We have recently managed to avoid blogging about massive open online courses (MOOCs), although at least two of our bloggers (Tim and Kevin) are avid MOOCers (see here and here). So, although I am by no means an expert on the topic, let me open the discussion with the hope that others will weigh in. I’ll start with a nice (but possibly bogus) anecdote:
Larry Ellison, genius loci of Oracle Corporation, was slumming recently. He was, the story goes, giving a talk at a big meeting of the American Association of University Professors, the guild organization that invigilates the protectionist rules that keep the professoriate in their tenured luxury. Ellison began with a little flattery. Teachers, he said, are one of the most important assets of our society. Applause and appreciative murmurs. Not only are teachers important, he said they are also drastically underpaid. Even more appreciative applause and scattered “Here, heres.” In fact, quoth this business giant, I think teachers are so important that they ought to be paid at least a $1 million a year. A standing ovation: who knew that someone from corporate America could be so insightful? Unfortunately, Ellison concluded, I’m only going to need about 100 of you.
A quick Google search did not corroborate this story, and the guy who wrote it, Roger Kimball, seems to have it in for professors in general, and the notion of tenure in particular. That said, I have observed at least a hint of schadenfreude is typical of news articles about MOOCs (perhaps because journalism itself was actually disrupted by the Internet).
My opinion is that MOOCs are a great tool for outreach, a way to get many people to know about the things you (professionally) care about — much like popular science books in an age when reading popular science books was cool. Personally I remain unconvinced that MOOCs have the potential to replace traditional college education.
Instead of rehashing the same arguments that many of us have seen, I’d like to raise a new point (although I wouldn’t be surprised if it has already been discussed somewhere). Many predict that the demise of higher education is imminent, but I haven’t seen anyone suggest that MOOCs will replace K-12 education. Granted, being able to read is a prerequisite for MOOCs, so elementary schools are probably not going to disappear any time soon. But as far as I can tell the main difference between high schools and colleges is that colleges are on average a lot more expensive. Unlike college education, which is very specialized, high school education really could be limited to 100 teachers (or even fewer): The best math teacher can in principle teach all of the high school math lessons, etc.
I imagine that this idea would seem repugnant to most people, but arguably the main reason is the way high school teachers are typically perceived — underpaid and hardworking despite adverse conditions, vs. the public’s perception of university professors — overpaid and living in “tenured luxury”. This perception is of course completely false; after all, some of us are living in untenured luxury.