MOOCs: Promise and peril

By Edward Slingerland posted on June 11th, 2015

As I discussed in my last blog post, the multiple takes and production quality in a well-made MOOC results in lectures that are much more informationally-dense and yet more entertaining than anything one can achieve on a regular basis in person. Being able to draw upon such lectures is one of the great boons of producing a MOOC: when I next teach “Foundations of Chinese Thought” as a course at UBC, I am planning to employ a flipped classroom strategy, breaking my large lecture class into three groups, having students watch the lecture videos at home for two “classroom” hours, and then being able to devote the third classroom hour exclusively to discussion, analysis of primary texts, etc., in a small class setting. This strikes me as a much more efficient use of both my own and my students’ time, and I am hoping it will result in a lively and effective classroom experience.

Once all of one’s lectures on a particular topic are available on-line, other pedagogical uses become possible. Colleagues beyond UBC, for instance, have expressed interest in drawing upon my lectures—freely available on YouTube—to fill gaps in their classroom courses. A colleague who teaches virtue ethics has long wanted to include Confucianism in her course, but was dissuaded by her lack of formal training in the area. Now she’ll be able to draw upon both my recorded lectures and suggested readings to give her students, again in a flipped classroom environment, a solid grounding in the early Confucian virtue ethicists. The result will be a richer educational experience for the students, without my colleague having to take the time to get a decent grounding in the material itself.

One could also imagine my entire course being used by faculty at other universities to introduce Chinese philosophy to a curriculum that would otherwise lack it. UBC Okanagan, for instance, has no faculty members in my field, and could easily reproduce something like my own flipped-classroom use of the videos, with local instructors running discussion sections and designing and administering their own custom assessments. We also recently learned that my MOOC has been chosen to be offered on the Chinese version of edX, XuetangX, which should give it a radically extended reach, allowing students in China exposure to Western styles of teaching early Chinese thought they might otherwise never encounter.

These are all very positive things, with great potential benefits for faculty and students, at both UBC and beyond. Thinking about the implications of these potential uses, however, highlights a potentially darker side to MOOCs, and one where the interests of faculty and administration might very well diverge.

In our globalized economy more broadly, we are witnessing a gradual hollowing out of the middle class in Western industrialized societies. Jobs at the bottom end that physically cannot be outsourced—dog walking, garbage pickup, house cleaning—are thriving as usual, as are trades that are similarly linked to physically-present and skilled human beings, like nursing, plumbing or auto mechanics. Many white collar jobs that seemed quite stable, however, are now being threatened by a combination of artificial intelligence and the on-line outsourcing of work to lower-wage workers from developing countries. A host of websites allow one to put up for bid everything from computer programming to the drawing up of standard legal contracts. Free market enthusiasts and economists would approve, since this eliminates inefficiencies in the skills market. Moreover, the lower-wage knowledge-industry workers in the developing world also benefit, obtaining wages and job experience far beyond what would be available to them locally. Yet things look much less rosy from the perspective of local white-collar workers put out of work or forced to accept lower wages.

MOOCs, in my mind, represent a similar cocktail of potential benefits and risks. As MOOCs develop, and particularly as they get picked up by universities to plug gaps in—or completely replace outright—existing or desired courses, they have the potential to produce a few big winners at the top (the best-known, most successful “knowledge producers”), and concomitant benefits for large numbers of people around the world who would otherwise have no access to this sort of specialized, high-quality education. The worry is that, like outsourcing your IT maintenance to Bangladesh, this will result in fewer jobs for skilled people in one’s own backyard. Worse, it could create a situation where qualified Ph.D.s who could be teaching their own courses as tenure-track faculty members are permanently reduced to serving as adjuncts or non-permanent faculty, teaching their professors’ MOOCs. Allowing UBC Okanagan to use my course to introduce Chinese philosophy to their curriculum seems like a great idea, but what if this ends up meaning, down the line, one fewer job for my students? Although strong student response to a Chinese philosophy MOOC could conceivably motivate a school like UBC-O to create a tenure-track line in that area, the availability of a free, or at least very low-cost alternative, could quite easily have the opposite effect.

Another potential worry involves what we might see as the creation of an impoverished intellectual ecosystem. Currently, early Chinese philosophy is taught independently by a large number of experts around the world, each of whom has their own take on both the course material and how best to convey it. Even though I obviously prefer my own interpretation of early Chinese thought, I find the idea that a large-scale adoption of my MOOC could begin to crowd out other views somewhat disturbing. Even when it comes to subject matter that one might think more easily standardized—introductions to statistics, for instance, or mechanical engineering—our current system provides students with a wide variety of viewpoints and pedagogical methods, a diversity that would be lost if one or a handful of MOOCs became the dominant modes of introducing students to these subjects.

There are no obvious answers to these concerns. The fact that UBC Philosophy can currently cross-list my normal classroom courses—thereby obtaining the benefit of Chinese philosophical training for their students while being spared the expense of actually creating their own line in this burgeoning field—is arguably no different in effect than allowing other universities to take advantage of my MOOC. Similarly, there may be compelling reasons for wanting to standardize the manner in which students are introduced to certain topics. I would merely note that, as we move forward with developing and expanding the use of MOOCs, these broader impacts—on our livelihoods, future job markets for our students, and the intellectual diversity of the academy—are something we should not lose sight of in our enthusiasm to innovate.


Edward Slingerland is a professor of Asian Studies at UBC.
Photo by Paul Joseph.