The Rich (Universities) Are Different QOTD

If you have any interest in the future of higher ed and you haven’t read Jonathan Rees’ reflections on participating in a prominent MOOC (massive, open, online course), you definitely should.

One of this recent posts takes on the issue of the cost of education in reference to MOOCs, and specifically the perception that guild-like professors are trying to maintain their cushy lifestyles at the expense of needy students who can’t afford expensive tuition. This argument has more than one flaw, as Rees notes, especially the idea that most university faculty make a lot of money (in fact, by volume of teaching, I believe most are now adjuncts working a low piece-rate). Rees goes on to quote an article from The American Interest on lavish expenditures by top universities:

Last year Yale finalized plans to build new residential dormitories at a combined cost of $600 million. The expansion will increase the size of Yale’s undergraduate population by about 1,000. The project is so expensive that Yale could actually buy a three-bedroom home in New Haven for every new student it is bringing in and still save $100 million.

The rest of the debate about MOOCs is more important, but I just wanted to pause and reflect on that quote for a minute.

Whatever is happening to higher-ed more broadly, something very different is going on at Yale, Columbia, Harvard and a handful of others. These universities may be generating the content for MOOCs, but they aren’t worried about their traditional model disappearing anytime soon. And gee whiz do they have a lot of money! As Rees elsewhere notes, the Coursera model seems to be premised on the idea that “super professors” will generate free content that will be offered in place of existing courses at less prestigious universities – basically, the most prominent and well-paid faculty doing free labor to (poorly) replace the labor of the adjuncts and TT faculty at lower-tiered schools. The poorly part is important – for some courses, maybe the MOOC is as good an offering as a big traditional lecture taught by a regular professor, especially if the lecture lacks any interaction whatsoever. But, as Rees repeatedly argues:

Maybe you can teach the world a lot of facts by showing them videos of the best professors of the world, but if you can’t teach them how to “do” history, then MOOCs will never be able to replace the in-class experience unless the powers that be no longer care whether students get access to that experience or not.

At Yale, clearly the powers that be care a lot about that experience. But Yale can afford to care, and to generate the tools that help undo that experience elsewhere. Reading along with Rees, and trying out Coursera a bit for myself, I am not very optimistic for the future of humanities and social science education.

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