Amherst’s Faculty: Dignity and Solidarity over MOOCs

By Dan Wilcock

The 70 to 36 decision by faculty members at Amherst against accepting an invitation to join EdX, a pioneer in the field of massive online open courses (MOOCs), signals to me that there’s some hope for higher education.

EdX is good at making education more widely available. For millions of people around the world who might not otherwise be able to catch a glimpse of a Harvard classroom, much less matriculate in Cambridge, MOOCs offer the educational equivalent of window shopping. It will never be like sitting in the classroom and interacting with the professor, but you can see what the class has to offer. Even if you never “own” the class in the form of a something that will add up to a degree, you can be get the gist of a topic and self-study your way to mastery.

I think the profs at Amherst, one of America’s best liberal arts schools, placed the right bet. MOOCs are part of the pattern that Jaron Lanier describes in Who Owns the Future?, a fantastic book published this month, in which “ordinary people will be unvalued by the new economy, while those closest to the top computers will become hypervaluable.”

The Chronicle of Higher Education article cited above states that EdX, which was founded by Harvard and MIT, has only 12 partner institutions, but has received membership inquiries from 300 colleges and universities. A lot of schools want to get on this bandwagon. Yet Amherst, when offered a coveted seat¬† “closest to the top computers” (to use Lanier’s terms), it did two remarkable things:

  • It put the choice to a real vote among the faculty
  • It allowed faculty members, many of whom have clearly thought through the implications of building a video database that may threaten their livelihood and those of their peers, to frame the debate

This example of democracy and public reasoning leading to a rejection of a coveted invitation from Harvard/MIT to join the shiny-new-cloud solution to higher education is refreshing to witness. The faculty committee is correct to observe that MOOCs will “enable the centralization of American higher education.” Whether MOOCs will “create the conditions for the obsolescence of the B.A. degree,” is something I’m not qualified to judge, but viewing the stakes starkly demonstrates wisdom. Putting lectures in the cloud may seem smart today, but when thousands of professors start to get laid off it will be clear exactly whose lives the technology intended to disrupt.

I don’t support the educational bloat and skyrocketing tuition that have led to the educational bubble, but I also don’t support laying off massive numbers of people who are central to America’s character. When the bubble pops, the MOOCs will be a convenient cost-cutting tool. In the Amherst committee’s language, I sense they are proactively voting in solidarity with professors across the country.

As I wrote before, I don’t think MOOCs spell the end of higher ed. Amherst’s wisdom makes me more confident in my prediction.

MOOCs don’t signify the end of higher ed

By Dan Wilcock

Recently I’ve been taking a massive open online course (MOOC) from Harvard via EdX. The course, called Justice, is a compact primer on the major philosophies that frame contemporary ethics.

The idea to take the class came from a New York Times column that identified Justice as EDX’s first humanities course. As a lifelong learner and believer in the value of a liberal arts education, I figured I’d give it a shot.

The instructor, Michael Sandel, strikes me as an ideal instructor for exposing hundreds of thousands of people to thinkers like Bentham and Kant. He delivers his lectures with precision and, as far as I can tell, rises above offering any opinion himself. The class itself is pretty simple: lecture videos and required quizzes with some optional forums and reading links thrown into the mix.

It’s been a pleasant way to pursue some extra-curricular education.¬† Yet right now I think MOOCs are closer in value to checking out a stack of books from the library than being a member of a scholarly community.

Unless MOOCs become substantially more interactive, shifting the work of universities to the equivalent of advanced online customer service, I don’t think they spell the end of higher ed. They are simply too passive. In a world in which access to information is becoming rapidly democratized, the kind of information that MOOCs provide is becoming cheaper than ever. If technology puts that information at your command whenever you need it, the utility of having slogged through a ton of online lectures may be marginal at best.

Rather than being a harbinger of doom, I think MOOCs will force universities to offer a better value to students. Far too many families have paid far too much money in America for information-dump classes. I hope that universities begin to use MOOCs so students can get these preliminaries out of the way. Classroom time can be reserved for the good stuff: sharing a journey with an expert guide, learning the essential interpersonal art of persuasion, exposure to the idiosyncrasies of peers, testing and revising one’s ideas through debate, working on teams and contemplating lessons in daily life.

I know this may sound overly idealistic, perhaps credulous. I realize that college is also a place where young people go off to over-priced summer camp characterized by climbing walls and bad beer in red cups. MOOCs won’t change who 20somethings are, but hopefully they’ll inspire universities to be a bit better.