MOOC Skeptic’s Toolkit: Sample Letter #2, to an Alumnus/Alumna

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.

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Dear [Alumnus/Alumna]:

In order to graduate from college, most students now have to make a substantial personal investment in their educations. If you are like most people who have graduated over the last two decades, you have probably taken out student loans to cover at least a portion of your college costs, and you have probably paid off those loans over a large portion of your subsequent working life. Indeed, you may very well still be paying off those loans.

The promoters of Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs) typically emphasize that this use of technology will drive down costs for students because less revenue will have to be devoted to covering instruction. And, as someone who has carried or who is still carrying substantial student-loan debt, you may have the impulse to support anything that promises to drive down college costs.

But before you support MOOCs, you should consider how much they will actually drive down costs and how much they may reduce the value of the degree that you have earned and may still be paying for.

Right now, at most public universities, only 20% to 25% of all revenues are being spent directly on instruction—on the salaries and benefits of those who are actually doing the teaching. In order to support increasing expenditures on administration—“administrative bloat”–universities have already driven down the costs of instruction by enlarging class sizes, by hiring more non-tenure-track full-time faculty whose primary responsibility is teaching, and by exploiting the growing pool of Ph.D.’s who can find no employment in academia except as adjunct faculty. The typical adjunct faculty member who teaches five courses each semester will earn about $30,000 per year, without being eligible to receive any benefits. Very often these faculty are very good teachers—do amazingly good jobs given how little they are earning. But they are becoming the higher-education equivalent of piece-workers.

If you have ever set in a lecture hall with 400 other students, you know first-hand that this sort of cost-cutting does not enhance student learning. So even if MOOCs save an institution some money, those savings will come at the further expense of student learning. Imagine not 400 students in a lecture hall but 40,000 or 400,000 students in an online course that is essentially just a digitally enhanced podcast.

Worse, what you may not realize is that there is a direct connection in institutional rankings between cost-cutting on instruction and a lower academic reputation. So, in a very real way, the more that your alma mater tries to provide instruction on the cheap, the less your degree is actually worth to employers.

In fact, because most MOOCs are being produced by “educational providers” (a euphemism for corporations without any academic accreditation), there is a real question of how much money they will actually save participating institutions.  Most MOOCs are being produced by just a few corporations endorsed by consortia of elite institutions who are getting a cut of the profits in return for their endorsements. But the most telling indication of whether or not MOOCs have any real educational value is that most of those elite institutions refuse to accept MOOCs for credit.

That’s right, the very institutions that are endorsing and profiting from MOOCs won’t give their own students any credits for taking them.

The solution to the rising cost of public higher education will not be found in devising ever cheaper ways to deliver courses to ever larger groups of students. It will be found, instead, in a more judicious use of technology that actually enhances student learning, in a reduction in administrative bloat, and in states deciding to restore some of the funding that they have taken from higher education—and public education in general—over the last three decades. In 1980, most states covered at least 50% to 60% of an education at a public university. Today, most states are covering about 20% of those costs.

And, again, the value of the degrees being awarded by our public universities is very directly tied to how those institutions generate revenue and how they allocate it. Ironically, a degree that costs a student a little less may very well end up being worth a lot less to employers.

2 thoughts on “MOOC Skeptic’s Toolkit: Sample Letter #2, to an Alumnus/Alumna

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