Home > musing, open source tools > MOOC is here to stay, professors will have to find another job

MOOC is here to stay, professors will have to find another job

December 13, 2012

I find myself every other day in a conversation with people about the massive online open course (MOOC) movement.

People often want to complain about the quality of this education substitute. They say that students won’t get the one-on-one interaction between the professor and student that is required to really learn. They complain that we won’t know if someone really knows something if they only took a MOOC or two.

First of all, this isn’t going away, nor should it: it’s many people’s only opportunity to learn this stuff. It’s not like MIT has plans to open 4,000 campuses across the world. It’s really awesome that rural villagers (with internet access) all over the world can now take MIT classes anyway through edX.

Second, if we’re going to put this new kind of education under the microscope, let’s put the current system under the microscope too. Many of the people fretting about the quality of MOOC education are themselves products of super elite universities, and probably don’t know what the average student’s experience actually is. Turns out not everyone gets a whole lot of attention from their professors.

Even at elite institutions, there are plenty of masters programs which are treated as money machines for the university and where the quality and attention of the teaching is a secondary concern. If certain students decide to forgo the thousands of dollars and learn the stuff just as well online, then that would be a good thing (for them at least).

Some things I think are inevitable:

  1. Educational institutions will increasingly need to show they add value beyond free MOOC experiences. This will be an enormous market force for all but the most elite universities.
  2. Instead of seeing where you went to school, potential employers will directly test knowledge of candidates. This will mean weird things like you never actually have to learn a foreign language or study Shakespeare to get a job, but it will be good for the democratization of education in general.
  3. Professors will become increasingly scarce as the role of the professor is decreased.
  4. One-on-one time with masters of a subject will become increasingly rare and expensive. Only truly elite students will have the mythological education experience.
Categories: musing, open source tools
  1. JSE
    December 13, 2012 at 8:30 am

    You forgot 5. Research in the sciences and the humanities mostly shuts down.

    There is certainly an argument that the equity gains to the rural villagers potentially outweigh this. But it’s not like you to take as a given that the gains from a commercial venture are going to flow to poor people!


    • December 13, 2012 at 8:35 am

      Agreed, although I think there will emerge a new kind of research institution. And I never said this was all good! Just inevitable.


    • 32000days
      December 14, 2012 at 8:21 am

      I strongly doubt that research in sciences would shut down.

      There are many, many non-degree-granting institutes and organizations that receive government and corporate grant money (NIH, NSF, DARPA, ONR, ARO, AFOSR, etc) to do research. If universities transformed their mandate, research institutes might be the beneficiaries.

      Of course, there would need to be a new class of indentured servants to replace the grad student foot soldiers in the research battle…


  2. JSE
    December 13, 2012 at 8:42 am

    Actually, this whole post is very un-Cathy-like in certain ways! Here’s what I would write if I were pretending to be Cathy and commenting on this post.

    1. “Potential employers will directly test knowledge of candidates.” No, they’ll use some model and test how well potential employees score on it. Will those models be easier or harder to game than the current college assessment system?

    2. “Potential employers will directly test knowledge of candidates.” And for that matter, there seems little chance that employers will be doing any testing at all — the business model is that the MOOC company does the testing, and then sells the resulting information about you to companies. Which leads me to

    3. It’s very unlike you, Cathy, to refer to a commercial service as “free” because people don’t pay to give it their information!

    I’m broadly sympathetic to MOOCs, by the way, largely because I’m optimistic about the “rural villager” argument, but I would have thought you’d feel the opposite! Because I know you tend to react with extreme cynicism when a corporate venture says “I’ll offer you something awesome, and it’s free, just put your information in my hands and everything will be fine — trust me, I’m just doing this because I like to give people good things!”


