This space started as a bad history blog. OK, maybe bad is a little strong, but I certainly didn’t have anything more interesting to write than all the other good history bloggers out there did. It started picking up steam when I began writing about online education. Why do that (particularly as I didn’t know the first thing about it at that time)? I had just been asked to teach online, and was absolutely appalled by how shoddy the standards were (at least as they were being described to me). So I politely declined, but figured I’d warn others who were as ignorant as I was.
What I got in response to those posts is an interesting group of readers and commenters, some of whom shared my concerns about online education and others who kept trying to explain to me that online education really could be something fantastic if dedicated people are given an opportunity to shine. While I do now agree with that assessment, my main question remains how long the people in charge of such endeavors are willing to let good online instructors do what they do well.
For the past 10 years, online enrollment has been growing faster than traditional enrollment for higher education. In traditional programs, colleges are limited to hiring professors who live within commuting distance of a school. In the online world, the resource pool is potentially global. “Online education has freed us from the limited pool of professors in a local area,” says Kathy Naasz, Co-Founder and President of Professors On Demand. “Why not get the best professor in the world for a specific course? To do that, a global database is needed with meaningful profiles of professors based on academic criteria, and that is just what we have created.”
I have no idea whether this specific effort is a sincere attempt at improving online education or a front for the forces of permanent austerity, but it does illustrate the fundamental labor problem inherent in online education of all kinds: a nearly infinite supply of labor facing a limited demand for their services. You may have the best, most rigorous online class imaginable, but if you can’t put virtual butts in virtual seats you can be replaced with a snap of their fingers.
I’m hardly the first person to say this, but the appeal of online education from an administrative standpoint is that the professors can be anywhere, the students can be anywhere, yet the money still flows into campus. Get rid of campus altogether (no heating bills, no light bills, etc.) and you’re living Tim Ferriss’ dream.
Notice how I haven’t mentioned MOOCs once yet? The same principle is involved here only moreso. If you can get rid of the classroom, why not get rid of the professor altogether? Online education was the gateway drug for MOOCs. First they moved education online so that they could gradual shut down most parts of non-elite campuses. Now they’re gradually getting rid of most professors altogether, and of course it’s the online instructors who they’ll get rid of first. After all (and remember, this is administrative think I’m parroting here), who’ll notice? What ties do they have to campus anyway?
As you might imagine, the MOOC providers deny this. Here’s Anant Agarwal of edX:
Agarwal, who earlier this month spoke at the TEDGlobal conference in Edinburgh in defence of Moocs, denies that taking the teaching out of the lecture hall will jeopardise jobs. He insists instead that although lecturers’ roles may change slightly, students using Mooc resources will still benefit from contact time with professors.
Of course they will…at MIT and Harvard. However, he has no idea whether anybody with the right qualifications is going to be at home on the campuses that contract to use edX content. If he really cared that much, that would be part of their agreements. That won’t happen because it would decimate most of the appeal of MOOCs for ravenous administrators everywhere.
On Friday night, I asked what I thought was an intelligent question on Twitter and Google+. Here’s the tweet:
Based on the ensuing Google+ conversation, now I’m not so sure that was a good question after all. Small online classes will likely retain more students than large face-to-face classes. Small face-to-face classes by good teachers will likely blow away the online classes taught by bad ones. Too many variables. Apples to oranges.
But there’s one thing that I’m willing to boldly assert without fear of contradiction. Classes of any kind with the most contact between professors and students will be the most rewarding for everyone involved. Contact is possible in many ways now, but contact is still the key no matter what. While some students are motivated and smart enough to learn by themselves, or even to learn how to learn for themselves by themselves, you can’t have universal education without professors. You can have universal access to education without professors, but that’s not real education, is it? Even Sebastian Thrun concedes this point now. Unfortunately, MOOCs threaten access to the professor at all levels of higher education in classes of all kinds because they can be run by themselves or by people who are unqualified to teach the content that superprofessors provide. That’s why MOOCs ought to be recognized as the enemy of quality education by professors everywhere.
Those of us on the front lines of higher ed see the effects of austerity every day. Even the most enthusiastic MOOC proponents can’t just wish austerity away and if they make believe that the power divide between faculty and administrators isn’t there, they’re the ones most likely to have that come back and bite them on the butt. However, I’m afraid that by already conceding the enormous benefits of proximity, we’ve lost this argument before it has barely started.
Faculty are hardly the only ones who’ll suffer as a result.
Update: Looks like Phil was here long before I was.