Nathan Heller’s new piece, “Laptop U: Has the Future of Higher Education Moved Online?” is a superb introduction to the debate concerning Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs).
For those of you who have been off the grid, here is some background. In fall 2011, Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig of Stanford University offered a free online course on artificial intelligence. Much to their surprise, the course attracted more than 160,000 students, logging in from 190 different countries. If enthusiasts for MOOCs are right, that course will be remembered as the shot heard ’round the world, the beginning of the MOOC revolution. Indeed, Thrun gave up tenure at Stanford and founded Udacity, a company devoted to producing and disseminating MOOCs, famously declaring that in 50 years’ time, there would be no more than 10 higher education institutions in the world. While even Thrun—perhaps for fear of provoking resistance to his enterprise—has backed off from that prediction, enthusiasm for MOOCS has only grown. Udacity, Coursera, and the Harvard-M.I.T. led Edx have already enrolled millions of students. I have written about MOOCs here.
The most important reason people are excited about MOOCs is that they promise dramatically to decrease the cost of education. It is simply cheaper to offer an online course to 100,000 students than it is to offer a face-to-face course to 30 students. And while something may be lost in this scaling up, something is gained, too. Students can hear from rock star lecturers, learn at their own pace, listen to lectures in short chunks, rather than for an hour and a half at a time, receive almost instant feedback on assignments, and participate in online forums with an enormously diverse group of students. Alex Tabarrok, an economist at George Mason University and a co-founder of MRUniversity, ably explains some of the advantages here.
I am all for universities hiring more conservative professors and Steven Hayward, author of a two-volume history of the “Age of Reagan,” should be considered a worthy candidate by any hiring committee. Yet I am dubious about the job he has just taken as a one-year visiting professor in “conservative thought and policy” at the University of Colorado, Boulder.
The appointment is the result of well-intentioned work by conservative UC alumni who are understandably upset that conservative perspectives are under-represented on campus. But is the solution really to create a new academic ghetto–akin to African-American, Latino studies or, more recently, “white” studies–and place conservatives in it? And what the heck is “conservative thought and policy” anyway and who exactly is qualified to teach this subject?
In this weekend’s Wall Street Journal, occasional COMMENTARY contributor Sohrab Ahmari distills an interview with Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). The article really is a must-read. It begins:
At Yale University, you can be prevented from putting an F. Scott Fitzgerald quote on your T-shirt. At Tufts, you can be censured for quoting certain passages from the Quran. Welcome to the most authoritarian institution in America: the modern university—”a bizarre, parallel dimension,” as Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, calls it.
A glance at FIRE’s top current cases shows just how serious the problem has become. Campuses may still teach science, engineering, and humanities, but they do not imbue basic notions of liberty or intellectual tolerance. Too many administrators and professors seek to stifle rather than promote free speech, the tenure process now squelches it as junior faculty members are reticent to speak their mind lest they cross politically or otherwise senior professors.