Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Laptop U

The New Yorker has a really excellent summary about taking massively open online courses (MOOCs) into higher ed, and what it will mean to the evolution of both elite and non-elite universities.  The key bit that I hadn't thought about:

“Imagine you’re at South Dakota State,” [Peter Burgard, a professor of German at Harvard] said, “and they’re cash-strapped, and they say, ‘Oh! There are these HarvardX courses. We’ll hire an adjunct for three thousand dollars a semester, and we’ll have the students watch this TV show.’ Their faculty is going to dwindle very quickly. Eventually, that dwindling is going to make it to larger and less poverty-stricken universities and colleges. The fewer positions are out there, the fewer Ph.D.s get hired. The fewer Ph.D.s that get hired—well, you can see where it goes. It will probably hurt less prestigious graduate schools first, but eventually it will make it to the top graduate schools. . . . If you have a smaller graduate program, you can be assured the deans will say, ‘First of all, half of our undergraduates are taking MOOCs. Second, you don’t have as many graduate students. You don’t need as many professors in your department of English, or your department of history, or your department of anthropology, or whatever.’ And every time the faculty shrinks, of course, there are fewer fields and subfields taught. And, when fewer fields and subfields are taught, bodies of knowledge are neglected and die. You can see how everything devolves from there.”
There's always been a disconnect between MOOCs and basic research, one that I've never been able to resolve.  Since I'm not really oriented that way, I hadn't thought about the dual problem that occurs in the humanities.

Of course, this implies that humanities teaching needs to be kept alive through constant research and reinterpretation.  I can buy this argument, because teaching stale, received wisdom is going to be so uninspiring to the teachers that the uninspiration will wear off on the students.  It's actually a nifty explanation for why modern humanities teaching gets so wacky:  When all the best re-interpretations have already been taken, you've got to wander out into two- and three-sigma territory to find something new.

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