February 10, 2014

HENRY | A Rethinking of Educational Priorities

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Last week, Cornell launched its first massive open on­line course, or MOOC. The first of four to be launched this semester, our inaugural MOOC is Astronomy 2290x: Rela­tivity and Astrophysics. Prof. David Chernoff, astronomy, is teaching the class in addition to an on-campus version of the same course.

More than 17,000 people have enrolled in Astronomy 2290x, making it a pretty successful run of Cornell’s entry into the heavily saturated MOOC-world. Cornell partnered with edX, a MOOC platform founded by Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard, to organize and distribute the courses. MOOCs are designed to offer online, university-level courses for free on the web.

Cornell emphasizes more than just the globalism inherent to free, online course offerings. We take pride in opening up our educational opportunities to a broader community than just our campus. A Cornell Chronicle article fleshed out the University’s pride in offering the courses, quoting Laura Brown, senior vice provost for undergraduate education. She stated, “Cornell adds progression and more modernity to its mission to serve a broad, even global, community of learners.”

“Broad” as a mission description sounds like we’re trying to widen our community to include people from all places, all ethnicities and all socioeconomic backgrounds. Clearly, the University message is that these open, online courses expand this descriptor and further this institutional mission.

MOOCs have been widely lauded, but in many circles (higher education-focused publications), their ability to achieve such lofty goals on behalf of the institutions that organize them is called into question. When I did some research on them last week, I realized a few different things about MOOCs that, while not making them seem like a poor investment by Cornell, definitely pushed me off the overly-enthusiastic bandwagon. Here are some of the things my research turned up:

Interestingly, though MOOC students are indeed both numerous and globally diverse, they’re not necessarily “broad” in terms of diversity. 83 percent of students who enroll in MOOCs, surveyed as part of a comprehensive study published in Nature in November, already have a two or four-year degree. They are, at a very basic level, well-educated in the same vein as on-campus, full-time students at Cornell.

It is true that MOOCs are not designed to replicate in-class experiences, and that their use as build-on classes post-graduation can actually be an opportunity to learn something new outside of one’s own career. A reporter for this paper last week paraphrased Professor Chernoff, emphasizing, “The lecture class and the MOOC are not meant to be equivalent.”

If true, this does reinforce the notion that we’re not “broadening” our reach, so to speak, but rather providing an opportunity for information sharing through a larger platform. This brings me to something else I considered about MOOCs. They don’t really provide an opportunity for professors to “teach” in the conventional sense. It creates a burden on those professors to find new and innovative ways to communicate with students. Though professors seem excited by the possibilities, the new format and potential workload does have the chance to skew our educational experiences here on campus and indeed change the way teaching happens as generations pass.

The majority of students in MOOCs don’t complete the coursework or even watch the lectures. The low barrier to entry means an even lower one to leave, and you lose the academic community because of these limitations and loopholes. What this means about the quality of education is really still up for debate; there are plenty of fatalists in the blogosphere who think MOOCs mean the end of traditional education. I think that’s pretty overstated, and my reaction therefore falls into another camp: what are we getting so excited about if we’re not reaching populations who might not have access to any Cornell or post-secondary educational resources in the first place? Should we organize the MOOCs specifically to do so?

Finally, offering MOOCs for free is great, but it would do the University well to focus that same attention on rendering in-person education affordable.

To prioritize and divert faculty time and resources to free, online courses that promote the University’s profile across the globe is a wonderful thing. To do that despite rising tuition costs and increasing barriers to real, classroom post-secondary education raises a lot of questions about how we’re allocating our attention in improving this institution. Clearly, MOOCs and better financial policies for on-campus students are not mutually exclusive, but hype and attention on the creation of flashy online programs is more about competing with peer institutions and less about making Cornell truly accessible.