Commentary Magazine


On the MOOC Challenge to Traditional Higher Education

In a recent Minding the Campus essay, Benjamin Ginsberg, professor of political science at Johns Hopkins, worries about Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). Ginsberg is no softy about higher education. He has written a hard-hitting book on “administrative bloat,” the result of colleges and universities putting resources into management at the expense of instruction and research. But he is worried about MOOCs, which permit “one professor [to] lecture to tens or even hundreds of thousands of students with whom he or she has no interaction.”

In case you haven’t heard, MOOCs are online courses that enroll, typically free of charge, students who listen to lectures, do interactive, graded exercises, and engage in discussion forums. MOOCs are hailed as disruptors of a self-satisfied, overpriced higher education system and denounced as overhyped, poor substitutes for genuine education, which requires face-to-face teaching, mentoring, and discussion.

Ginsberg, though he has no beef with smaller online classes, is among the denouncers of MOOCs. He does not fear for his job‒senior Hopkins faculty will be fine come the revolution. But he does fear that cost-cutting administrators at other institutions will happily embrace a “curriculum in which students watch canned lectures and take computer-graded exams.” Such students “would receive a paltry and pathetic education.” I share Ginsberg’s distaste for the future he thinks administrators dream about. But I doubt his advice on how best to resist.

First, Ginsberg recommends, those “willing to allow their lectures to replace real classes should be named, shamed and censured.” Second, professional associations should “challenge the accreditation of schools whose curricula are essentially MOOCified.” Third, colleges should deny credit “for classes taken away from the campus that are adjudged to be all-MOOC.”

Members of the philosophy department at San Jose State University have tried out a mild version of the first recommendation, taking Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel publicly to task for offering his course through Edx, a MOOC provider. Their open letter to Sandel explains why they refused to pilot a “blended” version of the course, in which face-to-face, instructor-facilitated discussions supplement online work.

But the San Jose professors make some unsupported, perhaps insupportable, claims about the limits of Sandel’s course. For example, they assert that “quality online courses and blended courses … do not save money.” But they have no evidence for that assertion. Must lowering costs always compromise quality? They also insist that their students cannot learn about justice “by listening to the reflections of the largely white student population from a privileged institution like Harvard.” But those students would also have participated in on-campus discussions, and it’s not obvious that they get more from courses in “social justice,” taught by their privilege-conscious professors, than they might have from Sandel’s course.

The letter concludes that professors “who care about public education should not produce products that will replace professors.” But since there is no moral law forbidding the replacement of professors, any more than there is a moral law forbidding the replacement of travel agents, professors need to show that they are irreplaceable. As Cathy Davidson of Duke University, with whom I rarely agree, says, “if we profs can be replaced by a computer screen, we should be.”

That challenge touches Ginsberg as much as it does San Jose State’s philosophers. Before we name and shame, or oppose accreditation, or refuse to grant course credit, we need to think more seriously about the merits and limits of MOOCs.

William G. Bowen’s Higher Education in the Digital Age is an excellent starting point. While Bowen’s book is not primarily about MOOCs, it begins to address the paucity of hard evidence we possess about online education. Bowen, a social scientist and former president of Princeton University, led a careful study comparing a blended online (but not massive) introductory statistics course to comparable face-to-face courses. The study, which involved “more than six hundred participants across six public university campuses,” found “no statistically significant difference in standard measures of learning outcomes” between the blended and face-to-face courses. The finding held even for first-generation college students, rebutting the “proposition that only exceptionally well-prepared” students succeed in online courses.

Yet Bowen is cautious. Introductory statistics may be unusually well suited to online learning. And while Bowen has added to our scant knowledge of online courses, MOOCs have hardly been studied. Bowen concedes that there are intellectual virtues, like judgment, and subjects, especially those in which there is no formula for generating right answers, that may not lend themselves “especially well to being taught in a MOOC format.” His is a valuable beginning to a discussion of what brick-and-mortar colleges are for, a discussion that cannot usefully begin with the naming and shaming of those who, like Bowen, think high-quality MOOCs may sometimes be “real courses.”