The U.S. Supreme Court has declared that corporations are people, so I guess it’s not surprising that universities are corporations…. and College and University Presidents are much like CEOs. The main goal of higher education, then, must be to make a profit.
At my home institution, online courses were developed as a means to boost summer enrollment numbers and increase incoming revenue. Using online material makes it easier to hire part-time instructors and also reduces overhead costs, thereby increasing the “efficiency” and “productivity” of the institution. Once course material is developed, it can be disseminated widely, and courses can be monitored by underpaid teaching assistants and adjuncts. There is less need to hire full-time professors to teach classes.
The folks in the administration did not ask faculty what they thought about the merits of this delivery method, and none of the course proposals were brought to the curriculum committee for approval. This was because they were not new courses, I learned, but rather the same courses being offered in a different format. However, the change in format seems to me to be pretty significant. I have serious doubts that online learning can be as effective as face-to-face learning, especially in a discipline such as Philosophy where “best practices” include the Socratic method and a great deal of discussion among students. At my school, people are always talking about the importance of dividing students into small groups so that they have a chance to talk to and learn from each other. Some of these same people, however, made an executive decision to begin developing online courses without giving much thought to their readily apparent limitations. Some administrators even began trying to convince faculty members that online courses are better than the traditional face-to-face format. It was unclear to me whether they truly believed this, or simply were trying desperately to convince professors to get on board with their plans.
At first glance, it may seem that the move to massive open online courses (MOOCs) is not motivated by profits. After all, as proponents emphasize, students are able to take a MOOC for free or at a very low tuition rate. (San Jose, for example, was charging students only $150 to enroll in a MOOC.) Such courses are uploaded to the “cloud” and then available for widespread use. Those in favor of MOOCs say that they have the potential to make higher education accessible to those who would not otherwise have it. In addition, they allow students from all over the country to “attend” the lectures of “stars” such as Michael Sandel at Harvard, a long-time expert in the field of social and political Philosophy. And as with all online learning environments, there are the benefits of being able to attend “class” in your pajamas and view lectures whenever it best fits into your schedule.
There is a complex debate to be had here, one that pertains to the nature of learning, the importance of dialogue, and the potential for transformative learning that arguably only face-to-face interpersonal engagement provides. Of course, it would be hard to maintain that online education is completely without merit or that MOOCs have no value whatsoever. Still, my gut tells me that technology should be used as a tool rather than something that can replace the traditional classroom. I wonder how many students actually learn what they need to learn in these online settings.
I suspect that the faculty at San Jose State University are correct when they say the move to MOOCs has little to do with a concern over pedagogy or an attempt to give students the highest quality education.
It is doubtful that they learn how to engage in dialogue or debate. In addition, there is great value in making continuous modifications to courses to reflect the special expertise of faculty and respond to the changing interests of students. Pre-packaged MOOCs developed at Harvard will not necessarily meet the needs of students at another institution.
However, I suspect that the faculty at San Jose State University are correct when they say that the move to MOOCs has little to do with a concern over pedagogy or an attempt to give students the highest quality education. It has more to do with finances and profits and balancing budgets. Relying on MOOCs reduces the need for expensive full-time professors. It also seems to undermine the value of a traditional college education, one which involves regular face-to-face engagement with an expert in the field (the professor) as well as fellow students.
We all know that higher education is expensive. Tuition rates are growing at an alarming rate and it is becoming more and more difficult to afford going to a college or university. It is troubling that some of these cost-cutting strategies center around shrinking the need for faculty members and offering courses in a format that is not particularly well-suited to our discipline.
For me, the issue of online courses really just boils down to my concern about the corporatization of higher education. It seems that more and more people in our society view education and degrees as things to be purchased, and that more and more administrators approach their management of colleges and universities according to some sort of business model. One problem with this increasing tendency to operate on a corporate model is that it turns intellectual curiosity, philosophical insight, and critical thought (i.e. some of the very things that we, as philosophers, allegedly believe to have intrinsic value) into tools for obtaining a degree and landing a good job. Another problem, unfortunately, is that operating on this model often doesn’t yield the highest quality “product.” I think San Jose State’s recent experiment with MOOCs demonstrates this.