Do MOOCs Spell Disaster For Adjunct Faculty?

by David S. D’Angelo

Within higher education, non-tenured faculty are not only on the front lines of higher education, their jobs are most often impacted tremendously by technological and political changes that impact higher education. Obamacare (the Patient Protection and Affordable Health Care Act) has had a devastating impact on part-time faculty from Florida to Pennsylvania and New Hampshire, where colleges have cut adjunct teaching loads in order to skirt the federal health care reform law.

Now we have the Great MOOC debate.

The Economist is upbeat:

Now, MOOCs have burst on to the scene. MOOCs – massive open online courses – have been heralded as inaugurating an inevitable transformation in higher education. In the favoured jargon of techspeak MOOCs have been called a “disruption” – a term that at first invokes a welcome alternative to the stagnation and elitism of the American university.

DOTCOM mania was slow in coming to higher education, but now it has the venerable industry firmly in its grip. Since the launch early last year of Udacity and Coursera, two Silicon Valley start-ups offering free education through MOOCs, massive open online courses, the ivory towers of academia have been shaken to their foundations. University brands built in some cases over centuries have been forced to contemplate the possibility that information technology will rapidly make their existing business model obsolete. Meanwhile, the MOOCs have multiplied in number, resources and student recruitment—without yet having figured out a business model of their own.

But are MOOCs all they’re cracked up to be?

At San Jose State University, a program to offer course credit for MOOCS from Udacity was halted when over 50 percent of students failed.

Other media outlets, even Al Jazeera, are more critical of MOOCs:

MOOCs have been criticized by education experts who see their impersonal nature as a detriment to student learning. In MOOCs, students usually cannot ask their professors questions and sometimes cannot even receive answers, since MOOCs deliver the same recorded lessons to numerous groups of students. There is little way to prevent cheating or provide individual feedback. Some MOOCs have no assignments or required readings, and nearly all evaluation is done by machines – including the grading of essays.

Despite these obvious flaws, universities have felt obliged to join the MOOC revolution to avoid being guillotined by it. Coursera has formed partnerships with 83 universities and colleges around the world, including many of America’s top-tier institutions.

EdX, a non-profit MOOC provider founded in May 2012 by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and backed with $60 million of their money, is now a consortium of 28 institutions, the most recent joiner being the Indian Institute of Technology in Mumbai. Led by the Open University, which pioneered distance learning in the 1970s, FutureLearn, a consortium of 21 British, one Irish and one Australian university, plus other educational bodies, will start offering MOOCs later this year. But Oxford and Cambridge remain aloof, refusing to join what a senior Oxford figure fears may be a “lemming-like rush” into MOOCs.

moocsOn July 10th Coursera said it had raised another $43m in venture capital, on top of the $22m it banked last year. Although its enrolments have soared, and now exceed 4m students, this is a huge leap of faith by investors that the firm can develop a viable business model. The new money should allow Coursera to build on any advantage it has from being a first mover among a rapidly growing number of MOOC providers.

“It is somewhat entertaining to watch the number of people jumping on board,” says Daphne Koller, a Stanford professor and co-founder of Coursera. She expects it to become one of a “very small number of dominant players.”

But are MOOCs really capable of replacing faculty and earning money for the venture capitalists who are backing companies such as Cousera and Udacity?

Proponents of MOOCs claim that they will save money by replacing overpaid university professors with cheap alternatives – an idea that many educators find laughable. MOOCs are expensive to create and depend on a critical mass of participation to become profitable. Meanwhile, 65 percent of American professors are adjuncts who make an average of $2,700 per course. Most do not have health insurance or benefits. Some are so poor they depend on food stamps to survive.

Over the past two decades, the number of adjunct instructors has soared – and so has college tuition. There is no relationship between the amount of money students pay and the amount of money professors make – indeed, one student’s annual tuition is often far above one professor’s annual salary. Non-tenured faculty interact with students, hold office hours, and answer questions about courses and careers. They provide guidance MOOCs cannot replace.

Larry Cuban is professor emeritus of education at Stanford University, where he has taught for more than 20 years. His latest book is “Inside the Black Box of Classroom Practice: Change without Reform in American Education.” He recently argued in a piece reposted by a Washington Post blogger that:

Deep and abiding issues, however, prevent MOOCs from revolutionizing higher education. One issue is money. States have reduced funding for public higher education institutions. Universities have lowered labor costs by increasing adjunct and part-time faculty yet have raised tuition so that students face prices for going to college that far outstrip increases in wages and the cost of living….

Which direction, then, for MOOCs?

Given the history of universities and colleges in the United States, chances are that many higher education institutions (non-elite and community colleges) will continue to retrofit and transform MOOCs into credit-bearing courses that will yield revenue. MOOCs will not revolutionize higher education.

There is plenty of experimentation with business models taking place. The MOOCs themselves may be free, but those behind them think there will be plenty of revenue opportunities. Coursera has started charging to provide certificates for those who complete its courses and want proof, perhaps for a future employer. It is also starting to license course materials to universities that want to beef up their existing offering. However, it has abandoned for now attempts to help firms recruit employees from among Coursera’s students, because catering to the different needs of each employer was “not a scalable model,” says Ms Koller.

