Universities, the purpose and future of

MOOC stands for massive open online course. MOOCs may or may not drastically change higher education. There are some obvious good aspects to them, like making high quality learning material available to people who otherwise can’t access it. But some of my colleagues who, like me, aspire to be professors some day are worried that MOOCs may put them out of a job. Why should a university hire them to teach a class year after year when students can see recorded lectures instead? And the clincher: these lectures are given by top professors from top universities.

Discussing these concerns lead me to think about the purpose of universities. I’m writing this post to gather my thoughts on that topic, sort of “thinking aloud.” Here are several different views on the purpose of universities and the resulting predictions each view gives about the affect of MOOCs on academia. (The different views vary in descriptive/prescriptiveness)

The classical economics view (circa the World Wars) is that universities train the labor force and conduct research that improves technology, both of these things increase productivity (hence GDP) and that’s (supposedly) best for everyone (the underlying utilitarian philosophy or assumptions of economic theory are just not open for discussion). In this case it is certainly true that the work force could be trained with far fewer professors than we currently have (if for no other reason than that we can cut out subjects/departments like philosophy which don’t improve worker productivity), so we aspiring academics should despair. I don’t find this view very convincing, especially the part about training the labor force. I think the vast majority of college graduates will end up working in positions that are not closely related to their degree and could have learned the relevant skills on the job.

The technological superiority view (circa the Cold War) is a modification of the above which places less emphasis on teaching and more on research. Here the purpose of universities is to advance technology, giving their host nations an advantage in arms races or space races, or improving medicine so we can all live longer, etc. In this view MOOCs have basically no negative affect on teacher employment. The number of years of required education is increasing as domains of knowledge become deeper. So even if all the intro courses are MOOCs we will still need teachers for upper level, highly specialized courses. And the number of specializations is growing fast. I find this view deficient because better technology doesn’t always leave us better off. Remember that time we almost wiped each other out with cutting-edge technology? I also have the opinion that much research is a waste of time, not because it isn’t eminently useful, but because it’s actually low quality scholarship done mostly for the sake of increasing the number of publications.

The humanist view (circa before the World Wars, but humanities profs/majors will never let go) is what most liberally-minded people want to believe about their own reason for going to college. “Higher education” doesn’t just mean it’s a level above “high” school; it means our minds or spirits or quality of life (or whatever) are improved by learning. People with this view usually espouse “liberal arts” education, because even if you’re studying to be an engineer you should take an art class and learn to better appreciate the arts because that improves you as a human being (it might even inform your choices as an engineer, e.g. Steve Jobs and the Apple aesthetic). MOOCs are either bad because they are placing even less emphasis on humanities (it’s difficult to grade things like long papers, art projects, etc, in an MOOC format), or they are good because they are making education free and more available.  I am very sympathetic to this view, if for no other reason than that I am a contrarian at an engineering school. Some people with this view (but not all) tend to undervalue the other benefits of universities like scientific research.

Before I offer my own view, notice some things about universities that none of the views above explain. None of those views mention anything about maximizing the university endowment, increasing the prestige of the school, or anything like that. However, all universities behave (organizationally) as though those types of things are their most important goals. This is despite the fact that most universities explicitly state in their charters that they exist to serve the betterment of humanity or something like that. The school could have more endowment money than it knows what to do with, donations constantly rolling in, and tuition rates already scheduled to increase, and they will still re-re-subcontract their custodial service, firing all the janitors and re-hiring them at an even lower wage. Why? (The cheap and easy explanation is that many university administrations are business school graduates and they are simply behaving the way they learned to behave in business school)

Also note that the demand for education from “top” schools is much larger than those schools meet. Every year they receive far more qualified applications than they admit. Most of them could easily spend part of their large endowments to expand and accommodate more students, and also create more academic jobs in the process. Why don’t they?

My own view (descriptive) is that universities serve all the purposes above to varying degrees, but they are also a pyramid scheme of  cushy jobs and fierce guardians of elitist credentials. They provide security and leisure to the class of people who can succeed at academia. The pyramid-structure (both within and between schools) enhances prestige through intense competition at the lowest levels, and prestige is important because it justifies the credential elitism. MOOC certificates can never compete with actual degrees precisely because they are open (so they fail at being elitist). MOOCs may take jobs away from the people with less job security- adjuncts, for example. But they will not be allowed to threaten the job security of the people with cushy jobs, because those cushy jobs are one of the main points of the entire system. And though (top) universities could provide more cushy jobs by using their large endowments to grow, that might dilute their credentials. So my theory also explains why they don’t do that- they are protecting their elite status and therefore the class of people who already succeed in the system.

I am a big fan of cushy jobs, but elitism makes me sad (if I didn’t benefit from it, it would probably make me more mad than sad). I hope that the humanist view becomes more popular (it’s close to what I think the purpose of universities should be), because I think the lessons of great literature, for example, will help us choose systems that work much better for all of us. I want everyone to have nice jobs, not work too much, and have more time to spend enriching their lives (by taking MOOCs, for example). And I think these goals are realistic (they might all be accomplished by just having shorter work weeks).

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One thought on “Universities, the purpose and future of

  1. Charles Zheng says:

    Modus tolens: One of the elitist institutions allowed the creation of MOOCs, therefore MOOCs do not threaten the job security of the elitists.

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