Friday, May 03, 2013

Panic in University Park

Fear has descended on the academy. Many are starting to see the threat posed by the MOOC. Of course higher ed, or at least the more vulnerable reaches of higher ed, haven't been happy for a while. Having tried insults and related tactics, those who perceive themselves threatened are now trying to appear to the compassion and brotherly feeling of their fellow profs who man the MOOCs. Here is a sample, courtesy of Jonathan Rees, the proprietor of a blog lately devoted mostly to anti-MOOC activism: More or Less Bunk.

I know I’m late to the party on this, but that letter to Harvard’s Michael Sandel from the San Jose State (SJSU) Philosophy Department really is quite wonderful. I’m going to try to take up its implications with respect to academic freedom and shared governance over at the Academe blog as soon as I get my grading done, but what I want to discuss here is the way that those nice folks in California actually called out Sandel, not just their administrators.

You can see this most clearly at the very end of the letter:

“We respect your desire to expand opportunities for higher education to audiences that do not now have the chance to interact with new ideas. We are very cognizant of your long and distinguished record of scholarship and teaching in the areas of political philosophy and ethics. It is in a spirit of respect and collegiality that we are urging you, and all professors involved with the sale and promotion of edX-style courses, not to take away from students in public universities the opportunity for an education beyond mere jobs training. Professors who care about public education should not produce products that will replace professors, dismantle departments, and provide a diminished education for students in public universities.

This appeal stings, to be sure, but will it work? The trouble is, the protesting professors are asking the MOOC teachers to put the economic interests of their fellow professors ahead of their students. Of course that's not the way teh reactionaries would put it, but if you believe in what you are teaching at your MOOC, how can you think otherwise.

Of course it's possible that the MOOC is really only suitable for a special class of highly motivated and self-confident students who would disdain professorial hand-holding anyway. Or maybe they only work in technical classes. At some point, perhaps even soon, some post class testing is going to be introduced, and then MOOCs and professors alike will find their work under the eye of the educational panopticon - probably even more that elementary and secondary teachers already are.