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MOOC pique

An online star withholds his teaching assets

Mitchell Duneier is the Maurice P. During Professor of Sociology at Princeton University. His first experience teaching a massive open online course to a world audience of 40,000 students was an exhilarating success. Yet just a few months later, he put his collaboration with Coursera on hold. AFT Higher Education senior associate Chris Goff caught up with Duneier online and asked him why.

CHRIS GOFF: Last year, you became a poster child for the MOOC movement, with a front-page article about your course appearing in the New York Times. But recently, the Chronicle of Higher Education called you a “conscientious objector.” They reported that you are taking a “wait and see” attitude on any future teaching for Coursera. What happened? 

MITCHELL DUNEIER: Last fall, University System of Maryland Chancellor William Kirwan announced that his system would experiment with MOOC technology in order to lower costs. I later learned that the Maryland system was gearing up to use my archived class to see if course materials such as this could be used to achieve “cost savings.” Fortunately, I found out in time to say no, which was my right as the owner of the material. 

Public higher education in the United States has been cut mercilessly since I began my teaching career at Wisconsin and the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB), 20 years ago. Now there is talk about new “efficiencies.” I didn’t want to be the poster child for new ways to cut funding for public universities.

What precipitated your original interest in offering a course through a MOOC?

The possibility of teaching an Introduction to Sociology course to students from more than 100 different countries was very exciting to me when it was first proposed by Daphne Koller, the co-founder of Coursera. She made a fantastic case that access to people around the world is one of the greatest issues facing higher education. We also agreed that unlike computer science and other subjects, in which the answers to problems are pretty much the same around the world, sociology would be an interesting experiment because its problems are perceived so differently depending on the country. 

Was it really possible to provide quality education to tens of thousands of students in more than 100 countries at the same time?

Yes. But, sadly, now the conversation about MOOCs has quickly shifted from worldwide access to cost savings for public universities if they replace courses previously taught by live instruction. The pivotal agenda of venture capital investors in Coursera is the revenue stream from institutional sales, not global philanthropy.

You must have some people asking, “What’s wrong with state universities achieving cost savings?”

I have no objection to cost savings. Maybe they should spend less on chancellor salaries, for instance. But we should be investing more—not less—in faculty hiring; move away from overworked, underpaid adjunct faculty; and invest in new facilities, research and so on. I’d have to be willfully naive not to see that Chancellor Kirwan is talking about the next step in further starving higher education. 

Furthermore, it’s hard to separate his vision for the use of this material from future degradation of my colleagues’ work around the country. How demeaning to a professor in a state university to be told that his or her new job will include managing the lectures of someone at Princeton! And how impoverishing to the study of sociology to substitute the celebrity version for the week-to-week teaching of the subject by many minds at institutions of varying prestige. What should those of us who teach courses for institutional sales tell graduate students as our lectures get used to eliminate their jobs?

What do you see as the impact on future research and faculty governance?

Well, the focus on finding new ways to cut costs on faculty salaries is also shortsighted if we wish to maintain the research traditions of our disciplines. The amazing higher education system we created after World War II—the envy of the world—was built on a foundation of a full-time, tenure-system faculty with a strong tradition of research, academic freedom and a central role in the governance of their universities. I worry that institutional sales of MOOCs from other universities thrust upon faculty will undermine this foundation.

But isn’t this the 21st-century reality?

William Bowen, our former president at Princeton, has written a prescient book on this question titled Higher Education in the Digital Age. Other, more radical prominent scholars, like Christopher Newfield of UCSB, and Dan Clawson and Max Page of the University of Massachusetts (The Future of Higher Education), have also been weighing in with deeply insightful studies. Clawson and Page, for example, reject the austerity line that claims that state universities have to be constantly cutting costs. It’s impossible to read the range of current studies and not see that this new “reality” will depend on the political choices we make.

What would it take for MOOCs to be a positive force for U.S. higher education?

I think we should begin insisting that faculties have a say in how their universities will use MOOC technology. We need to get back to the old shared governance principle that curriculum is a core faculty domain. I don’t have all the answers, but your members might be interested in an online course to be offered on Coursera by Cathy Davidson at Duke University titled “The History and Future of Higher Education,” beginning Jan. 27.

Isn’t it inconsistent to recommend a Coursera course when you have become a conscientious objector?

This is a new technology that could be used for a lot of good. No reason to throw away electricity because someone invents an electric chair. No one—least of all me—doubts that MOOCs have the potential to bring greater access and quality to higher education. They also have the potential to destroy higher education, especially public higher education.

Reprinted from the Winter 2013-14 issue of On Campus.