    • December 13, 2012 at 9:22 am

      Hmm…I think skeptic, not cynic…But you have a point, JSE: It should be the Cathy O’Neil’s and the other professors to press for professional standards and devise the game-proof means to test mastery of skills that matter. One of the ways the profs stay employed. This would probably have to involve more than filling in bubbles. Even the most cynical of employers will continue to have motivation to test for skills: Failure and costly liability suits aren’t all that great for the bottom line, especially if your business is something like brain surgery. No doubt, there would be both individuals and commercial enterprises dedicated to devising ways to getting around reasonable standards.


    • December 13, 2012 at 10:12 am

      My guess is that future employers will employ data scientists to develop tests for their future employees. MOOC companies might do the testing but there’s no reason to trust their models.

      In this case, where it’s education, the price the rural villagers pay is their information on how they learn, which is well worth what they receive in return. The real losers in this picture is not the villagers but the professors, and possibly the research subjects themselves.

      In other words, there’s been a coupling of research and education and I see it unraveling.


      • December 17, 2012 at 2:13 pm

        “In other words, there’s been a coupling of research and education and I see it unraveling.” I think this is a great point, and probably a good thing. It’s never made sense to me that professors (at least at large research universities) are supposed to love both research and teaching, two very different things. It still makes sense for graduate students to work on research projects with research professors. But why not let them use MOOCs to gain the core knowledge underlying their field and have people who love to teach but don’t want to do research support them in answering questions, depending understanding, working on course projects, etc.

        “My guess is that future employers will employ data scientists to develop tests for their future employees. MOOC companies might do the testing but there’s no reason to trust their models.”

        The other good thing about employers being in charge of the testing is that they can focus on what they care about with respect to their particular job, role, and industry. Maybe they don’t care about my entire education, just certain areas/skills. Currently in many cases anyone with a degree in a field is assumed to be technically competent, and interviews are focused on other “behavioral” questions. I’ve always thought that this was a horrible hiring model, at least for jobs where technical performance really counts. Maybe MOOCs and other alternative educational opportunities will help us get past that.


  3. Jonathan
    December 13, 2012 at 8:44 am

    Obviously, as you note, the fact that MOOCs are opening up educational opportunities around the world is a good thing.

    But I also think technology can improve education even compared to the best cases today. I went to an elite institution. But I had lots of classes with mediocre lecturers who didn’t interact much with the students. I would have been better off if I could have watched a lecture by a better lecturer and then asked questions of my professor.

    Why should kids have an intense four-year period of classes and then stop. Why not a mix of work and classes over longer periods.That is the experience of many who can’t afford to (or choose not to) go into debt. But maybe it is also a better way to learn.

    I think the most amazing thing is how little thought has gone into improving the educational process. MOOCs aren’t by any means perfect, but they will improve over time.The old model isn’t perfect either.. It is great that education is being shaken up. People will come up with better ways to do it.


    • December 13, 2012 at 9:15 am

      How about removing the strict time frame altogether, since it usually serves only to exclude the less affluent, who can’t afford to give up income earning opportunities for tons of hours for three or four years? How much talent are we failing to benefit from because the people who have that talent need a semester and a half, instead of a semester, to pick up a given skill? Make the whole thing self paced, and do what you suggest: save the instructors for the part of the educational process in which the human element is truly what’s needed–whether by video lecture or one-on-one consultation. Since so many of us would need these consultations, professors would have no problem making a living.


      • Jonathan
        December 13, 2012 at 10:13 am

        I agree. All aspects are worth reviewing. It is odd that a structure developed, I believe, hundreds of years ago for a tiny fraction of the population continues today. Is it really so good that it couldn’t be improved on? I think it says a lot about institutional rigidity and the strength of the status quo.

        The current system is more about acquiring credentials, social networks and other factors than learning.


  4. December 13, 2012 at 10:56 am

    Ideally, the goal should be for everyone to become a Professor or Artist (broadly speaking), and a Worker only for health or recreational reasons. In such a world, professors will become increasingly common.


