Don’t Fear the MOOCs

On my own time, I play at political punditry. But my day job—by far the most important part of my professional life—is to be a college administrator. Specifically, I am the Provost and Vice President of Academics at a small liberal-arts university in Wichita, Kansas. And, in my official capacity as an evil administrator, I have spent a lot of time talking about MOOCs.

A MOOC, for those who have spent the last eighteenth months somewhere other than in university administration, is a “Massive, Open, Online Course”—one of those big internet classes from someplace like Harvard or MIT that runs on a super-duper web platform and has the capacity to enroll hundreds of thousands of students at a time. Depending on who you ask, MOOCs are destined to become either the salvation or the destruction of higher education.

Those in the “salvation” camp, see MOOCs as the best thing to happen to educational access since the printing press. Now, students from Zimbabwe to Brazil can enroll in a Harvard class, or even a lot of Harvard classes, and finally get the Harvard education once reserved for rich Americans. Those of us whose jobs require us to read things like The Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Education every day are now quite used to the MOOC- Messiah language that is just now starting to filter out to the real world.

The other side sees the MOOC as the ultimate adjunct instructor—a slick technological talking head that can do all the teaching that needs doing and reduce professors everywhere else to graders and bus drivers for a few superstar professors back East. The philosophy department at San Jose State recently threw their shoes in the MOOC mill by refusing to pilot a MOOC philosophy course from Harvard.

So who is right? Well, in my opinion, both the messianic and the apocalyptic MOOC prophecies have it wrong. As I see the future of higher education unfolding, the vaunted MOOCs are destined to play an important role in the process, but not the important role currently played by the classroom professor.

What the MOOC might eventually replace is the textbook. For a hundred years, superstar professors from elite universities have put down what they know about their subject matter in overpriced textbooks that students all over the country are forced to buy. Most textbooks begin as written lectures (full disclosure, I am a textbook author, and the first edition of my text was taken directly from my teaching notes and class lectures), and most professors order textbooks so that they don’t have to create a curriculum from scratch every time they teach a class.

MOOCs are really just textbooks that talk and use PowerPoint. They are very good at what textbooks are slightly less good at, which is delivering static information to passive receivers. They can’t replace teachers because they do not do the things that classroom teachers in the 21st century ought to be doing, which consists largely in using precious class time for engaging, interactive activities that encourage students to become critical thinkers and creative problem solvers. And, of course, we sometimes do lecture. But I for one am happy to let the MOOCs take over that part of my teaching so that I can spend more time on the things that really matter.