Back in 2012 John Hennessy, the president of Stanford University, gave an address at the Computing Research Association’s 40th annual conference called “The Coming Tsunami in Educational Technology.” In that speech Hennessy argued – or rather stated – that Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) have the potential to provide high-quality education to a large number of students at a low cost. Online courses can be provided to students anywhere, overcoming physical and social boundaries. (Though not mentioned explicitly by Hennessy, his comments imply that this method of delivery, combined with the openness of MOOCs, is especially beneficial to those who for geographic or socioeconomic reasons have limited access to higher education). Finally according to Hennessy, MOOCs could allow participating schools to reduce costs and increase profits: “Done right, colleges can reduce their number of instructors, which is the main cost of education, and increase their profits.”
The claim that paying instructors is the main cost of higher education is dubious. For example, according to Stanford’s Budget Book [p.vii], for the 2014 financial year, compensation accounted for just under 60% of the university’s budget. But this figure does not distinguish between academic instructor and staff salaries. Instructors’ salaries accounted for just over 35% of the expenses Stanford’s School of Humanities and Sciences in the financial year 2011/12, for example [p.90]. At least at some universities – such at Hennessy’s own – instructors’ salaries do not account for most of the costs. Of course the ratio of professors’ salaries to other expenses vary across departments and universities but it is a gross generalization to claim that compensating professors is the main cost in higher education. Nor am I aware of any evidence indicating that instructor salaries are what has driven up the cost of higher education in the last decade. Rather I would speculate that it is the expansion of university administration and the aggressive building programs many universities have pursued that account for rising costs.
But even if instructors salaries were the greatest cost in higher education, it does not follow that reducing costs and increasing profits is desirable. Most universities in the United States are nonprofit organizations. Nor is there any evidence that increasing the student to faculty ratio in the name of profit would improve higher education. The arguments – if they even merit the term- proffered two years ago for MOOCs are nothing more than the rehashed rhetoric of economic liberalization that demands cutting costs and increasing output as an ends in themselves. What is forgotten in utilizing this rhetoric is something obvious to anyone who has worked in higher education, namely that a large part of what makes a quality education is a student’s access to and experience with an instructor – time spent face to face with someone knowledgeable. Fewer instructors teaching at a greater distance from their students practically ensures that students’ time with instructors will be reduced. For those who think of this interaction as a necessary condition of education, a dystopian image emerges of an era of nominally educational institutions that for the sake of “efficiency” have foregone direct teacher-student contact altogether.
But the tsunami never came. The idea of MOOCs today seems to be an obsolete image of a once imaged future. Already a year ago, Dennis Yang, the President and COO of Udemy, a MOOC provider, wrote a terribly defensive article in the Huffington Post in which he claimed that MOOCs still have potential and are not just pure hype. Yang writes, “What’s happening in online education is revolutionary. For the first time, people around the world have the opportunity to learn from real-world experts — from professors, yes, but also from people who stand out in their fields, like Jack Welch or web developer Victor Bastos or yoga teacher Sadie Nardini.” But this already gives up on what was supposed to be the tremendous potential of the technology, the tsunami. “Online education” is a much broader term than MOOC and listening to online lectures by Jack Welch sounds suspiciously similar to spending an uneventful evening looking at TED Talks and Youtube videos. There is a practical if unspoken consensus that Khan Academy is not about to replace going to college.
However, it’s important to realize how deep the rhetoric of salvation through technological innovation runs in our academic culture. The notion that in all our endeavors we must strive for greater efficiency, lower costs, higher output, and improved results, and that “advanced” technology and futurity are inextricably intertwined, is just as prevalent now as it was when MOOCs seemed like a bright idea. Hennessy’s new notion is that SPOCs – small private online courses – will deliver where MOOCs did not. Attrition from MOOCs is high (most students who sign up do not attend the lectures or complete assignments) and even remaining students are often not prepared to do rigorous work. But that empirical data does not put the slightest dent in the notion, also celebrated in the popular press, that there is a technocratic solution available. Rather Hennessy seems to hold that reducing the enrollment (no longer maximizing the first variable) and restricting access (changing the sign of the second variable), will achieve with SPOCs the maximization of utility that remained elusive in the case of MOOCs. This is classic theory of the second best-style thinking.
I have suggested that one must make philosophically and factually dubious presuppositions if one is to believe that the digitization of the teacher-student interaction is desirable or necessary in higher education. Nevertheless I suspect that many administrators, some trustees, and perhaps even a few faculty at major universities at least covertly or unconsciously think that higher education needs to be radically reformulated in our era of big data and cloud computing. Perhaps there are things that we could improve with these techniques (opening access to academic publications comes to mind). But in order for these changes to be truly beneficial to students they need to be developed democratically, not handed down as an edict from atop the ivory tower.