Open Access to Public MOOCs

A couple of recent articles on the use of MOOCs (massive open online courses) in California colleges and universities raise an interesting ethical question -- one that hasn't attracted much attention, but certainly merits it.  The issue I have in mind concerns the ownership and control of access to MOOCs produced at publicly funded universities.

The first article reports that one of the large California State University (CSU) campuses, San Jose State (SJSU), is now offering course credit to students taking three MOOCs: one in college algebra, one in developmental math, and one in elementary statistics.  About half the students are SJSU students, while the others are high school students, military members, or community college students.  To be precise, while students can take the courses for free, they can get college credit only if they pay the tuition.

SJSU apparently is using only courses provided by Udacity, an educational organization devoted to promoting MOOCs, and (though the article isn't clear on this score) the courses were developed elsewhere, at universities such as Stanford and MIT.

The second article is from the Chronicles of Higher Education. It reports  that a high-ranking state senator (Darrell Steinberg) is sponsoring a bill that will set up a statewide platform for providing the state's students access to MOOCs.  It would -- depending upon details that will have to be eventually spelled out -- force the California University, State University, and Community College systems to grant students credit for MOOCs.  More interestingly, it will allow providers outside the system to also provide MOOCs to students on the system.

The need for providing MOOCs and increasing the venues for taking them is shown by the waiting lists for closed classes.  Last fall, for example, just at the community college system, nearly one-fifth of the 2.4 million enrolled students were on waiting lists for various courses.  But the state is already at the limits of how much it can fund the behemoth college system.

Besides the aforementioned Udacity, there are other nonprofit companies that offer MOOCs, including  Coursera (which provides online courses from over 60 colleges), as well as for-profit companies such as StraightLine (which offers low-cost general ed courses).  Burck Smith, StraightLine's founder, is enthusiastic about the bill, in part because currently many colleges/universities won't give course credit for his company's offerings.  Also enthusiastic is Udacity's founder, Sebastian Thrun, professor of computer science at Stanford, who was involved in crafting the bill.  Thrun has bluntly indicated that his goal is to "force the systems to really offer their students the type of stuff that they can't offer themselves."

But lacking in enthusiasm are many instructors who apparently feel threatened by the MOOCification of our system of higher education.  Typical of this MOOCphobia seems to be Robert Samuels, a lecturer at UCLA as well as head of a local affiliate of the University Council Federation of Teachers, one of the major college teachers' unions.  He argued, "Every step of the way, we've been told, 'Oh, the faculty will drive this,' and then it comes top down."  Samuels went on to say that while he hadn't personally read the bill, he was already receiving numerous e-mails from other faculty "saying we need to push back on this."

Of course, we have here yet another manifestation of the principal/agent problem that has plagued America's system for decades now, especially at public colleges and universities.  One wants to ask Mr. Samuels: exactly why should the employees -- the agents -- get to call the shots, especially when it comes to opening up the system?  Of course many faculty will oppose allowing college credit for MOOCs, especially when hosted off-campus, and extremely so when the MOOCs are hosted by any for-profit company.  Why?  Because the wider the use of MOOCs, the fewer the instructors be needed, especially at the lower-division level.

In short, we have an old story here, one that goes back to the Luddites of two centuries ago.  People often feel threatened by automation and will organize to fight it.  This is all just an exercise in psychological egoism: people will fight for their own perceived interests.

I would suggest to those of Mr. Samuel's mindset that they are not the principals here.  The people of California -- no, to be precise, the taxpayers of California -- are the real and rightful owners of the mighty California public system of higher education.  They work hard and pay inordinate sums in taxes -- California being one of the most highly taxed states in the nation -- and they do so in order to ensure that the young people of the state can get an affordable education, so that they can find job in our epistemic (knowledge-based) economy.

Here I would take the discussion a step further.  I would urge lawmakers to push the California Universities and State Universities to increase the production of many more MOOCs.  The state legislature should pass a law explicitly stating that all MOOCs produced in California's taxpayer-funded university systems should be considered not just property of the state, but property of the state that has been paid for by the citizens, with the manifest purpose of promoting the social good of widespread higher education of the citizens.

In particular, I would urge that the lawmakers make the new MOOCs produced at public universities available free of charge to all Californian citizens and companies.  The idea would be to encourage nonprofit organizations, including religious ones, as well as for-profit ones, including but not limited to for-profit colleges, to offer all comers higher education.

Such a course of action would have a number of positive outcomes.

First, it would dramatically increase the number of MOOCs available to the existing MOOC companies (the Courseras, Udacitys, and StraightLines of the world).  In particular, some of the finest teachers are as often or more often found in the CSU system, as opposed to elite research universities, since the mission of the CSU system has historically been to focus on undergrad instruction.

Second, it would dramatically increase the number of venues for MOOCs.  Imagine if every church, synagogue, mosque, and temple -- especially those located in the inner cities, in poor rural areas, and near high schools and colleges -- could offer a wide variety of MOOCs for free, or for a modest fee.

Now, the reader might reply that many if not most MOOCs require support from trained people.  A MOOC in (say) stats will typically involve having weekly meetings of students with either adjunct instructors or graduate teaching assistants.  While this is true, religious organizations often can draw highly educated volunteers.  Moreover, there are many unemployed or underemployed college grads who would work for reasonable rates to help implement the MOOCs.

Finally, the proposal I suggest would allow other for-profit companies, such as tutoring centers, or even internet-wired coffee shops, to offer these courses as well.

This would allow for the dramatic increase of educational opportunity for all the people of the state, including many who simply cannot afford to attend college, even community college -- without requiring yet more scarce money to be sent to the college systems.

Gary Jason is a philosophy instructor and a senior editor of Liberty.  He is the author of Philosophic Thoughts: Essays in Logic and Philosophy (forthcoming from Peter Lang Publishers).

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