The blog of Academe Magazine. Opinions published here do not necessarily represent the policies of the AAUP.
The purpose of the letters in this toolkit is to provide material that can be edited to be sent to listserves, to be posted on blogs or to be shared on social media sites, and to be submitted as op-eds to campus or community newspapers.
Some of the letters may be too lengthy to be very practical or engaging. But they can be edited however a writer wishes: for instance, the detail can be reduced to emphasize the key points, or the writer can focus on one part to the exclusion of the rest.
Massive Online Open Courses (or MOOCs) are being promoted as the newest technological solution to the problems related to access and funding that are confronting public higher education. But before you decide to embrace this solution, please consider the following reasons why it is very unlikely that MOOCs will deliver on the claims being made for them. Indeed, it is very likely that embracing MOOCs will simply make many of the current problems worse.
First, MOOCs are not really as innovative as they seem. They are basically digitally enhanced equivalents of the televised courses that used to be offered on public television stations. Offering these courses online does mean that they can reach much larger audiences than the old televised courses, but that reach just compounds the difficulties that most students have always had in successfully completing such courses. Completion rates for most MOOCs have ranged between 1% and 9%–and those numbers simply mean that that percentage of students opened all of the course modules, not that they received a passing grade for the courses.
Second, MOOCs are almost wholly passive learning platforms. They contribute very little, if anything, to the development of students’ ability to communicate effectively, their capacity to think critically, their aptitude in developing effective strategies for problem solving, and their adeptness in collaborating effectively on complex projects. In short, students who enroll in MOOCs for a large portion of their coursework will very likely be proportionately deficient in the skills that most employers identify as being most desirable.
Third, MOOCs will most likely be offered as substitutes for site-delivered general education or core courses. Those courses are not only the largest revenue producers for most colleges and universities, they are also the most dependable revenue producers. They support departmental offerings at the junior-, senior-, and graduate levels, at which enrollments are always lower. In short, they make it possible for our colleges and universities to maintain degree programs. If the revenue that these courses produce is markedly reduced, our colleges and universities will either have to reduce their offerings proportionately or depend on larger subsidies from the state government.
Finally, study after study has shown that a state’s colleges and universities are among its greatest economic assets. Most MOOCs are being produced by consortia of a very small group of elite universities. Universities that offer MOOCs produced by these consortia will do so at the cost of their own branding. The cumulative effect will be that the colleges and universities within our state will lose much of the distinctiveness in their offerings that attracts students from our state and beyond and that attracts research funding.
More specifically, decreased revenues and increased financial constraints will strangle our institutions’ sponsorship of the kinds of interdisciplinary research that typically produce the most profitable innovations and inventions for the businesses in our state, from well-established major corporations to cutting-edge start-ups.
So, before you vote to provide incentives to our colleges and universities to offer MOOCs, please take a longer, more prudent point of view than those who are advocating such short-sighted technological gimmicks as credible solutions to the very real and complex problems facing our institutions. Our colleges and universities have taken decades upon decades to become establish the reputations that they have today. But all of that hard-earned heritage can be squandered by chasing after short-term savings that will almost certainly have major long-term costs.