I usually enjoy reading the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, especially when he writes about the social impact of technological change. But his January 26, 2013 editorial entitled “Revolution Hits the Universities” struck a nerve. The editorial was a gushing account of how MOOCs will revolutionize higher education by making the best educational content available to the global public for a fraction of the cost of a regular bricks-and-mortar course. So, where is the problem? Well, it was the last paragraph that gave me pause:
I can see a day soon where you’ll create your own college degree by taking the best online courses from the best professors from around the world — some computing from Stanford, some entrepreneurship from Wharton, some ethics from Brandeis, some literature from Edinburgh — paying only the nominal fee for the certificates of completion. It will change teaching, learning and the pathway to employment.
Therefore, according to Friedman, one of the consequences of MOOCs is the further concentration of power in elite institutions such as Stanford, Wharton, Brandeis, and Edinburgh. So much for democratizing global education!
It turns out that I was not the only reader who objected to Friedman’s vision. Here is an excerpt of a comment posted by a New York Times reader (“dpen” from Boston) who eloquently articulated my worries:
If MOOCs succeed in the way that Friedman envisions, it is likely to mean the end of academia as a viable career path for most people. If a handful of the most elite universities can successfully teach billions, then what need is there for the thousands of ordinary universities out there that currently employ the bulk of faculty. At most, there would be a need for an army of poorly paid graders and on-line discussion facilitators (to respond to the thousands of comments the professor will never read). … Teaching has so far been a craft, and now it is entering the era of mass production.
Revolutions are nothing if not unpredictable. They unleash all kinds of unintended consequences. And MOOCs are grand educational experiments. We must admit that no one knows what the outcome will be. So, let’s avoid hyperbolic predictions. They scare people.
Carl Blyth is Director of COERLL and Associate Professor of French, UT Austin. His research includes CMC, cross-cultural and intercultural pragmatics, interactional sociolinguistics, and pedagogical grammar. He is project director of eComma, an open-source annotation application to facilitate more “social” forms of reading.