“It was the MOOCs! They done it!”

4 02 2013

Anybody who’s spent any time reading this blog knows that I’m a pessimist with respect to the future of higher education. Stories like this explain why:

“There is little or no indication that innovative pedagogy motivates technological use in the classroom, which sort of flies in the face of how the use of information-based instructional technologies is usually presented,” said David R. Johnson, a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of Georgia and the study’s author.

Instead, the report suggests, technology is more often used by professors for managerial reasons, such as to help with the demands of growing class sizes. While Mr. Johnson said most college administrators are not yet requiring professors to use instructional technologies, the pressure of teaching more than 300 students at once, for example, leads faculty members to adopt technology in ways unrelated to improving learning.

[emphasis added]

But why should they have to require any professor to use instructional technology if packing their classes to the gills with students leads to the same result?

At my place, as Historiann can tell you, our university system has its own online arm. If the powers that be wanted us to use any particular instructional technology, all they’d have to do is redirect money from the physical campuses to the virtual campus and the result would be the same all around. Offer cheap credit for MOOCs of all kinds through an online arm, and physical campuses are going to look like they’re failing their students whether they actually are or not.

The death of the traditional university can also become a self-fulfilling prophecy if students get directed online in more subtle ways. I’m still hoping Audrey Watters will write about this at her own blog, but until that happens I’ll just have to play off her comments here:

What happens to CS when it decides that it wants to be more about skills training and as such abandons the liberal arts? (I think Steve Jobs gets invoked a lot here with his comments about Apple existing at the intersection of the liberal arts and technology). I guess we can shrug and say “Oh well, it’s not my discipline or department” (and perhaps focus instead on what Coursera is up to — its plans to MOOCify more of the curriculum). But I think we need to address this larger move towards viewing the university as all about skills and job training.

I’ll tell you what happens if CS abandons the liberal arts. Computer scientists will become functionally illiterate. But what happens to English and History departments – even if we don’t MOOC-ify – when all those students earning their $10,000 online vocational degrees skip our humanities classes and our administrators let them? I’ll tell you what happens there too. Our disciplines will just fade away.

Dr. Crazy is tired of reading predictions like this, and I can’t say that I blame her. It’s just as tiring running around saying that the sky is falling as it is to hear it, but I’m not actually saying that the sky is falling. Ever since this blog has taken a technological turn, I’ve been arguing that the transformation is going to be gradual, not sudden.

In fact, I predict that the death of the liberal arts will be so gradual that we might not even be able to notice the knife in the back for years after it gets stuck there, let alone be able blame the people responsible for the murder. So if you’re expecting a Victorian maid to scream, “It was the MOOCs! They done it!,” in a high-pitched Cockney voice, you’re going to be sadly disappointed. Personally, I’d rather prevent that death from happening in the first place, but for that to occur we will all have to pay attention to things going on far outside the confines of our own little departments.



5 responses

4 02 2013
Barbara Sullivan

The “gradual” change that you describe has already been happening while nobody but you was looking (thank you, Chicken Little, for keeping your eye on the sky while others have their heads in the sand). I think the sky is at risk of falling on a lot of us–adjuncts first–over the relatively short term of the next five years. Ironically, academics are not thinking critically about this, or using information literacy skills to interpret the frame that is increasingly showing up in editorial columns of both national and local newspapers (i.e., college costs are out of control because of “tenure and lavish amenities” and “inefficient instruction”).


4 02 2013
Jonathan Rees


I get your point about the sky falling on some, especially adjuncts. I meant the sky falling on the humanities in general.

One of the reasons that adjuncts are adjunct is so that they can be let go during dark times. As the times get darker, they’ll be the first to go, but even the tenured need to worry about waking up one day and finding their entire department ripped out from under them since the pre-professional ethos that MOOCs thrive upon dictates that there is no commercial value to a degree in English or History.

4 02 2013

The funny thing about all of these “liberal arts education is useless”/”the liberal arts sky is falling” are in direct contradiction to the numbers of majors we have. At most unis, including my one-time A & M, the liberal arts college is the tuition-producing engine that could. Do we really think that students and their parents are totally irrational economic actors, or do they see some value in earning a lib arts degree? The problem for governors and administrators who start trashing the lib arts is that they’re trashing their own constituencies.

In any case, have you seen this, Jonathan?


4 02 2013
Jonathan Rees


Indeed, I did. While my first reaction was to take to this space and gloat, I want to see if I can figure out the root of that failure since I’m guessing it might help make my larger point that higher education is impossible to automate. If I’m right, I’ll return to that story in the next couple of days.

4 02 2013
Scott Johnson

One course crashes and it’s the end of the world. Change will not come without risk taking and some tolerance for failure.

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