Low-cost educational alternative likely to widen digital divide
MASSIVE OPEN ONLINE CLASSES have been hailed by officials at the companies that run them (the three biggest are edX, Udacity and Coursera) as a way to provide access to classes at elite universities to everyone, but critics say that MOOCs — free online course with potentially thousands of students, many of them outside the United States — would undermine education quality, increase the digital divide and cost teachers their jobs.
Expressing skepticism, American University in Washington, D.C., recently announced a “moratorium on MOOCs.” And philosophy professors at San Jose State rejected a MOOC by popular Harvard professor Michael Sandel on “Justice,” saying it would be unjust to have students passively watch a computer screen rather than interact with a professor and peers, and that MOOCs undermine education. All the instructors in the department signed an open letter to The Chronicle of Higher Education expressing their concerns.
“Let’s not kid ourselves,” they wrote. “Administrators at the CSU are beginning a process of replacing faculty with cheap online education.”
“It’s such an assault on the university as we know it,” said Rita Manning, a philosophy professor at San Jose State. “All students need mentoring and that’s really important.”
Jim Miller, political action vice president of the AFT Guild and an English and Labor Studies teacher at San Diego City College, also doesn’t buy MOOC proponents’ line that they create access for all.
“Everybody wants to say it’s all about democratizing education, but really it’s designed to kick in the door for profit-making and a two-tier American higher education,” he said. “Affluent kids will still get a university education and middle class and working class kids can take a MOOC.”
Contrary to what these companies are saying…they’re in it for the money. So you have a perfect storm of these outside vendors looking for ways to monetize these largely free products they’ve developed and our craven legislators looking for a way to fund education on the cheap.
—Kelly Mayhew, English professor, San Diego City College
Eventually, the companies offering these classes for free will start charging students for credit, says University Council-AFT vice president of organizing Mike Rotkin. In response to the argument that students going to a large lecture class might as well take a MOOC, he points out that lecture classes with smaller sections are very different than having thousands of students online at once. MOOCs leave no room for critical thinking or questioning, he said.
This means teachers would be glorified tutors, Miller says. “It’s the de-skilling of academics, and people are concerned with the blithe insistence that a MOOC is the equivalent of a giant lecture hall,” he said. “I know people who have taught for 20 or 30 years and have never had a class bigger than 35. And it’s just an assault on the craft of teaching.”
We shouldn’t race to the bottom trying to replicate the most impersonal learning experiences, says Bob Samuels, president of the UC-AFT and a lecturer at UCLA.
Samuels pointed out that the completion rate for MOOCs so far has been extremely low — less than 10 percent. Samuels thinks MOOCs distract from important discussions in higher education.
“Instead of talking about real issues like student debt or problems of access or defunding, we’re talking about MOOCs,” he said.
Kelly Mayhew, an English professor at San Diego City College serves on a MOOC task force for her district and she says everything is shifting as the companies change their products.
“Contrary to what these companies are saying that they’re ‘not in it for the money,’ they’re in it for the money,” she said. “So you have a perfect storm of these outside vendors looking for ways to monetize these largely free products they’ve developed and our craven legislators looking for a way to fund education on the cheap.”
— By Emily Wilson, CFT Reporter