Saturday, May 26, 2012
MOOCs and the Professoriate
Kaustuv Basu / May 23, 2012 - 3:00 AM
Last week, New York Times columnist Tom Friedman wrote with evangelical zeal about the arrival of Massive Online Open Courses, the free courses from top institutions available to students anywhere in the world. Not only would MOOCs be a huge industry in five years, he said, but financially strapped community colleges could use the online lectures while their own professors could work “face-to-face” with students.
Also noticing and reacting to Friedman’s column last week were a bunch of faculty members who took to the blogs, complaining about his column, but worrying about their own future. A post by Mark Brown, an associate professor of government at California State University, Sacramento, criticized the notion that MOOCs could be a solution to the scarcity of public funding in higher education.
Another blog post, entitled, “Professors of the world unite. You have more to lose than just your jobs,” by Jonathan Rees, a professor of history at Colorado State University, Pueblo, said: “…the kind of technologically-induced educational and financial disaster that would make Tom Friedman cackle with glee is a lot more likely if you decide to stand silently and let other people make your university’s decisions for you without your voice being heard.”
So with all this rumbling, what do the three national unions that represent faculty members think about the MOOC movement and the faculty role? So far, they are dubious at best, and say that they are studying the issues involved.
Cary Nelson, the outgoing president of the American Association of University Professors, said that online models such as Coursera – an online entity offering free courses from Stanford University, Princeton University, University of Michigan and the University of Pennsylvania – can be terrific for delivering educational materials to retirement homes, “where folks are unlikely to assume any social responsibilities for the ‘knowledge’ they have acquired.”
“But it's not education, and it's not even a reliable means for credentialing people,” Nelson said. Education calls for real interaction with faculty members and a consensus through which faculty members can design, manage and evaluate degree programs, he said. “It’s fine to put lectures online, but this plan only degrades degree programs if it plans to substitute for them.”
Martin Snyder, senior associate general secretary at the AAUP, said the organization has principles in place asserting that faculty must have control over the constitution of the curriculum and the delivery, structure and assessment of a course. [snip].
Faculty groups should be concerned with curriculum control, said Mark Smith, senior policy analyst at the National Education Association. [snip].
Unions should strengthen contracts when it comes to curricular control and intellectual property, Smith said in an article called “Negotiating Virtual Space,” which he co-authored in 2011 for the NEA Almanac. [snip].
Sandra Schroeder, chair of the American Federation of Teachers Higher Education Program and Policy Council and president of AFT Washington, said that many questions remain about “about how, when and for whom these course options are valuable, particularly about the extent to which these programs can address the needs of students who require the most help.” [snip].
Schroeder suggested that instead of focusing on the “latest magic bullet,” educators need to address declining investments at the state level and on instruction at individual institutions. [snip].
One role that faculty groups can play is to ensure that MOOCs aren’t touted as a cost-cutting device for traditional universities, said Brown, the professor at CSU Sacramento. A dangerous scenario that Brown envisions: Super professors at elite universities replacing lectures by faculty members at other universities. [snip].
Margaret Soltan, an associate professor of English at George Washington University who was the first at the university to offer a MOOC, said that organizations such as the AAUP might not have any role in the conversation at the moment. [snip].
As for those professors worrying over MOOCs threatening their livelihoods, she has one word for them: relax. “Online is clearly inferior, even if done very well, [compared to] face-to-face education and to the social rites of growing up which college represents for many, many people,” she said.
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