The Accent Is on the “Massive.” Should It Be?

When pronouncing MOOC, the accent is on the “Massive.” Everything exciting about MOOCs comes from their potential (if often fleeting) massive enrollments. And everything troubling and challenging about MOOCs reflects their massiveness as well.

As I explained in my original response to Alex Tabarrok’s love letter to Massive Open Online Courses, MOOCs are not the totality of online courses. Conflating the two generates misunderstanding of the diversity of teaching modes and techniques that have been instrumental in enhancing higher education for 20 years. Yet in his response to my essay, Tabarrok doubles down on this conflation and several other errors.

Tabarrok continues to presume fame is some sort of proxy for teaching ability, citing—of all people—Google co-founder Sergey Brin as some sort of master teacher despite his complete lack of experience in the craft. Tabarrok also presumes that the part-time status of the great majority of America’s college teachers indicates that the quality of these courses is necessarily below those of star professors at the constellation of elite research universities.

That most courses in America are taught by struggling adjuncts for absurdly low remuneration is a problem to be solved by increasing their status, pay, and benefits. It’s not a reason to double down on the star system and dream that MOOCs can render those hard-working adjuncts redundant. As someone who has hired, fired, and assessed dozens of adjunct and full-time instructors, I can attest that there is no correlation between one’s status and one’s teaching skills.

I have no reason to doubt that Sebastian Thrun is an expert teacher for Stanford students. Perhaps he is great in other contexts as well. But as I argued in my first essay, skillful teaching is contextual. The methods, tone, diction, and pace of a course at MIT or Stanford are nothing like the best practices at a community college or regional state university. The more diverse one’s class is, the more challenging the task of serving as many students as possible as well as possible. Just because someone is rich and famous does not make him a skilled teacher in all contexts, or, for that matter, in any context.

Now, Sergey Brin would certainly attract more initial registrants to his MOOC on search algorithms than some unknown computer science professor who teaches four courses a semester at California State University East Bay. But there is no reason to believe that Brin is a better teacher in general, let alone for the underserved populations that we all hope MOOCs can reach. Which teacher would a MOOC firm prefer on its roster? Which teacher would do the job better? Do we have any reason to believe they are the same teacher? If not, how should we adjust the incentive system of MOOCs to get the best teacher in front of the biggest audience?

As they stand today, MOOCs reward and enhance established brands. Arguments for MOOC mania always cite brands like Stanford, MIT, and Google. The more famous performers make the list in MOOC love letters like Tabarrok’s essay. The massive initial enrollments get cited as evidence of revolutionary success. Institutions with strong global reputations such as the University of Virginia (where I work) rush to sign contracts with Coursera so as not to be left out of MOOC mania.

Tabarrok wonders if I believe the 30 percent of students taking online courses are making a mistake when I explicitly defended online courses and stated that I had taught them as well. He claims that I “castigate” MOOCs when I do no such thing.

I support MOOCs. I oppose simplistic thinking about complex concepts. I oppose rushing into expensive policy initiatives with grand revolutionary rhetoric before weighing the costs and benefits. And I oppose technological fundamentalism, market fundamentalism, and all other fundamentalisms.

If we support the MOOC experiment it would be foolish to do so without confronting the serious incentive problems MOOCs present to teachers, students, and institutions of higher education. These are not reasons to quit MOOCs. They are reasons to take them seriously and strive to maximize the rewards of MOOCs while curbing the perverse incentives.

We should offer MOOCs that aim for many levels of expertise and in many languages. We should not reward universities or faculty based on initial, inflated enrollment. We should question the “O” as in “open” because a flood of trolls is about to show up in MOOC discussions, threatening to ruin everyone’s best efforts. We should ask why universities are not hosting and launching their own homegrown MOOCs when the software is simple and the talent is all in-house. Why engage with private companies that have completely different missions and demands than universities do?

The current incentives are all out of whack. And all this attention paid to MOOCs is counterproductive to their potential success. We should be encouraging and rewarding experimentation at all levels of enrollment, in the widest array of platforms, with a goal of enhancing quality teaching instead of merely crowing about quantity. We should be investing in skill development across the teaching faculties and putting part-time teachers on full-time salaries. We should be championing the potential synergies between great research and great teaching. We should reverse the dangerous trend of federal disinvestment from scientific research, the sort of funding that paid for Sergey Brin’s graduate work at Stanford and directly funded the development of PageRank, the core algorithm that has made Google ubiquitous and Brin rich and famous.

We should be justifiably proud of the remarkable and enviable triumphs of American higher education. Instead, we find most recent conversations about higher education echoing around this one tiny (and so far trivial) aspect of the complex and diverse ecosystem of higher education. This focus on technological platforms at the expense of actual threats, challenges, and successes robs us of the ability to have sober, informed debates about the proper level and style of investment in higher education. So I suggest we let MOOCs grow and do their best work, learn from successes and mistakes, and stop assuming that they are the simple answer to anything meaningful and profound in the production and distribution of knowledge. The world is just not that simple.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Alex Tabarrok reviews why traditional education is getting more expensive; he finds that its productivity has not been able to rise as fast as productivity in other sectors. Online education offers a promising alternative, and he explains how, if done properly, online education can realize productivity gains along many different dimensions. He concludes that online education is disrupting traditional educational forms, and that it is not yet clear what new forms will emerge from this exciting transition.

Response Essays

  • Alan Ryan views online education as potentially beneficial for students of lower-income families, but he demurs somewhat: As a technology, lectures have mostly been obsolete ever since the spread of the printed book. And the tutorial system as employed at Oxford will not realize many efficiency gains by going online. Additionally, the ability to selectively view the best fifteen minutes of any current professor’s oeuvre bodes ill for the professoriate, whose careers may all become just that short.

  • Siva Vaidhyanathan criticizes the “hypodermic needle” theory of communication, in which a communicator uses mass media to inject content into a passive audience. He argues that Alex Tabarrok’s lead essay is to some extent guilty of employing this theory. The true value of higher education lies not in injecting information, but in students’ and educators’ interactions. Online education can sometimes duplicate this process, but MOOCs are typically little more than “fancy textbooks.” While they have promise in some areas, we shouldn’t trust the hype.

  • Kevin Carey argues that the implications of online education are even more radical than Alex Tabarrok’s lead essay might imply. The introductory courses that scale well are almost certain to go fully online soon. Accreditation for online learning can’t be far behind, possibly by way of systems other than the traditional university credit. Little stands in the way of this shift except “habit, convention, and government regulation.” But afterward, the old university system may no longer be solvent.