A ”No” To MOOCs: Why Pomona Needs to Stick to Its Guns

Last week, TSL featured two different Opinions articles on education at Pomona College; current student Xiaoyin Qu PO ’15 advocated for Pomona to start taking advantage of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) while alumnus Ryan Wheeler PO ’13 wrote passionately about the value of the humanities and their lasting effects in post-grad life. The articles are the latest in a series of discussions that have been going on for the last two years, viewed from my perspective as an alum from the class of 2013 and former Associated Students of Pomona College (ASPC) Commissioner of Academic Affairs. These discussions have centered on the value of a Pomona College education and covered a variety of topics, including MOOCs, perceptions of declines in the humanities and increases in pre-med and STEM enrollments, the relevance of the liberal arts, and the appropriate amount of career preparation at Pomona. These debates have even inspired official responses from the school, such as the infamous rebranding strategy pursued by admissions and this year’s lecture series on the value of the humanities. I think both articles highlight the different poles around which students, faculty, and administrators debate education at Pomona—higher education as a means toward earning a degree, and education as a way of life.

I first want to respond to Qu’s article on MOOCs and clarify what exactly MOOCs are and what they do. The two examples given for how MOOCs could be used at Pomona both involve videotaping professors during their lectures and then disseminating the lectures for free online so that prospective or current students could see what they are missing out on. However, videotaping professors does not make a MOOC. Indeed, Yale University already does this and several excellent Yale courses can be watched for free online, but that does not mean Yale sees itself as a MOOC provider. These examples are better classified as belonging to the idea of flipping the classroom, where students watch lectures outside of class and use class time to do more hands-on activities. Flipping the classroom could be a good idea if used correctly by Pomona professors, but just because it involves technology does not mean it is a MOOC.

A MOOC is a Massively Open Online Course, which means it is open to large numbers of students, often in the thousands, not restricted to students of any particular institution, and it is still a course that a student would receive a certificate of completion for. Many universities want to move toward offering MOOCs for college credit, as well. MOOC providers represent the extreme, believing that the goal of higher education is only to produce degrees that verify that students have passed through an institution, regardless of the actual quality of what students have learned. MOOC providers believe in increasing access to higher education, even if the cost is the kind of quality education that comes from face-to-face interaction with professors and peers. This is not to say that MOOCs may not be useful at some point, but right now the majority of MOOC providers are more interested in untested technological innovation and figuring out how to turn thousands of MOOC participants into a source of profit for their venture-capitalist backers. For reasons like this, Amherst College faculty chose to reject adopting any MOOCs and faculty at San Jose State University are fighting vigorously to preserve their school from the MOOC-based plans of its president.

The only context that makes MOOCs seem like a feasible alternative to traditional colleges and universities is the escalating cost of higher education. However, the rising cost of education is not a mystery—its main causes are the defunding of public higher education, often by lawmakers with connections to the for-profit and online education industries, and the financial mismanagement of universities by professional administrators. Indeed, in a report released by the Modern Language Association, Robert Samuels shows that the federal government could pay for all students to attend four-year public universities just with the money it already spends on complicated higher education subsidies to states, tax deductions, and federal student loan programs.

MOOCs exacerbate inequalities between tenured and non-tenured professors; the all-star professors earn fame and fortune through their MOOC-based lectures while adjuncts, who have to actually facilitate real students learning, are paid less than minimum wage by universities who turn to MOOCs as a cost-cutting tactic.

It is impossible to imagine a MOOC providing the kind of education that Ryan Wheeler advocates for students. Wheeler does a good job of representing something close to the other pole when it comes to imagining the purpose of higher education: fostering education as a way of life. This is the idea of pursuing knowledge not just for its own sake but as a way of fashioning yourself as a better person. It frames education as a way of learning how to live with others and to navigate and respect differences. Pomona is in some ways ideal for this kind of education, due to its small size, material amenities, and the quality of its students and faculty. Unfortunately, Pomona will be the only time in most of its students’ lives where they will be around so many people their own age, undergoing similar transitions and engaging with difficult and complex ideas. Post-grad life can undoubtedly be exciting and rewarding, but it is also a qualitative shift that, by its very nature, Pomona College will have a hard time preparing you for.

All institutions like Pomona College are forced to navigate between these two poles, between their roles as degree-granting institutions and as unique communities of people. Administrators and faculty feel the need to make sure Pomona is signaling, through the degrees it grants, the quality of its graduates as future workers and citizens. At the same time, many administrators, faculty, and students feel the pull of Pomona as a place where education occurs in its broadest sense and life itself becomes a form of education. In my time at Pomona, the fear I most often heard in these debates was of Pomona coming to care too much about the value of its degree in the most crass terms, such as national prestige or the earnings of its graduates. As another intrusive alumnus, my advice would be to not focus on its rankings, but on what Pomona does best: providing a community that, at its best, can foster a rich and rewarding daily life. After all, no one can predict the state of the job market in four years, but you will always have religious studies seminars, joking with lab-partners, the Women’s Union’s perfect couches, long afternoons on Marston Quad, and longer nights in Sontag.

Quinn Lester PO ’13 was a politics and religious studies double major and the ASPC Commissioner for Academic Affairs. 

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