  5. Dan L
    December 13, 2012 at 11:16 am

    With the way MOOCs operate right now (in their infancy), learning from a MOOC is more like learning by reading a book than it is like taking an actual university course. This is a *good* thing, but it’s not really game changing. That’s because only self-motivated people who know how to study will really learn a lot from this model. When I hear stories of people who learned so much from MOOCs, they’re almost always smart, well-educated people who want to learn. Since most normal people are primarily interested in grades and credentials, they will learn nothing from MOOCs, just as they don’t normally go to the library and check out textbooks for the sake of gaining knowledge.

    However, I agree with all of your predictions except number 2. The employers don’t want to test their employees’ knowledge directly. In order to gain real traction, the MOOCs will have to start offering credentials that are accepted as equivalent to regular university credentials. In order for that to happen, students will have to take final exams at physical testing centers. (This could potentially result in huge standardized exams in every common university subject, probably run by ETS or Pearson or whoever. ) Once this happens, the MOOCs will take off. The educational experience will be diminished, but the greater efficiency and level of access will likely make up for it. The MOOCs will become ridiculous cash cows. And as JSE says, research will take an enormous hit. Elite universities probably won’t change much, but community colleges will eventually becomes places where people go to sit in front of big video screens. Seems like a bleak but efficient future to me. Sadly I will probably still be alive to see it.


    • December 13, 2012 at 1:08 pm

      I agree that credentialing will still be necessary and that most employers will rely upon them instead of rolling their own. However, I do see the credentialing process becoming separate from the education. There will be lots of competition for alternative credentialing, public and private. Relatively few MOOC participants will ever receive meaningful credentials from the top-tier schools that supported the course. Credentialing the rest is the key to making a profit from the venture.

      2nd tier schools will not necessarily lose. Very few want their 19 year olds sitting at home taking MOOCs. Unless there is some other way to get them out of the house, there will be a demand for residential education. States may increasingly refuse to support it and we may end up with mostly private and unsupported state sanctioned residential institutions.


  6. Jonathan
    December 13, 2012 at 2:56 pm

    Dan L.:I have a much more optimistic take on it:

    “Elite universities probably won’t change much” .. I hope they will

    ” community colleges will eventually becomes places where people go to sit in front of big video screens” .. I think they would become places where study groups meet to discuss the course they are studying on-line — perhaps led by a student who is working her way through an elite university (or a recent graduate working to pay off his debts)..

    Personal interaction is important. I think the MOOCs or whatever on-line forms education takes, will find ways to incorporate it.


    • Dan L
      December 13, 2012 at 6:30 pm

      I just want to note that we already have people with those qualifications *teaching* university courses, and they are called adjuncts.


  7. kt
    December 13, 2012 at 11:17 pm

    This is more or less the future I see, as well. I’m a postdoc in pure math now. I’m not going to be getting a job at Harvard or MIT anytime soon. I’ve taken part in a couple of MOOCs myself and they have been a lot of fun. To be honest, I don’t see a bright economic future for professors. At the very least, their jobs are going to change enormously in the near future. So… (Aunty Pythia!)

    * should I leave academic math and try to surf this wave?
    * or should I continue with this job search for a difficult job whose security I feel might be crumbling beneath my feet?


  8. Etienne
    December 14, 2012 at 2:42 am

    I do not really agree with most of your points. Sometimes, it is just a matter of formulation, sometimes this is deeper, sometimes I just want to take the idea to the extremes.

    1′. Most top Universities (as Stanford and MIT have already done), will enter the MOOC market with significant investment to try to bury second-class institutions, while remaining attractive for both physical faculty (the fascination of having thousands of students each year, but also to have an office in a celebrated place and join successful colleagues) and physical students.

