One Cheer for MOOCs?

by Anthony Dent

Earlier this week, Andy Kessler gave three cheers to the new partnership between Georgia Tech and Udacity achievement in the WSJ — but I’m not sure that he was right to hoist the MOOCification of the field of computer science as the standard for the rest of academia to follow.

Kessler quickly turned from praising Georgia Tech to castigating a few schools that chose not to jump aboard the MOOC bandwagon: Duke University, Amherst College, and San Jose State University. As a Tar Heel, my beef is definitely not with his criticism of Duke. As much as it pains me to admit, however, I think Kessler is off the mark — the Duke faculty may actually be right.

For one thing, he omitted a crucial detail: The online MS, or MOOMS, is still very much distinct from the on-campus MS degree. Georgia Tech does not consider the MOOMS degree to be anything other than vocational. It’s a credential that signals to employers that the graduate is proficient in a certain area of computer science — although it’s not clear that the credential will work, since Georgia Tech was upfront about the fact that MOOMS job placements are uncertain at best.

Putting the employability question aside, it’s not clear that the vocational model for computer science is even applicable to the humanities — a claim Kessler posited, but never explored beyond dismissing Amherst’s decision to stick with “learning through close colloquy.” The end of a liberal-arts education is to grapple with, as Matthew Arnold put it, “the best which has been thought and said in the world.” This pursuit has intrinsic value that can’t be easily quantified. The challenge for potential humanities MOOCs, then, is great — especially since Georgia Tech didn’t think it could include a research component for the MOOMS degree in computer science, a far more quantifiable field than, say, English.

Kessler also ignored the importance that one’s peers play in education. It’s more fundamental than football games or the other trappings we associate with “those four luxurious and indolent years” in college. There is empirical support for the idea that the level of “connectedness” or community determines the success of a class — traditional or non-traditional. Meeting even once face-to-face is a major factor in improving that sense of connectedness for online classes. These results mirror survey data and research of business practices in our new virtual world. Given the size of MOOCs, it seems like this will pose an inherent problem for this particular mode of education delivery.

We must remember that that great conservative standby — the law of unintended consequences — is still in play. Peter Lawler pointed out that the rise of MOOCs may actually strengthen the current incumbents (e.g., Harvard and the Ivies) at the expense of state schools. Large endowments shelter schools like Duke and Princeton from budgetary pressures to transition from the classroom to the Web — protection that public state schools don’t have. And if higher education is nothing more than signaling, as Bryan Caplan argues, then the incentive for students to conform (i.e., attend elite universities) won’t go away. Instead of upending those incumbents, MOOCs could solidify their status within higher education.

Kessler is right that more experimentation is needed — especially before we give MOOCs two, let alone three, cheers.