Scott Lemieux: Assuming the Distance Learning Can Opener:
While conceding that Johnathan Rees’s argument against MOOC’s focuses too much on the self-interest of faculty members and not enough on the massive problems of distance learning, Jon Chait’s touting of the promise of MOOCs… suffers… [from] the idea that MOOCs have any realistic possibility of meaningfully replacing college education…. There’s rather a lot of hand-waving going on…. Sure, if there’s a way of weeding out cheating without in-class exams or any contact with students and ensuring that most students can learn effectively solely from videotapes, without any meaningful supervision or direction, MOOCs may well be a good idea! And, similarly, if there was a magic pellet we could shoot into the air that would reduce carbon emissions to 1960 levels global warming would be much less of a problem…. As Reihan Salam notes, far more likely is that online education can be cheap, or it can be good, but almost certainly not both:
But as Jason Dearen reports, earlier this month San Jose State suspended five of its new online courses, all of which were offered in conjunction with Udacity and had no classroom learning…. The problem, however, is that between 56 percent and 76 percent of students who took the final exams ultimately failed them. Udacity has acknowledged that the results of its collaboration with San Jose State have been disappointing…. That online learning will experience growing pains is to be expected.
But what if there is no free lunch to be had? That is, what if the only way to reduce the failure rate in online courses is to blend them with some of the more labor-intensive--and thus, more expensive--aspects of traditional education?[…] True MOOCs that make almost no use of faculty labor will be very cheap to deliver, but one can easily imagine that they will be plagued by an attrition rate at least as high as what we see in today’s for-profit colleges. Blended online courses that stream lectures while also making use of face-to-face teaching assistants might have a success rate closer to land grant public institutions… [and] are going to be much more expensive…. [O]nce you get past the students who are the most prepared and most eager… you have to apply increasing amounts of both help and hassle… personal attention and tutoring as well as discipline and structure, all of which are labor-intensive….
And it’s for this reason that noting the cost-cutting (of things other than their own salaries) of administrators is relevant beyond the self-interest of tenure-track faculty members. That MOOCs are being highly touted by some administrators when as of now there’s no good reason even in theory to believe that they can deliver quality education to most students, what does that tell you? Shouldn’t that raise red flags, particularly in a context in which wages for most people but not those in the positions of greatest power, are stagnating?