I’ve been stalled on a draft of this piece for some time, but Amy Bruckman’s recent post provided the catalyst I needed to finish it up. She hypothesizes that “the future of universities is excelling at everything a MOOC is not.” Clearly universities can excel at activities that require students to be near each other and near professors, such as lab classes, motivating students by getting in their faces, and providing an environment for all of the extracurricular activities that make college such a great place to spend four or five years. A small set of universities such as Harvard also excels as an input filter and as a networking playground for the elite.
MOOCs—done right—should be able to improve upon the big lecture courses that all freshmen and sophomores suffer through at research universities. Even if MOOCs don’t produce better learning (they will be awesome for math and CS and physics, probably not so much for history or English) they are at least very cheap. So Bruckman is basically painting an idyllic picture where the students escape from the big lecture classes and also receive an improved amount of individual attention from instructors. From the professors’ side, we get to do the part of the teaching job that we enjoy and are good at: interacting with smaller groups of students via discussions, team work, and lab work.
But this vision has a problem: the big lecture classes bring in a huge amount of tuition relative to the costs of running them, whereas small classes taught by well-paid professors are not at all economical. See my previous post on this topic and consider that my department chair recently reminded the faculty about a long-standing (but apparently as-yet unenforced) policy that any undergraduate class with fewer than 15 students is subject to cancellation. Part of the problem is that R1 universities have evolved a system where professors have light teaching loads. For example, each year I am required to teach one big class, one medium class, and one small class; this is typical for a CS professor at a research school. In the small class, and probably in the medium class, I’m confident that I can do a much better job than a MOOC, but this is probably not the case for the large class. When I started teaching I didn’t mind the big classes and was in fact happy about the opportunity to reach lots of students at once. For various reasons, I’ve soured on these classes.
The point is that if large lecture classes are replaced by MOOCs, universities face a revenue collapse that will force a major restructuring. This could result, for example, in people like me being asked to cover a larger fraction of our salaries from grants. That is, the university could save money by covering only 50% or 25% of our salaries instead of the current standard arrangement where it pays 75%. Another possibility is that many professors are let go while others face much larger teaching loads. According to my university’s regulations, “A faculty member with tenure may be terminated or given a renewal contract with a substantially reduced status because of financial exigency”—which is what would happen following a revenue collapse. I think all universities have an analogous clause. Either of these changes would represent a major turn for the worse in American academic research. A third possibility is that universities will charge students to take credit hours obtained through a MOOC and count them towards a degree. This seems doubtful to work in the long run, but I’m guessing it is precisely what most of the universities allying with Coursera are hoping to do.
Some small college classes are extremely good and can even change people’s lives. These can’t be replaced using any foreseeable technology. On the other hand, large classes need to go. I loathed them as a student and despise them as an instructor. It’s very difficult to do a good job as a teacher, and in practice some significant fraction of the students students slips through without any reasonable mastery of the material. Combined with high tuition, this is a bad combination. The questions are: How to fix these classes and how to avoid throwing out the baby with the bathwater?