The other day I was wandering around the Internet and I ran across this insightful and well-written blog post: When the Village Doesn’t Need You Anymore. It relates work vs. leisure and academia in a discussion about the American model for productivity and MOOCs (massive open online courses). Academia already justifies its relevance, in part, through teaching and if teaching is “outsourced,” then what happens? We find ourselves in an interesting time where getting a college education is basically a requirement for any sort of decent job, this demand is driving up the cost of a college education, cutbacks in education and research funding has academics up against the wall, and the changing global landscape is forcing us to go in a different direction economically, socially, and scientifically.

In the blog post, there’s an imaginary exchange between a professor and an interviewer where the professor has to defend their stance:

Interviewer: “So what do you do?”

Professor: “I take the information from the texts and give it to the students.”

I: “Oh.  Well why couldn’t the students just go to the texts/lectures/forums themselves, since they are on the internet?”

P: “I have finely honed teaching skills!”

I: “So does Dr. UberAwesome from Harvard … in fact, I suspect he’s better.”

P: “… you … you don’t understand! See, the internet is not interactive like I am!  I have office hours from 2-3pm on the second Monday and third Thursday of every month by appointment!”

I: “But our forums are monitored 12 hours a day by teaching assistants …”

P: “… but the internet isn’t … good … with …”

So, the question is: Should academics be worried about their livelihood? Are MOOCs threatening academia?

Academia is feeling its own obsolescence in some senses. The way the system has worked doesn’t work as well any more. But are MOOCs a true threat? Or are they just forcing people to consider changes that might need to happen anyways? Let’s be honest, tuition fees keep rising disproportionately to the cost of instruction as infrastructure costs keep going up. There are too many highly educated unemployed people. There are even more minimally employed highly educated in huge amounts of debt who studied something in college that they didn’t love just so they could get a job afterwards. The truth is, most professors aren’t looking to make sweeping changes across the whole system; for one, it’s benefitted them, and two, they’re myopic by nature. Most academics spend their whole professional lives studying one or two things–when many of us are now looking at having an average 6 careers in our lifetimes, professors can still make a go at just having one. 

That being said, I think there are really two separate issues here surrounding MOOCs and education:
1. The issues from the post: the skills you learn to be a professor are in less demand and with technology you can educate more people for less. I think what academia does is necessary and important, but you can’t link it directly to economic output. Ideally, we as a society should hold that the pursuit of knowledge and education are inherent goods. Either way, any development fostered by academia is necessarily long-term and more about sustaining economic development through knowledge capital than triggering it or contributing directly.
2. The issue that MOOCs strive to address is the inherent classism in higher education. Many people not only cannot afford university, even more will never be able to qualify for it because of their disadvantaged educational and economic background. Regardless of how you feel about the quality of education gained via MOOC vs. traditional schooling, MOOCs not only challenge the status quo by challenging the utility of professors/academia but also by challenging our views on who “should” or can have access to this type of knowledge/schooling and how.

But the other truth about MOOCs is that only about 10% of people actually finish the courses. Most of the people who sign up for them are from economically developed countries and already speak English. So are they radically changing education? No, not really. Maybe one day they will, but for right now, academics you can relax.