and get a job that actually pays a living wage.
But I don’t believe that. I remain in constant awe of anyone who accepts adjunct wages to teach full-time. They make my dedication look puny by comparison. What we should all want to do is get these extremely dedicated people into classroom teaching jobs that pay them well so that they can focus more of their attention on teaching their subjects well and less on just surviving until the next semester. Unfortunately, that’s never going to happen in a world full of MOOCs.
Major research universities have not signed up with Coursera because they want to do a great service to the world. Their intention is to extend their brand into new markets, namely people who would not consider going back to college otherwise and the same market that smaller, less prestigious universities currently serve. Why pay to go to your local community college if you can get your degree online for free? If these education/corporate partnerships are successful in creating a viable credit college alternative, people considering going back to college will not be taught by a real live human being (adjunct or tenure track) and the people who might have attended those less prestigious schools won’t be either because they’ll take the no-cost option too.
What happens to adjuncts in this scenario? They’re certainly not going to become super professors because those people are picked on the basis of name recognition, either for the faculty member themselves or for that faculty member’s institution. This was precisely the starting point for my argument with Stephen Downes back in May. He wrote:
Those people who are off the tenure track, such as adjuncts, obviously make considerably less. But they are not the people harmed by the new models. They are the ones being harmed by the current model.
So you think it’s hard to find a tenure track job now? Scale up classes and cut the number of professors teaching them and then try it. But can’t other faculty members help implement the MOOC? Another comment on my essay covers the response to that argument:
Who is going pursue graduate study when the best s/he can hope for will be to serve as a graduate student/grading-and-student-interface flunky for the few dozen superstar profs who design the MOOCs? What’s going to be the recruiting pitch from graduate departments now?
Adjunct or tenure track: we are all in the same boat. This whole MOOC thing is just more of the same deliberate restructuring of demand in order to decrease labor and facilities cost. At least I have the option of riding out the transition until I save enough money to retire. If you’re currently trying to enter through the tenure track door, this is the equivalent of piling furniture behind it so that nobody else will ever enter again.