A recent phenomenon in higher education is the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) wave, with websites like Coursera, edX and Udacity offering courses in a wide range of subjects, delivered by professors in elite universities. The Chronicle conducted a study on the MOOCs, using 103 questionnaires completed by professors who have taught MOOCs. While the majority of professors confirm the value of these online courses, and believe that MOOCs could eventually drive down the cost of college degrees, the picture is far from clear. For one, quality control is difficult – online lectures cannot be assessed in the same way as a traditional class. Second, students do drop out half way, so the statistics (50,000 students registered) is misleading. Third, it’s doubtful whether MOOCs provide the ideal learning environment – aside from the obvious fact that there is no face-to-face interaction, MOOCs also do not have instructors on the side who can guide students through the program.

It is true that one of the benefits of virtual teaching is a kind of democratization of higher education; MOOCs expand college access geographically and economically. However, I wonder if this democratization is counterbalanced by another form of inequality – by offering courses from ‘elite’ universities, websites such as Coursera might be worsening an imbalance in the academic world. As is evident from the Comments section of the aforementioned Chronicle study, this issue of elitism is a real one. Would students still want to hear anyone else talk when they have the opportunity to listen to Steven Pinker or Richard Dawkins through a computer screen? Would the mass, global promotion of certain thinkers (and their works and methodologies) lead to a narrowing of certain fields? Is higher education in danger of becoming a spectacle, with a ‘sage on the stage’ delivering a message to the world? And where does that leave ‘the rest of us’? Having been educated at 3 different universities, 2 of which ranked in the top 5 in the world, and 1 of which has consistently ranked in the 30s, I can certainly say that yes, elite universities have erudite ‘star’ scholars AND great teachers, not to mention abundant resources. However, now that I’m teaching at a community college, I also know that colleagues from ‘lesser’ institutions are equally capable of valuable scholarship and effective teaching – the idea that those at elite institutions cannot teach is as invalid as the assertion that those at community college are always great teachers. So, if MOOCs are to be a democratic form of higher education, they need to address this issue of elitism.

NB: I have yet to try out an MOOC for myself – maybe taking one of these courses will shed light on some issues, or change my opinions.



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