Beware the thunder lizards

MOOCs are on their way to a campus near you

By Cynthia Eaton

The thunder lizards are coming to higher education, like Godzilla obliterating the old to plant the “seeds of a new world to come,” sowing the demise of college as we know it to make space for “The University of Everywhere.” 

While some might shudder at the destructiveness of this vision, Kevin Carey, in his recently released book The End of College, hails the venture capitalists who are these self-styled “thunder lizards,” bringing their game-changing, disruptive technologies like MOOCs—massive open online courses—to academia because they view “every inconvenience, inefficiency, and injustice as a problem technology can solve.” 

MOOCs certainly look shiny and bright at first glance, offering free education to millions. But many MOOCs transfer curriculum planning from faculty to corporations driven by profit. Their one-size-fits-all approach fails to meet diverse student needs. They exploit contingent faculty, threaten intellectual property rights, and stratify students into those taking free classes and those paying tuition for a bricks-and-mortar experience.

In an interview with National Public Radio, Carey expresses disgust at colleges’ near monopoly on the higher education market. “Colleges are expensive because they can be,” he asserts, although he concedes that because most colleges are nonprofit, “they’re not trying to maximize their revenue; what they’re trying to do is maximize how important they are so that people who work there seem important and like special people.” 

Really? Colleges are expensive, actually, because it costs money to educate students with appropriate resources, including fairly compensated faculty and staff—who are, in fact, “important.” 

While the “Year of the MOOC” is past, books like The End of College and Ryan Craig’s College Disrupted just keep coming, pressing for more allegiance to this tech-heavy model. Craig asserts that the “great unbundling” of higher education will actually make college more valuable, so traditional, on-campus colleges will simply need to do a better job of communicating why students who can afford it should pay for the whole package—a stunningly casual endorsement of “bricks for the rich, clicks for the poor.” 

MOOC mania continues to thrive despite the fact that the system doesn’t work as well as we thought it would. An edX study of MOOCs, released on April 1, notes that low completion rates persist, participants continue to be older and already possess a college degree, and almost half are uninterested in certification. That’s hardly pulling the disenfranchised into the higher ed pool. Other  MOOC issues include Rutgers students’ protest of invasive online proctoring, and the Department of Justice intervention that was necessary to get edX to make its MOOCs accessible to individuals with disabilities. 

The research on MOOCs is still mixed. A survey by the Community College Research Center at Columbia University shows that community college students in Virginia and Washington state public schools—and particularly men, students of color and those beginning with low  GPAs—fared significantly worse in online courses. But last June, researchers Temi Bidjerano and Peter Shea claimed that community college students who took an online course in their first year completed their degrees at significantly higher rates. They suggested the two states examined by CCRC must be outliers.  

So where are we now? Udacity is offering nanodegrees to adult workers in technical fields, and Coursera recently added professionally aimed microdegrees to its lengthy list of liberal arts courses. 

There have been other useful suggestions about the long-term potential for MOOCs, from serving as interactive textbooks and resources for flipped classroom innovations to offering noncredit MOOCs to students preparing for remedial placement exams. Faculty continue to experiment with MOOCs in interesting ways. There is certainly potential here, but more faculty-driven, careful research is sorely needed.

Meanwhile, the thunder lizards continue to breathe fire. Clearly, our current system is not without issues and concerns, but having honest conversations might just be a smarter solution than dressing up as Godzilla and destroying the entire enterprise.

AFT On Campus, Summer 2015 Download PDF (2.18 MB)
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