College professors these days are in a position very much like journalists were twenty years ago. Because we believe in the social value of our work, and because we’re intellectually curious and creative, we’re intrigued by the possibilities of technology and alternative pedagogies. We use online discussions, multimedia assignments, and other digital tools to improve our students’ learning. Some of us teach online courses, in part because we understand that this can make higher education more convenient for working students, even as we worry that online courses don’t always work well. Yet many of us are also concerned about how technology will affect our profession.
But as with journalism 20 years ago, the business model of higher education today may not be sustainable. As journalism moved online, traditional jobs declined and reporters shifted to alternative types of work, often with less pay and job security. That’s already happening in higher education, where 70% of college instructors are full- or part-time adjuncts. Technology will probably lead to more job cuts, though elite faculty and those best prepared to adapt to new tools may thrive. New approaches have consequences for students, too. Some will gain richer, deeper learning opportunities, but others will encounter the academic equivalent of the Headline News channel, full of flashy presentations that don’t provide much substance.
Many educators are worried about new technologies, in part because some policy-makers see new tools as cost savers but don’t seem to care about quality. Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), especially, have some administrators envisioning a more efficient version of higher education, which would, of course, involve fewer faculty. While some professors are excited by the MOOC format, others are organizing against them. The faculty senate at San Diego City College passed a resolution against MOOCs, while philosophy professors at San Jose State University wrote an open letter to Michael Sandel, a Harvard professor who teaches a popular MOOC on Justice, explaining why they were resisting pressure to use Sandel’s MOOC as the basis for a hybrid course in their program.
MOOCs promise free high-quality education to anyone, anywhere. You can’t afford Harvard? That’s ok. You can watch Harvard professors lecturing about neuroscience, health, or American poetry for free. For faculty, MOOCs offer opportunities to share knowledge and gain a reputation world wide, and while many MOOCs rely on the traditional lecture, others are exploring new strategies for fostering student interaction to promote learning. In the best models, MOOCs also engage faculty with new ways of thinking about how students learn. For institutions, MOOCs are, for now, largely a public relations project, promoting star faculty and the value of academic knowledge. But Coursera, Udacity, and other companies that offer MOOCs are actively looking for ways to monetize them, either by charging students for the opportunity to earn credit, sellings ads or sponsorships, or by charging employers for access to data about MOOC students, presumably to identify possible job candidates.
Will MOOCs be good for working-class students? Maybe. MOOCs do provide free access to a version of college education. Students who want to learn computer programming or statistics may find MOOCs useful. But these massive courses have massive drop-out rates, in part because many people sign up – as I’ve done myself – primarily in order to browse. Others who sign up with more serious intentions struggle due to lack of structure, and of course, almost no one in a MOOC receives individual attention from an expert. Meanwhile, while the working class will be expected to learn by watching video lectures, wealthy students will continue to benefit from face-to-face, discussion-based learning. MOOCs may improve access while also exacerbating the gap between elite and working-class education.
The interest in MOOCs is only partially about what technology can do. Much of it is about using technology to make college more affordable. In two recent lectures, William Bowen, former president of both the Mellon Foundation and Princeton University, examined the “cost disease” of higher education. He begins by pointing out that this isn’t a new issue; college costs have risen faster than the cost of living for more than a century. As Bowen notes, there are many reasons for this, including state funding cuts that shift costs from taxpayers to students. He suggests that technology can make teaching more efficient and effective. He acknowledges that new approaches threaten faculty jobs, but he also writes that “faculty involvement in essential.” He even suggests that new technologies could improve the quality of faculty work, making grading less onerous and providing more opportunities to engage meaningfully with colleagues and students.
Improving the effectiveness and efficiency of education through strategic uses of technology won’t be easy, and Bowen acknowledges that it might not work. But, he argues, we have to try. Higher education has lost not just financial but also political support, in part because our stakeholders — legislators, voters, parents, and students — think that educators don’t care about costs. That may be one reason that states have been able to cut education budgets with so little political fallout.
But the “cost disease” isn’t just a political matter. Rising college costs could precipitate another economic crisis. Student loans now make up the largest category of debt in the U.S. According to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, student loan debt is over one trillion dollars and growing. That has long-term consequences for graduates, who are juggling bills every month, putting off marriage, and wondering if they will ever have the money or the credit rating to purchase a home. Those problems, in turn, harm the U.S. economy.
College loans create problems for all but the most elite students, but they may be especially significant for working-class students, who receive less merit-based aid than their wealthier peers, resulting in high “net costs” and more loan debt. A report by the New America Foundation finds that “colleges expect the neediest students to pay an amount that is equal to or even more than their families’ yearly earnings.” But because college is seen as so important, students “take on heavy debt loads or engage in activities that lessen their likelihood of earning their degrees, such as working full-time while enrolled or dropping out until they can afford to return.”
If we want to serve working-class students well, we need to take seriously the challenge of making college more flexible and effective as well as more accessible and affordable.
MOOCs may not be the answer, but hybrid courses that combine online and face-to-face learning might help, as will high-quality online programs and a wide range of strategies that enhance learning in traditional classrooms through innovative uses of technology. It’s hard to know whether the changes will destroy academia, generate new and better alternatives, or some of both. But if we leave the design to the elite, or to business, we’re in trouble, and so are our students.
The challenge is designing the democratic education that MOOCs promise but don’t (yet) deliver. If we are to use technology to create meaningful opportunities for learning, and if we are to make those opportunities work well not only for the elite but also for the working class, we have to participate, critically, in the process. Of course, technology isn’t the only tool, and some calls for innovation reflect the interests of business “masquerading in the trappings of science,” as Harry Braverman wrote. Our response should reflect our interests and those of our students. Simply rejecting change won’t cut it.