    2′. Recruiters will continue looking at where you were educated for a long time. Habits die hard. In many jobs, the social reproduction factor is key. Your value is not exactly what you know (beyond classical skill and certification requirements for a given position), but how you behave, how well you are socially integrated (including clothing) and what you are willing to do to be successful. It is also very much about how senior management believes in your training institution, mostly because they went there in their youth. We will likely see an increase in the number, diversity and involvement of actors working between companies, learning institutions and job candidates. As already said in comments MOOC companies will want to capture part of the certification/evaluation/referral process and market (Udacity for instance, is explicitely looking for this). Head hunters, internet job websites, social network sites and traditional evaluation companies will push in, some of them merging to acquire market share. Large recruiters such as Google may influence more or less open or standardized processes. Large planned lay-offs in global companies could become opportunities for MOOC companies to prepare people to new jobs. In certain countries, companies making a lot of jobs redondant or closing plants are required to plan and fund conversion and training services for their employees.

    3′. I do not see less professors but a slight increase and the partial recognition of everyone involved beyond the professor. I hope some of the many dangerous, dull and clueless professors will change jobs but it will be slow, I am afraid. Some of them never should have been allowed near a student in the first place, or just to familiarize them with the large number of jerks they will meet in every kind of organization (public service, private sector, academia, …). But creating, updating, animating a good MOOC is huge work, requiring time, dedication, expertise, test, humility, background and there cannot be only one MOOC for a given subject or combination of subjects. So I expect quite a large number of proposals. Many teaching teams will evolve to something similar to a film crew: one or more script writers beside the original scenarist and lead actor (i.e.: professor), producers, a director, assistants (and support artists), technical support teams (server admins, video editing, student-generated data analysts, marketing, public relations). Successful courses may grow into franchises with sequels and prequels, international release dates, merchandizing and some into series with seasons, show runners, localized versions, etc.

    4′. This is will likely not decrease either, as understood from the teacher’s perspective. But my comment is already much too long. I will explain how I see this if there is interest.


  9. Natalya
    December 14, 2012 at 7:10 am

    I like this discussion. But I see it that the future of professors and traditional universities is given here too narrow. There is nothing new about on-line courses. For centuries education ia already free in libraries and quality books. What is the result we see? In future the content of lectures maybe different, professors have to be more interactive, but the human factor now is getting even MORE important than in the past


  10. seffieandcoco
    December 15, 2012 at 7:33 am

    One reason college has been important is because after the Duke Power case where it was found illegal for an employer to give a test that did not directly measure job related issues (here using an IQ test to exclude blacks from lineman jobs that had been going exclusively to whites) employers needed to have a way to measure “aptitude.” College integrates all that by measuring, albeit imperfectly, discipline (getting to class and studying at least for the tests), IQ testing (the SAT….imperfect but an analogue) and socialization (professors always give higher grades to good looking people that they relate to ??women??). Colleges have been selling us education etc. for a long time but it really is not about education at all….it is about socialization. I resent paying for a screening program for future employers. Let them figure out appropriate testing for the jobs they offer.


  11. December 15, 2012 at 8:09 am

    This is another unresearched article that attempts to discuss qualities of MOOCs with no clue to what a MOOC truly is. Like many hastily composed discourses, Siemen’s (2009) MOOC is confused with EdX video-based MOC, generic video lectures, and traditional online courses. These are not equal; therefore, they should not be confounded.

    What MIT offers as a pseudo-MOOC will not last unless established online course quality standards are incorporated.


    • December 15, 2012 at 8:14 am

      Your comment is on the verge of getting deleted, rtanner14.

      I love comments, and I love to be shown wrong because it helps me learn more quickly, but just being told that I’m being hasty and ill-informed without telling me what I’m wrong about and why is not useful.

      If there’s a huge difference between Siemen’s and MIT, then by all means explain it, and then explain why it matters. And please lose the obnoxious tone.


  12. December 16, 2012 at 11:52 am

    Conversations about MOOCs by highly intelligent, highly motivated, highly independent people often seem to me to underemphasize some major issues. I have taught at four institutions, two fairly elite (Chicago, Yale) and two less elite (CUNY – Lehman, Indiana U.). One of the first things one notices when moving from the elite to the less so is how much less self-motivated and self-disciplined the students are. At Chicago and Yale, students wanted time one on one with their professors. At Indiana and CUNY what they want is clear, detailed instructions on what to do and lots of deadline driven tasks to help them learn. And the professor looking over their shoulder to make sure they do it. Basically they want college to be a lot more like high school, which always strikes me as completely bizarre. I exaggerate a little bit, but not much when it comes to the median student. From what I know of MOOCs, I think they would be great for the students at more elite places and incredibly frustrating and well nigh useless for most of the students at less elite places. I think this is reflected in the high non-completion rate of existing MOOCs.

