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The Huge Growth of MOOCs Threatens America's Great Public University System

Online courses will create a two-tiered system, with the wealthy taking classes face-to-face and making social connections, and middle-class and poorer students learning remotely.

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In a college-level course about social justice issues, you can often find students sitting in a circle discussing society’s inequalities with one another. But in Harvard professor Michael Sandel’s JusticeX class, a massive open online course (MOOC), tens of thousands of students watch Sandel lecturing on, among other things, affirmative action, income distribution, same-sex marriage and property rights all from their laptops.

When philosophy professors at San Jose State University were encouraged to have their students take Sandel’s MOOC, they were strongly against their students taking an online course in justice. So they wrote an open letter to Sandel (signed by all of them).

“The move to MOOCs comes at great peril to our university,” the letter said, “We regard such courses as a serious compromise of quality of education and, ironically for a social justice course, a case of social injustice.”

MOOCs have been in the news lately, from the Chronicle of Higher Education to the New York Times to the Wall Street Journal, and legislation in California calls for public institutions to use MOOCs for students who can’t get into overcrowded courses. MOOCs differ from regular online course in that they are free (although students can be charged for credit), and tens of thousands of students can be in one class. Often grading is done by computer or by peers. The biggest three providers of MOOCs are edX, a nonprofit formed by Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard; Udacity, launched by Sebastian Thrun, a Stanford professor and the founder of Google’s autonomous-car program; and Coursera, a nonprofit started by two other Stanford computer science professors, Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng.

Hundreds of universities in the United States are now offering MOOCs, and millions of students throughout the world have signed up for them, although completion rates are extremely low, around 7 percent according to a study cited in Inside Higher Ed.

The business model for MOOCs is unclear, with providers charging the universities for the platform, and some planning to charge students for credit.

Proponents hail MOOCs as a way to provide access to students and cut costs. In an article in Smithsonian Magazine, Thrun said that when he opened up a class he taught in artificial intelligence to anyone with an Internet connection, upwards of 100,000 students signed up for the class (more people, he said, than the number of attendees at a Lady Gaga concert he went to). Thrun also said he got heartfelt emails from the students saying how much the class meant to them.

But critics, like those at SJ State, see MOOCs as providing an inferior education, increasing the digital divide, cutting human interaction out of learning and opening the door to privatizing public education while turning professors into glorified teachers’ aides.

“This looks like a transfer model of education,” said Noam Cook, a professor of philosophy at SJ State, referring to what Brazilian educator Paolo Freire called “banking education” — where the teacher deposits information in the students’ minds. “I don’t think that’s what higher education is about. It’s about helping students think critically and develop understanding.”

Cook pointed out that anyone can already watch a Sandel lecture on YouTube or buy his book, so why should universities pay edX a $250,000 base fee to develop the platform, then $50,000 for each additional time the course is offered? Cook added that the professors at SJ State know their students and design classes with them in mind.

“Specifically of concern to us is what message it’s sending,’” he said. “There’s a message there that Harvard students deserve to have a living, breathing professor answering questions and SJ State students do not.”

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