MOOCs in the Machine, Part II

January 3rd, 2013, by § 2 Comments

In Part I, I asked how MOOCs (massive online open courses) are potentially poised to “disrupt” academia thanks to broader structural and economic shifts that need to be addressed independently, while still considering the value of online education. In this second half, I turn towards ways to rethink graduate education as a consequence of changes in academia and the academic job market.


While MOOCs have become a popular topic of discussion, less attention has been paid to those rethinking the structure of graduate education, to address related issues (including restructuring humanities dissertations  and shortening the length of doctoral programs). Notably, Stanford has been moving forward with an initiative to cut the time-to-degree for humanities programs to five years, by soliciting concrete plans from individual departments in exchange for year-round grad student funding. I can’t speak to whether five years is a reasonable length for humanities Ph.D. programs, but it does seem that many additional years some spend in grad school don’t confer greater benefit. In anthropology, it’s hard to imagine completing a doctorate in under six years, assuming at least a year of field research, on top of course work, qualifying exams, and writing up (plus, of course, going on the job market). But according to Inside Higher Ed’s Scott Jaschik, the Stanford initiative is premised on numerous reasons that slow progress on the Ph.D. benefits neither students nor institutions, quoting the proposal request: “Extended time to degree can represent a significant drain on institutional resources as well as major costs to students, both in the form of indebtedness and postponed entry onto a career path. We ask programs to examine the current structure of degree requirements in order to determine what reforms might expedite degree completion.” As the RFP points out, long years in grad school often increase students’ debt burden while delaying their ability to begin post-Ph.D. careers (and earnings), in or out of academia.

This touches on a larger debate about graduate education, which I don’t want to get into here. Instead, I want to call attention to the link between critiques of graduate education and changes in the structure of academia more broadly, the same changes fueling much of the debate about how technology will “disrupt” higher education. One commenter on  Jaschik’s piece, for example, points out that many doctoral students delay graduating precisely because of the abysmal job market, while in fields with greater job opportunities (both in and out of academia), students finish much more quickly owing to better incentives. In a similar vein, one professor at Stanford, Jennifer Summit, is quoted as saying that elite institutions often prepare their students insufficiently for teaching at inclusive public institutions, even though most faculty work in such settings: “She was thinking of assessment and digital teaching tools and using analytics. ‘At Research I’s, we like to think we invented online teaching and learning, but the comprehensive publics and community colleges have been doing this for a long time.’”

A more productive response to the changing landscape of education and the economy, then, entails considering what changes make sense and how we can re-imagine some aspects of graduate training and undergraduate teaching without conceding the inevitable decline of public education. What should be the role of faculty at “non-elite” (and elite) institutions with the advent of MOOCs? How can we benefit from online resources, to share syllabi and lectures and teach more effectively? Presumably, this requires better ways to evaluate teaching and learning, beyond the “audit culture” norms of surveying student satisfaction. I think Stanford is right to identify student funding as a crucial piece of reforming graduate education. At UC Irvine, for example, most anthropology grad students are funded by TAships, with limited internal fellowship support available (and nearly none for research abroad). On one hand, I found TA training and experience invaluable exposure to teaching, running sections, grading, and academic time management, but these benefits wane after the first few terms. After that, TAing mostly takes away from time spent studying or completing the dissertation and does not offer the same preparation as teaching as the instructor of record. Moreover, TAs provide relatively inexperienced teaching assistance to universities, often by grad students in the early stages of their careers.

What if doctoral programs reorganized grad student labor instead, shifting teaching obligations from TAships that delay graduation to short-term post-Ph.D. positions? In exchange for full fellowship funding and a shorter time to degree (with perhaps one or two terms of TAing for experience), doctoral students could agree to stay on for one to two years of full-time teaching at their degree-granting institution, for a modest salary (more than a TAship but perhaps less than many postdocs). This would benefit graduate students in numerous ways, including by completing their doctoral degrees more quickly and receiving better teaching preparation, while waiting to go on the job market until the dissertation is finished. Universities would benefit by replacing large lectures (around 400 students at my doctoral alma mater, UC Irvine), with smaller courses taught by their own recent Ph.D.s, instead of relying on grad student TAs as heavily — similar to how many schools already rely extensively on lecturers and adjuncts, but with the benefit of having students complete their degrees more quickly.

Of course, this proposal does not address the more fundamental problem of reduced budgets or neoliberal academic restructuring, but could still improve some aspects of graduate education. I offer this more as an illustration of ways we could begin rethinking the structure of academia broadly. Defunding education may not be inevitable as Shirky implies, but is linked to broader processes that are endemic to late liberalism. What are constructive ways we can reorganize higher education and research without succumbing to these shifts?

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I want to call attention to the link between critiques of graduate education and changes in the structure of academia more broadly, the same changes fueling much of the debate about how technology will “disrupt” higher education.

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