Massive open, on-line courses: With the faculty, or against the faculty?

April 19, 2012 at 8:02 am 5 comments

I found this piece on MITx interesting in contrast with my visit to Stanford.  At Stanford, it’s pretty clear that they’re doing the on-line courses because the faculty want them.  This article suggests that, at MIT, the administration (mostly represented in this piece by an interview with the MIT Chancellor) wants the courses, but the faculty are more dubious.

In a provocative essay in the latest edition of MIT’s faculty newsletter, Woodie Flowers, an emeritus professor of mechanical engineering, draws a distinction between training and education. “Education is much more subtle and complex and is likely to be accomplished through mentorship or apprentice-like interactions between a learner and an expert,” Flowers wrote, quoting from one of his own lectures. The “sweet spot for expensive universities such as MIT,” he continued, is a blend of “highly-produced training systems” and a high-touch apprenticeship model that emphasizes direct interactions between faculty and students. “MITx,” Flowers contends, “seems aimed at neither”

Samuel Allen, a professor of metallurgy and chair of the MIT faculty, wrote an essay for the same issue of the newsletter that struck a less critical tone but also raised questions about the implications of inexpensive online iterations of the university’s curricular offerings. “If MITx is wildly successful, what is the future of the residential education experience that has been our mode of teaching for MIT’s entire history?” Allen wrote. “If students can master course materials online for free (or for a modest ‘credentialing’ fee), what incentives would there be for anyone to invest in an expensive residential college education?”

via How could MITx change MIT? | Inside Higher Ed.

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5 Comments Add your own

  • 1. alfredtwo  |  April 22, 2012 at 4:37 pm

    I’m not sold on online courses. Maybe it is because that is not how I want to learn. Or maybe I just don’t understand the way they work in real life. The online education things I have tried have felt just about useless. I shouldn’t say that in public I guess but …
    I like the idea of education as a hands on, face to face, more social experience.
    I’ve met Woodie Flowers and heard him talk a couple of times and when I read this (a while ago actually) I was not surprsied he felt that way. And I feel like I agree with much of what he said. What I worry about and what it seems a lot of administrators like about online education is that it is cost effetive. That is to say that it allows teachers to reach more students for a lot less money than traditional education. Administrators who are worried about budgets like that. Simialrly I have heard from faculty whose administration want to cut the length of in-person classes to allow for more sections in a single year. There seems, in many cases, to be more concern about cost redution than any possible loss in quality of teducation.

  • 2. Daniel Hawkins  |  April 23, 2012 at 4:14 am

    As a current student at MIT (senior this year), I don’t think you have the full story. Certainly there are faculty who think poorly of this effort, or are worried about its implications (it’s difficult to believe Stanford’s endeavor has been met with no opposition whatsoever; perhaps there is simply less politics happening here…). But the idea was born in a faculty committee (chaired by the same man who chaired the committee that created OCW), and it was vetted at length by both students and faculty. I remember some faculty being frustrated because they wanted to put their courses online NOW, and they were being asked to wait until everything had been thoroughly discussed. The Chancellor, Eric Grimson is a professor as well, and only recently left the post of EECS Department Head to take on this new responsibility. To say that MITx wasn’t the result of a push from MIT faculty who care deeply about education would be ridiculous.

    Now, to the criticisms themselves. To Prof. Flowers, I would say that in my four years here on campus I have never seen the “high-touch apprenticeship model” he speaks of. Professors are very busy, and my interactions with them are rarely one-on-one (for good reason). This critique seems like the familiar ranting of many older adults who do not believe any real substantive communication or social interaction can be achieved on the internet. Time will tell, but my prediction is that quite a bit of education will take place through MITx, and though it may not adhere to Prof. Flowers’ standards, it just might make the world a better place.

    To Sam Allen, I would say that MITx can enhance our residential education experience (and I know my roommate, who is taking 6.002x right now, would agree). But even if MITx outpaces residential education and makes it irrelevant (I don’t see this happening), “what incentives would there be for anyone to invest in an expensive residential college education?” is not the question we should be asking. MIT’s mission is “to advance knowledge and educate students in science, technology, and other areas of scholarship that will best serve the nation and the world in the twenty-first century.” I don’t see a single word in there about getting people to “invest” ridiculous amounts of money in a degree — in fact, looking at the average student debt and unemployment numbers, I’m inclined to think that this practice is directly opposed to the mission of “serving the nation and the world.”

    MITx will make high quality education more accessible. It will also make it easier for others to pick up the torch and spread the knowledge they believe is important. It might fail and make MIT look bad. It might succeed and disrupt the entire higher education system. Does that sound more like the brainchild of a group of administrators looking to cut costs? Or a group of visionary scientists and engineers who have dedicated their careers to research and teaching?

  • 3. alfredtwo  |  April 24, 2012 at 12:26 am

    I wonder how often the one to one apprentishship models really happens at large universities. I attended a small university (< 2,500 students) and had a lot of one to one with faculty. I also had a key to the computer room where they kept THE computer. Not something that happened in the 1970's at large state schools for undergraduate students.

  • […] Sullivan is not quoted at length in the e-mail files that were released, but one from an alumnus/donor to Kington says that Sullivan provided a “pedestrian” answer to a question about how UVa was embracing the online education revolution. Sullivan is not responding to press inquiries at this time, but sources familiar with discussions she has had on distance education said that she viewed it as an important trend, but had expressed skepticism about the idea that it was a quick fix to solving financial problems, and that she viewed distance education as having the potential to cost a lot of money without delivering financial gains. Sources also said she viewed distance education as an issue on which faculty input was crucial. […]

  • […] Tech faculty late last night. Dear Colleagues: Today Georgia Tech will announce a partnership with Coursera, the Stanford University online education spinout that has been much in the news lately.  We will […]


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