MOOCs, Mechanization, and the Modern Professor

20 Dec

By Katherine Moos

Recently, in a course on classical political economy, my students and I discussed mechanization and its effects on employment. Having read Adam Smith’s classic text, The Wealth of Nations, we examined the productivity gains from the division of labor in his well-known pin-factory example—in which he demonstrated that workers who specialize in particular tasks outproduce those who perform every task themselves.

We talked about industries in which machines are replacing workers to varying degrees of success: grocery clerks swapped out for self-checkout machines, restaurants using conveyor belts instead of waiters and waitresses, and even nursing and elder care performed by so-called “caring robots”.

This got me thinking about academia, where we’re witnessing a similar move towards mechanization. The advent of massive open online courses (MOOCs) is making it clear that university instructors aren’t as insulated from the effects of technological progress as we might have thought.

MOOCs have been billed as many things: an antidote to the boring lecture, a tech-fad bubble waiting to burst, a failed educational experiment, and most interestingly to me, a solution to universities’ budgetary problems. While few would disagree that education’s exorbitant costs are landing many students deep in debt, the promise that MOOCs will lower the cost of education and improve its quality should be met with a healthy dose of skepticism.

[ Full article available at Vitae: ]

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Posted by on December 20, 2013 in MOOCs in the News, Op-Ed


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