Some MOOC points

I enjoy the MOOC debates. It is one of the few topics that causes very smart people to make arguments that they would laugh away were someone to make them in other contexts. Being personally involved or affected by an issue will do that to you I guess. As I’ve written before, I don’t really care that much about MOOCs one way or another. I plug in only briefly to the subject because it mentions the poors, which is a topic I like to follow. In the process of trying to track those arguments, I wade through most of the others. What follows are assorted remarks about two of them.

The people who are opposed to MOOCs remark that they have high attrition rates relative to face-to-face (FTF) classes. This comparison is only meaningful if MOOC students are comparable to FTF students. That’s obviously not the case. A student enrolled at a degree-granting university is not even remotely similar to some non-enrolled person signing up for a MOOC on the internet. The latter almost certainly has less investment in completing the course, less commitment to it, is usually not receiving credit, does not intend for it to count towards a coveted degree, and so on. No serious researcher could possibly think that there is an apples-to-apples comparison between the two rates.

If you wanted to create data that would allow for a meaningful comparison, there is no mystery as to how to do it. Select some existing classes at universities (e.g. an introductory calculus course), have half of the enrolled students take the FTF course they signed up for and the other half take a MOOC equivalent. Comparisons short of that kind of controlled study are hugely suspect. The existing attrition data is so obviously incomparable that it is astonishing that smart people actually bring it up as if it sheds any light on what MOOCs at actual universities would be like.

Non-Ideal Maneuvering
Another argument is that if MOOCs replace in-person instructors that will harm research because teaching functions as a cross-subsidy for research. But there is no necessary connection between teaching and research. In fact, if we stipulate that MOOCs do as good a job as FTF classes, and further stipulate that MOOCs are cheaper, replacing FTF classes with MOOCs creates more research capacity. Professors who teach would have the time they spend teaching freed up to do research, and the savings from implementing the MOOC could pay them to do so. We should not understate the extent to which freeing up smart minds from doing something a video can do (again under my stipulated facts) could be a great boon for research.

But the above is merely a hypothetical reality, the anti-MOOC people point out. It is only hypothetically the case that you could implement MOOCs in a way that frees up time and resources for more research. In reality, when you debundle researching from teaching, the state and private actors will opt not to fund research.

So under this argument, anti-MOOC people maintain that the amount of research the public (or private donors) are willing to fund is way below the right amount of research (not sure how you know how much is enough, but whatever). So instead of trying to persuade the state to spend more on it, what we need to do is keep in place a teaching-researching bundling scheme that forces them to fund the research. Decoupling the two just gives the public too much power to reduce research funding, and ultimately the amount of funding the public would devote to research if it had the choice is way less than the appropriate amount. So we should force its hands by trying to keep in place an admittedly non-ideal bundling system that is actually worse for research than a hypothetical alternative (again under stipulated facts).

I think there is room for this argument. It’s just much bolder than its advocates suggest it is, which is predictable given the kind of argument it is. It is hard to put forward an argument — which is a form of public reasoning — that says the public should move to keep a non-ideal teaching-researching bundling system because that same public doesn’t value research enough to allocate money to it. Put that way, you see the problem: if the public doesn’t value research enough, then why would they get behind a bundling preservation campaign that is justified by the theory that such a scheme is good for research? The whole premise of the campaign is that the public doesn’t care about research. The public is being asked to mobilize to protect research from themselves. In any event, the posture of the advocacy element of this argument is just very weird, even if the argument treated as separate from the advocacy is functional.