Some Professors Want Brakes Put on MOOCs



May 15, 2013; Bloomberg News (via

Although initial news coverage suggested that Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs) were a harbinger of democratic higher education available to all, professors in various institutions are beginning to sound the alarm. In the past month, faculty at Amherst College, San Jose State University (see letter), and the provost at American University have each put the brakes on such initiatives. Even professors at universities that promote MOOCs, including Harvard, have begun to speak out about their concerns.

One common worry is that the quality of education is downgraded by MOOCs. Indeed, according to a Gallup poll last month, only 3 percent of university presidents believe that MOOCs will improve student learning. So, why is everyone pushing for these online classes?

The answer is cost. And this answer underlies the concerns of many thoughtful faculty members. They see the system of higher education undergoing a fundamental shift focused on cost reduction and consolidation. As philosophy professors at San Jose State put it:

“that two classes of universities will be created: one, well-funded colleges and universities in which privileged students get their own real professor; the other, financially stressed private and public universities in which students watch a bunch of videotaped lectures and interact, if indeed any interaction is available on their home campuses, with a professor that this model of education has turned into a glorified teaching assistant…Let’s not kid ourselves; administrators at the CSU are beginning a process of replacing faculty with cheap online education.”

So, MOOCs in fact may be the harbingers of revolution in the system of higher education – one that will result in greater inequality based upon the ability to pay.—Michelle Shumate

  • Joy Ellsworth

    As part of a team that is putting together resources for connecting rural students with trade skills education, the company Applied Virtual Learning Systems has come to our attention as a software platform that will enable real-time instruction, giving remote instructors useful new developments for the online classroom—like “taking over” a student’s mouse to show them a solution, and then releasing control to the student to check whether the concept is understood, all while monitoring the progress (via screen “eavesdropping”) of a 30-student virtual classroom. When students aren’t online “in class,” they can go online and use the platform as a resource for posted materials and communications with other classmates or instructors. It seems to be the best of Skype, Powerpoint and Blackboard wrapped into one service. Way beyond the usual videotaped lectures.

    I hate to go on like this, but we had never seen something like it before. The main benefit we see is that students will experience a higher degree of truly instructive interaction. Out in the country it’s hard to get hands-on learners to drive in to a workshop or classroom on daily basis, so internet connectivity is turning out to be the more affordable answer.