It’s the End of the University as We Know It?!!? On MOOCs and Attestation

I am writing this from Malaysia where I am touring hospitals as part of my book in progress on medical tourism. I may try to blog on the trip a bit next week, but for now I want to continue my thoughts from my last blog post prompted by our conference on Financial Conflicts of Interest In Research Universities.  Shortly after my post the New York Times ran a long story on Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC)s, such as Coursera, EdX and the like which enroll thousands of students in online courses that incorporate, among other things, recorded lectures in bite sized portions. Full disclosure, I teach in a MOOC of sorts: I teach NY and MA Civil Procedure for the bar-prep company Themis, although this is not as a substitute for university courses. Bar prep has long beem MOOC-y.

MOOCs are, I think, a major form of disruptive innovation for  universities. Suppose I taught the first-year introduction to economics course at my local university. Suppose we have five professors lecturing in that course, as we did at the University of Toronto where I did my undergraduate education (and took such a course). The course is a lecture course. Why have five faculty members teach it? Why not merely record *the best* lecturer of the group and have him record the course and make it available to all the students, ready to be scaled up? But why stop at my faculty? Why not find the best introductory economics lecturer in the U.S., record her, and license it to all faculties across the country?

One answer is the importance of the 1 on 1 faculty engagement. However, once these introductory courses get beyond a certain size (say 150) how different is the MOOC in this regard, do students really access those profs? Moreover, universities offering MOOCs might remedy this downside the same way they do for large bricks and mortar classes through discussion sessions taught by teaching assistants, often graduate school students. I fondly remember being a Teaching Fellow while at law school for Michael Sandel’s Justice course which packed hundreds of students in Sanders Theater (although to Sandel’s credit he was able to make it feel interactive even in those huge numbers). Office hours with *the* professor might be a problem, although again perhaps the other faculty members in the department *not* teaching these large classes anymore would have *more* time to meet students.

To be sure I am not arguing that MOOCs would be as good or better than the bricks and mortar classes  (although interestingly the NY Times’ stories’ report that some students that took the MOOC version of one of the courses featured in the article preferred it to the bricks and mortar version). Instead, the claim is that the resources saved by offering the MOOC and the lower pass-through costs might outweigh diminutions in quality, especially if one could find the very best lecturers.

Well that’s all very nice, but here’s the threat: Remember those 5 faculty members teaching first year introduction to economics? It would be a nice story if now they teach much less and have more time to research, advise and meet with students, or at least get to teach upper level specialized seminars. But the reality is that the MOOC-offering university would likely not hire as many faculty members when it could instead use the MOOC format. Indeed, as the NY Times Article suggests, it is not clear the teacher of the MOOC has to be a faculty member at all. It may turn out that upper-level graduate students or even actors (!) are better presenters of the material, especially if someone else edits the course materials. The result is a dramatic decrease in demand for faculty. To the extent faculty are viewed as producing public goods such as scholarship, engagement with public policy, engagement with the public, etc (and to be sure there are some that doubt they are doing so), that is partially cross-subsidized by the teaching they do, one can see the formation of universities that do much less research.

Are MOOCs likely to take over the university any time soon in this dramatic way? No. Not all courses are large enough or substitutable enough across institutions to justify the full MOOC treatment. We in the law school who use the Socratic method may be particularly insulated from the MOOC treatment since the interactivity is part of what is prized. The “college experience” is much of what is sold in the U.S. as part of higher education, although it may be less important to potential students from outside the U.S., and if the price reduction from MOOCs is significant enough it may be that the university world further divides into have and have not versions based on how much physical presence and college life is fostered.

MOOCs vs. bricks and mortar may be a false dichotomy. Perhaps some schools will experiments with halving their school years with students taking one semester of bricks and mortar, and the other on internship with MOOC units done on nights and weekends, or some forms of international travel with MOOCs during the study abroad period? Like most disruptive innovations, the possibilities are exciting for many potential users but should be somewhat terrifying for existing entitlement holders, in this case, faculty at major research universities. The fact that Harvard, MIT, and other high-end institutions are beginning to follow where the University of Phoenix leads should give us an indication that change is fast approaching.

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