    Don’t get me wrong, I think MOOCs, and the internet in general, are a great addition to the resources available to those who are sufficiently motivated to go out and learn on their own. And that done well, they are probably make a lot of learning a lot more accessible than it is in a local library. But nothing I’ve seen yet addresses the basic needs of less sophisticated, less motivated students. Who are, after all, the vast majority of consumers of higher education.

    I will agree easily that the current US higher ed model, where tuition rises much faster than inflation in a country where real median income is stagnant or declining, is going to have some serious troubles sometime relatively soon. But MOOCs have a really long way to go before they are a viable replacement for all but a tiny fraction of students.

    I think the same point in a different form applies to employers. Some highly motivated firms may decide that they want to develop an internal credentialing model to replace looking at college degrees and college GPA’s. But most companies are not going to make this kind of leap until there is some really obvious economic benefit. And since companies mostly don’t bear the cost of their employees educations, the fact that MOOCs are cheaper isn’t going to matter.


    • eballen
      December 17, 2012 at 2:42 pm

      This is an excellent point when you look at the model of self-motivated learners taking MOOCs in their current form. However, I think the short-segment videos of many MOOCs (5-30 minutes) is likely to work better than traditional lectures for less motivated students if coupled with similarly short and targeted online quizzes. This lets people take learning in little chunks that are clearly directed — particularly for the younger generations this seems like a more natural model. The trick is how to do this without a huge amount of cheating happening, but people will figure that out — presumably the quizzes would be online and mostly for learning purposes, and would be coupled with exams that are given in a physical location. I expect the big difference between the elite/motivated students and the typical/unmotivated students will be their ability to connect and apply the information they learn. But that’s going to be true regardless of format.


  13. Dan Torrence
    December 19, 2012 at 9:08 am

    I’m sympathetic to this line of argument, which I’ve heard a lot recently. I’m curious about two things though:

    1) How are MOOCs qualitatively different than textbooks? Either one allows motivated students to learn college level material without enrolling in an expensive university.
    2) Was the wide-spread availability of textbooks disruptive? How come they didn’t destroy the university?


    • December 19, 2012 at 9:12 am

      I’m thinking this is a bit like saying, 100 years ago, that movies aren’t a big deal and are no competition for stage acting since people already can read the plays. It’s just not true, and a well-done MOOC is way more intriguing and interactive than a textbook.

      I don’t know the history of textbooks by the way.


    • Eric
      December 19, 2012 at 10:07 am

      The biggest thing that students need is grading…..and good grading is hard to do…..often a student has the right idea and misplaces a minus sign or a parenthesis and it takes someone who knows the subject to figure out the mistake and what the student got right and who can explain it to the student…….not many professors do this……..not many graduate students do this……..So, in fact, a lot of learning is already essentially the same as MOOC and this has been the case for the last 30 years.


  14. JJ
    December 22, 2012 at 11:14 am

    Since I live in Rochester where the local economy has been ravaged by a massive failure to grasp technological change (Kodak pooh-poohing digital technology and sticking to film) and since I teach at a University, I am concerned with the economics of this for we laborers. Here is an interesting assessment: http://themagnetisalwayson.com/moocs-as-capital-biased-technological-change/ – There is little reason to think that in “openness” and “access” in the for profit sphere is good for anyone other than the profit claimers.


  15. January 7, 2013 at 2:18 pm

    Soon Leuphana Digital School will start a mooc. People from all over the world will work in teams and design their ideal city of the 21st century. The architect Daniel Libeskind will lead the course. Sounds great! Find more information on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/LeuphanaDigitalSchool


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