For Udacity, in contrast, working with companies to train existing and future employees is now the heart of its business model. It has tie-ups with several firms, including Google. It recently formed a partnership with AT&T, along with Georgia Tech, to offer a master’s degree in computer science. Course materials will be free, but students will pay around $7,000 for tuition. EdX is taking yet another tack, selling its MOOC technology to universities like Stanford, both to create their own MOOC offerings and to make physically attending university more attractive, by augmenting existing teaching.

This lecture is brought to you by…

Alison, an Irish provider of free, mostly vocational education founded in 2007, before MOOCs got their name, is generating plenty of revenue by selling advertising on its site. “Ads propelled radio and TV, why not education? There is a lot of misplaced snobbery in education about advertising,” says Mike Feerick, Alison’s founder.

Another important category of MOOC providers are publishers, says Rob Lytle of the Parthenon Group, a consultancy. He says firms like Pearson (part-owner of The Economist) that run educational businesses such as textbook-publishing may thrive by offering free MOOCs as a way to get people to buy their related paid content.

Besides the uncertainty over which business model, if any, will produce profits, there is disagreement over how big the market will be. Some see a zero- or negative-sum game, in which cheap online providers radically reduce the cost of higher education and drive many traditional institutions to the wall. Others believe this effect will be dwarfed by the dramatic increase in access to higher education that the MOOCs will bring.

Mr. Feerick predicts that the market will be commoditised, spelling trouble for many institutions. But Anant Agarwal, the boss of EdX, reckons the MOOC providers will be more like online airline-booking services, expanding the market by improving the customer experience. Sebastian Thrun, Udacity’s co-founder, thinks the effect will be similar in magnitude to what the creation of cinema did to demand for staged fiction: he predicts a tenfold increase in the market for higher education.

While sceptics point to the MOOCs’ high drop-out rates, which in some cases exceed 90 percent, Coursera and Udacity both insist that this reflects the different expectations of consumers of free products, who can browse costlessly. Both firms have now studied drop-out rates for those students who start with the stated intention of finishing, and found that the vast majority of them complete the courses.

Besides LearnCapital, a Silicon Valley venture firm, and the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation, the participants in Coursera’s $43 million fund-raising included Laureate, an operator of for-profit universities. Doug Becker, its boss, reckons that many established universities will soon offer credits towards their degrees for those who complete MOOCs. He thinks this will drive a dramatic reduction in the price of a traditional higher education, that will reduce the total revenues of existing providers by far more than the revenue gained by the start-ups. Still, if MOOCs reduce the cost of higher education by one-third, as he predicts, yet only earn for themselves 1 percent of that benefit, that would “still be a very nice business,” he says.

On the other side of the divide is, which recently posted a piece titled “The MOOC Racket.” In that piece, author Jonathan Rees argues:

How do you teach tens of thousands of people anything at once? You don’t. What you can do over the Internet this way is deliver information, but that’s not education. Education, as any real teacher will tell you, involves more than just transmitting facts. It means teaching students what to do with those facts, as well as the skills they need to go out and learn new information themselves.

In many ways Rees makes the weakest argument when he writes:

Talking about access to higher education allows MOOC providers like Coursera to avoid discussing the effect their services will have on people who work in higher education now. Professors, believe it or not, are people, too. They have families and health problems and student loans of their own. Moreover, three-quarters of American college instructors work on a contingent basis, for a median income of $2,700 per course, often without benefits of any kind. Since these faculty members also have no chance at tenure, these adjunct faculty members would be by far the easiest professors to replace with MOOCs.

Think of the people you’re replacing, Rees argues. That didn’t work when the combine harvester was invented, or when robots replaced workers in the automotive industry. It’s not going to work when trying to save the jobs of adjunct faculty. As a a result, adjunct faculty should sit up and take stock of their lives, their careers and their future plans. Some believe MOOCs will fail simply because of the poor student success rates associated with the product. Keep in mind that there are accredited community colleges in the United States who graduate 16 percent of the students who enroll. So, MOOCs that fail 50 percent of students may not actually appear to be doing a half bad job of it.

A writer at Forbes was more condescending in his response to Rees and his arguments:

Clearly, time to get a little Adam Smith on this professor. The sole purpose of any production is consumption: and we should listen and consider the interests of the producer only to the point that said interest is essential to the interests of the consumer. And I’m afraid that if MOOCs do indeed produce the technological revolution which lessens our demand for professors then that’s just too bad for professors. Our only concern here is and should be the interests of the students….The arts are indeed important in human life: but that really doesn’t mean that we need yet more monographs on them entirely and purely designed to impress tenure committees.


Some argue MOOCs will fail because the platform will simply not return to investors enough cash to justify the venture capitol poured into companies such as Coursera. To be sure, college and university administrators take full advantage the possibilities that MOOCs present, as will the so-called “super faculty,” such as Harvard Professor Michael Sandal, whose MOOC on Justice philosophy faculty at San Jose State were encouraged to incorporate into their courses. San Jose State philosophy profs refused and then wrote an electrifying open letter to Sandal and the world justifying their refusal.

Non-tenured faculty won’t have the luxury to refuse to incorporate MOOCs into their courses. If adjuncts are the canary in the coal mine that is higher education, MOOCs are the canary in the salt mine in which the nation’s full-time-part-time adjuncts work. If you haven’t read about MOOCs, read. If you haven’t educated yourself about the economic impact this new technology could have on higher education and your job, educate yourself. Most importantly, if you haven’t found a full-time teaching job yet, start looking at your options. MOOCs are going to change the face of higher education somehow, and non-tenured faculty should be expect the best and be prepared for the worst.

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