Why MOOCs matter

Amid all the hoo-har about MOOCs and the will-they won’t-they debate over their impact on university business models, a piece by Tom Friedman caught my eye the other day on the rise of the ‘celebrity professor’. The stimulus for the Friedman article was a conference he attended last week hosted by Harvard University and MIT where academics and administrators from these two elite US universities discussed the rise of online courses and the ramifications for residential colleges and universities. One outcome, as Inside Higher Ed reports, is that MOOCs are certainly prompting some faculty to pay more attention to their teaching styles than they ever have before.

Friedman notes that not every academic is likely to generate a rock-star following following their entry into MOOCdom, but he issues a grave warning to the rest us mere mortal when he states:

‘The world of MOOCs is creating a competition that will force every professor to improve his or her pedagogy or face an online competitor … When outstanding becomes so easily available, average is over.’

This is why MOOCs matter. I presented at a conference a couple of weeks ago, and I was asked for my advice by a member of the audience on how she might go about dealing with a group of recalcitrant academics in her department who are steadfastly refusing to do anything online. My response was that, pretty soon, it may not be a decision that they get to make. As Friedman notes in his article, Harvard Business School no longer teaches entry-level accounting because there is a professor at Brigham Young University whose online accounting course is so good that Harvard students use that instead.