AFT On Campus asks, 'Why MOOCs?'

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On Campus

The winter issue of the AFT's quarterly higher education magazine, AFT On Campus, looks at the meteoric rise of massive open online courses (MOOCs) since they came on the scene just a few short years ago.

Some say free online learning, which can attract tens of thousands of students to enroll at a pop, will be a disruptive—or transformative—force in higher education. MOOCs, the theory goes, have the potential to address both the problem of not enough students acquiring degrees (the so-called completion agenda) and soaring levels of student debt.

But AFT On Campus contributors say not so fast. They note that the reality of MOOCs is that they are a novel and appealing phenomenon that venture capitalists are rushing to invest in, but they are not a quality alternative to current face-to-face or hybrid classroom and online experiences.

In the long term, MOOCs might be a great classroom resource, argues Steven Krause of Eastern Michigan University, but they won't replace regular courses or faculty. In his article "Why MOOCs?" Krause raises five not-entirely-rhetorical questions about massive open online courses and debunks some myths from the perspective of an English professor.

In her article "Follow the Money," Susan Meisenhelder, former president of the California Faculty Association, summarizes the hard-hitting analysis coming out of the Campaign for the Future of Higher Education. She notes that investors and corporations like Coursera and Udacity want to make big profits off MOOCs, but we must ask, "Where do the need of students fit in the picture?"

The Century Foundation's prolific education expert Richard Kahlenberg prods the conscience of the nation in "The Politics of Online Learning." "States will be tempted to use relatively inexpensive online programs to serve the less-affluent, less-prepared segment of potential college goers," he writes. The result could be "an ever more bifurcated system of higher education in the United States."

In "MOOC Pique," Princeton's Mitch Duneier explains why, after teaching a wildly successful sociology MOOC, he conscientiously objected to teaching another massive open online course, worrying that administrators might be motivated by a goal of lowering costs, not improving learning options for students. Robert Reilly, an attorney with the New York State United Teachers, discusses MOOCs in the context of collective bargaining. State University of New York information security officer Martin Manjak describes the large team of professionals –and large costs—associated with making MOOCs and online learning work seamlessly for students.

Finally, Michael Feldstein, one of the founders of e-Literate and his new venture e-Literate TV, points out the positives of adaptive learning and assessment technologies. "Imagine if every student in your class could have a private tutor, available to him at any time for as long as he needs," he writes. His piece takes us back to the essential point that faculty, staff and unions embrace technology as a teaching tool.

The Winter 2013-2014 issue of AFT On Campus is available online.

[Barbara McKenna]

Dec. 19, 2013