Thursday, May 16, 2013

MOOCs, and MOODs?

There is a drive-by quote from me in Nathan Heller's good New Yorker article about Massive Open Online Courses. Reading the story reminds me how hard this kind of writing is -- I spent a long time with Heller, and tried to sell him on the idea of CS20 as an anti-MOOC, but our conversation got reduced to one line about students sleeping through class.

It is interesting to see the MOOC euphoria being replaced by MOOC dread. The best articulation of the worries is that of Prof. Bob Meister of the UC Santa Cruz, after the University's decision to import Justice, Michael Sandel's MOOC course on moral philosophy. It is now becoming apparent, here at Harvard and elsewhere, what is implied when it is said that the Internet will result in disruptive change to higher education. Universities facing crushing budgetary cuts will try to save money. There is no question that the learning experience will change at places like the UC Santa Cruz; the only question is how. The members of the philosophy department do not want to be Prof. Sandel's remote teaching assistants, and Prof. Sandel does not want to be an agent of downsizing philosophy departments elsewhere. Fine, but the UC governors also have the option of not teaching philosophy at all, or drastically consolidating departments, as Rick Scott proposed for anthropology departments in Florida.

So what is Harvard's responsibility in all this? It is a very, very tricky question.

Quite likely the world of MOOCs and other Internet-enabled higher education will recapitulate the history of the Internet. Once information transmission and storage become free, goods that are free or nearly so will undercut the revenue model for information institutions that have been crucial to democratic societies. Nobody involved in the development of the Internet wanted to destroy the newspaper industry, but it is hard to see what they could have done to prevent the havoc that has resulted from the free flow of information even if they had seen coming everything that has happened. -- short of building into the Internet architecture a set of locks and chains that would have been devastating to innovation and entrepreneurship.

In the case of MOOCs (or other ways of chunking online instruction), Harvard could impose burdensome licensing rules in an effort to protect the scholarly professionals elsewhere. (Just as the Wall Street Journal is now Online but hardly Open.) But of course UC would then utilize someone else's product, resulting in lower quality instruction at UC, perhaps at a higher price. Would we at Harvard then sleep better, knowing that if any philosophers had been laid off in California, it was not because of OUR MOOC?

And then there is the fact that in Computer Science, there is no oversupply of academic scholars nor undersupply of teaching jobs. The economic impact of providing CS50X on loose licensing terms would seem to be a huge social win for the world. Perhaps different subjects could be treated differently?

My personal preference would be for Harvard's courses to remain as open as possible, with licensing terms as relaxed as possible, on the theory that we should produce the best materials we can, try to recover our costs and a bit more, but not prevent others who can be even more creative that us from utilizing what we have to offer. Personally I like the idea of a pure Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license. I am convinced Harvard could do fine financially on that model and could maximize its impact on the world. (There is as much chance of that happening as of a snowball surviving hell, but that can be for another day.)

In any case, there is no doubt the train is leaving the station. Yale signed onto Coursera today, and Georgia Tech announced an entire Massive Open Online Masters Degree program (hence my MOOD acronym in the title). Which of these institutions will prove to be contestants in a race to the bottom? I don't know, but everybody is going to have to be a lot more candid with each other. Universities should be clear about their revenue ambitions (just to cover costs, or if more than that, to plow the profits into what?). And the faculty are going to have to come to grips with the consequences, good and bad, of openness, and decide whether it really is more noble to be restrictive with its intellectual property than to risk any adverse consequences of sharing its educational creations with a generous and liberal spirit.


  1. Let me add a thought or two to your excellent post. One thing that happened in the newspaper industry was not only did the revenue models change, but consumer expectations of a fair price also changed (to zero or nearly so). These expectations might be as difficult to change as anything else. The expectation of free course content is not yet upon us, but might be in the not too distant future.

    The other thought is that in an era when the costs of teaching courses (or producing content) is born entirely by the teacher/producer, only those producers who have other sources of income will be able to do so -- universities with large endowments, for instance, or lots of research grants.

  2. I suggest Spotify as the proxy instead of newspapers. Music companies and independent musicians now are giving away their music (or .04 cents per play) in exchange for making money elsewhere. For some of the MOOC universities, these courses aren't just to help the world -- they are loss-leaders to drive users to their extension courses.