Vivek Haldar

MOOCs will eat academia

The latest CACM asks if MOOCs will destroy academia. The author concludes that “If I had my wish, I would wave a wand and make MOOCs disappear, but I am afraid that we have let the genie out of the bottle.”

Like most articles that bemoan the oncoming death of the university, that article suffers from the logical flaw that it conflates the two components of a university: teaching, and research.

MOOCs will almost certainly hollow out the teaching component of universities as it stands today. I don’t see anything on the horizon that will reverse this tide. In most technical fields, the nuts and bolts technical interview and on-the-job learning and performance monitoring long ago replaced any faith in degrees as credentials. That leaves very few fields, such as law, where you absolutely do need the degree as a credential.

Add to that the fact that instructors of MOOCs feel much higher levels of job satisfaction, because of the impact of teaching a few thousand students, many of whom may not be privileged enough to get to a physical classroom. Contrast that with teaching a class with tens (or for large introductory courses, hundreds) of students, most of whom are surfing on their laptops.

Unfortunately, teaching is also the component that brings in the lion’s share of money into academia. But all is not lost, because the other thing universities do is research, and that is arguably as important, if not more, than teaching. If universities shed their easy-money-making credentialing and teaching component, and contract to becoming purely centers for research, that might not be such a bad outcome.