I vividly remember my exact reaction the first time I read about Massive Open Online Courses (or MOOCs). It was, “They can’t be serious, can they? How on earth can anybody teach 30,000 people at once?” Since I had already developed an interest in quality control for online education, I followed every new MOOC development very closely on my blog, More or Less Bunk. For a long while, my blog was nothing but MOOC news and analysis every time I posted. While I still write quite a bit about MOOCs there, I’ve come to believe that the technological problem higher education faces involves a lot more than MOOCs, which just happens to be the title of my contribution to the May-June 2014 issue of Academe.
Back when I was blogging mostly about regular online courses, before higher education caught MOOC madness, I heard a great deal from dedicated online instructors about what online education could be. “You’re assuming the worst case scenario,” many of them essentially told me. “Give somebody who knows what they’re doing a chance to shine, and they can create fantastic courses that can’t be duplicated in a face-to-face environment.” I’ve come to believe that’s true, but the advent of MOOCs has only reinforced my belief in the likelihood of the worst case scenario. Any administrator willing to subject the students at their university to the kind of automated education that MOOCs provide doesn’t care one whit whether your online course meets the high standards that dedicated instructors can set for it. They’re just looking for the cheapest education possible that meets the bare minimum requirements that students and accrediting bodies will be willing to accept. The funny thing is that many of those dedicated online instructors have had the same reaction I did since MOOC madness has demonstrated just how hostile some administrators can be to pedagogical prerogatives in online education.
Imagine for a moment that your dean tells you that you can no longer choose the content for your face-to-face class anymore. Would you accept that? Would the AAUP? I believe that the answer to both those questions would probably be a resounding “no.” Yet that’s what’s starting to happen at schools willing to let students take MOOCs for credit. As I explain in my Academe article, when the San Jose State University Philosophy Department objected to the use of MOOCs in their department for this and many other reasons, the administration there simply shifted the same course over to English. Would an action like this stand in the non-virtual world? I don’t think so, yet these kinds of technologically-induced power grabs go way beyond MOOCs.
Would you let your dean or your provost tell you how and on what terms you can interact with your students? What do you think a commercial learning management does then? Would you let the Board of Regents of your university’s system tell you what you can say to the public at large? Have you seen what the Kansas Board of Regents has been doing lately? While I haven’t seen this next one happen yet specifically, I’m just waiting for the first case when an administrator tells a professor to flip their classroom with content purchased by the university from some MOOC provider or another. While recording your own lectures is something many people have chosen to do, I’m afraid digitizing your own content opens up this particular pedagogical technique to unprecedented administrative abuse.
While the disruptors love to talk about higher education’s future, technology has already changed higher education immeasurably in just the fifteen years that I’ve been teaching up to now. This new environment demands new standards of academic freedom for faculty online, whether they’re teaching a class with technology or not. Hopefully, my article can serve as first thoughts for helping the AAUP and other interested parties begin to set them.