Are MOOCs Degrading Professors into Education Projectionists?

Blended Learning

One of the big stories this week was Princeton University sociology professor Mitchell Duneier defecting Coursera. Duneier was one of the early adopters in the MOOC movement, and quickly became a model MOOC professor with a front page feature in the New York Times, and his course being used as an example in Daphne Koller’s TED talk.

Now, Duneier announced a hiatus from teaching MOOCs. He took this decision not because he did not like the experience (as some of his peers stated), to the contrary — he told the Chronicle that teaching the MOOC was a great experience.

The issue for Duneier lies in Coursera’s business model. The team approached him with the request to license his course to state colleges for use in a blended teaching model, similar to what competitor edX is working on with its partners.

But Duneier fears that supporting this model would eventually lead to more budget cuts in the public education sector as blended courses open up the possibility to cut back on staff, and he does not want to take part in this. Currently Coursera has partnerships with 10 state universities.

No Surprise

But none of this should come as a surprise; the writing has been on the wall for at least four years now. Back in April 2009, the U.S. Department of Education released a report titled “Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning – A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies.” This report found that online and blended learning methods are at least as efficient as classic face-to-face classes, which makes it basically a card blanche for budget cuts.

Secondly, Bill Gates (and therefore the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation) put the principle of using the “best” teachers in every classroom on top of the agenda. Back in August 2010, Gates said that in five years, the best education will be found online, slowly but surely replacing “place-based” education we know today.

Education Projectionists

Which leaves the question of what will happen to “place-based” faculty when the teaching comes in form of a streamed video? Sure, in the best case it will free up time and open up new opportunities for interaction and further learning on campus… but it’s also going to degrade the professor to some kind of an education projectionist, in my opinion.

First of all, it tells the professor at a state university “you are not as good as your colleague from Stanford or MIT,” which can’t be good for overall morale. And if you cut out the teaching part and degrade the professor to a moderator or projectionist, you won’t need to pay a professor’s salary anymore.

Finally, such a model also bears the risk of vanilla-flavoring higher education. If only “the best” courses are contributed throughout all participating universities, it will oust dissent opinion and unacquainted talent that can only survive when it is supported by a wide variety of colleges and universities.


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