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Are MOOCs Part Of A “Right-Wing Plot?”

Submitted by on February 23, 2013 – 11:04 amOne Comment

I’ve written before about the looming student debt crisis and how it might relate to higher education reform. But most of my criticism has been directed at predatory for-profit colleges and universities, which consume a disproportionate amount of federal debt while providing substandard educations. However, a new article from Salon suggests that one of higher education’s most universally loved new platforms could in fact be a threat, getting support from conservatives for all the wrong (political) reasons.

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) have been hailed as the future of higher ed. With thousands of courses available online, many of them free, they seem like the perfect option for non-traditional students. MOOCs have even gotten the blessing of the stuffy old guard, with Harvard and MIT joining to create edX, which now also features courses from the University of Texas system, Wellesley, Georgetown, McGill, and many others.

But author Andrew Leonard warns that conservative governors like Rick PerryScott Walker, and Rick Scott support MOOCs for a different reason: they give the state executives cover for slashing state university budgets. Leonard outlines how each man is playing up MOOCs while simultaneously slashing hundreds of millions from higher ed funding.

Leonard goes further, and pinpoints the conservative’s real target: not all of higher ed, just the humanities.

But in Texas, Florida and Wisconsin, the push to cut costs is accompanied by undisguised scorn for the whole enterprise of higher education, insofar as it pertains to anything more than equipping people with marketable skills. That mission of the humanities to help us think more critically, to deepen our knowledge of the world? Forget about it.

In 2011, Scott told the Sarasota Herald-Tribune that he didn’t think it it was in the “vital interest” of the state to have “more anthropologists.” Last November, a task force established by Scott went so far as to recommend higher tuitions for humanities majors. In Texas, one of the biggest conservative backers of educational reform, former oilman Jeff Sandefer, a huge supporter of online education who is closely connected to Perry, savaged the humanities sector as a place where “most of the rewards in the profession go to writing narrowly focused academic research articles that few read, the vast majority of which would never, and I want to stress never, be supported by the market.”

Leonard concludes that MOOCs are more conducive to STEM subjects, as the online courses are better suited to replace big lecture classes and problem sets than intimate seminars and assignments graded more on critical thinking.

Sandefer may be right that “the free market” wouldn’t support a lot of the arts, humanities, and social sciences. But luckily for Western culture, governments have supported everything from Aristotle‘s philosophical research to the plays of William Shakespeare.

What do you think?

[Image via Inside Higher Ed]

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