Quality of Education: High Schools, MOOCs, and Mentors

Elaine Carey, June 2013

On August 22, 2013, President Barack Obama outlined many of the problems that plague higher education, particularly increasing tuition rates and rising student debt. He proposed to increase access while promoting accountability and expanding reporting on student outcomes. While the ideas seem noble, they will sacrifice the quality of education by creating more administrative bloat to capture data, further adding to students’ debt and limiting their intellectual and employment opportunities. As has been recently reported, the number of administrative positions is growing 10 times faster than the number of tenure-track faculty positions. Frequently, these administrators are compensated at higher levels than full professors, and their duties are repeated in other administrative offices. 1

First, Obama’s administration plans to create a rating system that focuses on the best value for students and taxpayers so all will receive “a bigger bang for their buck.” Second, he mentioned creating a new competition between colleges to promote innovation that encourages affordability and student success, and doesn’t sacrifice quality. He discussed an “innovative” program at Central Missouri University where students earn college credits while taking high school classes. He also mentioned new online graduate and undergraduate programs offered through MOOCs at Georgia Tech, Arizona State University, and others.

On the surface, all of these seem to be fine ideas that would cut costs by decreasing time to complete a bachelor’s or master’s degree, resulting in lower incurred debt. Already, many universities and colleges have embraced these ideas have formed administrative sections to create high school programs and MOOCs and/or digital or online education. Currently, certain colleges and universities report high school students in these programs in their total enrollment numbers and retention. In part, this is due to the competition between universities and colleges for a shrinking traditional student pool, and these classes serve as recruitment tools for college freshmen. While some of the classes offered by high school teachers may be excellent—because universities and colleges have spent years developing these important collaborations—frequently such great ideas, when copied on other campuses, lack the collaborations and the rigor of college-level classes due to poor oversight of the quality of teaching and assessment regarding learning outcomes. In considering Obama’s proposal, I wonder how often do program administrators visit these classes? If they do, are they qualified to oversee the teaching of history, not to mention physics or math? What types of assistance do they provide department chairs who are routinely encouraged to approve such courses but given no additional resources to oversee such additions to the curriculum?

For the students, they frequently pay additional costs for classes that earn them college credit. The accumulation of debt may begin in high school if a student is unprepared to complete college work and has to repeat courses. High school students may miss an opportunity to explore other fields of interests and potential future careers. My students tell me that their AP and honors high school history classes were dramatically different than those at the university. They argue that these classes still focused on names and dates and not interpretation, careful analysis, and critical thinking. More significant, the students did not connect the study of history to a diverse array of fields and employers such as museums, libraries, archives, city planning, business, law, technology, and public policy.

Another focus of Obama’s talk centered on MOOCs. MOOCs emerged from the flipped classroom environment that uses digital platforms to distribute information and materials, freeing class time so that it may be devoted to group projects, interactive assignments, and discussions rather than content delivery. I am a fan of the flipped classroom so I recognize the potential of MOOCs and hybrid classrooms. I agree that some institutions have admirably expanded their MOOCs, offering students cost-saving options. Again, these institutions worked closely with faculty to develop collaborations that enhance learning. But exclusively online formats limit the interaction between a student and faculty member while enhancing universities’ and colleges’ bottom lines.

Universities and colleges see MOOCs as revenue-generating sources, particularly at the master’s level. Evidence about their effectiveness is startlingly lacking, yet these are fervently pursued as a panacea of all that ails higher education. To further MOOC offerings, administrators may work with a tenured or tenure-track professor who designs a class that is offered by an underpaid adjunct who is hired and overseen by a pool of administrators (associate deans or provosts, directors, and/or assistant deans) who help facilitate the programs, capturing rudimentary data while focusing on the marketing of such courses and degrees. The faculty members who design the courses have no contact with the students. The adjuncts who teach online may not be renewed year to year, ensuring that the students will have little ongoing contact with the instructor once the course had ended. Thus, students will not have the opportunities to further work closely with an instructor they admire on an undergraduate research project that demonstrates their mastery of important skills.

In both the above scenarios, the lack of interaction between tenure and tenure-track faculty members and students ensures that there is no long-term mentoring, something higher education and industry have reported as significant to future success. Mentoring is a highly personal interaction that is difficult to replicate in the virtual world, particularly when a mentor serves as a reference for internships, graduate or professional schools, or employment for years following the completion of a degree. As a teacher-scholar, I consider my role as a mentor to be a lifelong commitment to my students, and that is the role I enjoy the most.

As a chair of a department, I recognize that accountability is necessary. Yet, Obama’s vision will only further add to administrative bloat, improper oversight, and higher tuition and/or fees by sacrificing the most crucial parts of educational quality that inspire critical thinking, problem solving, and lifelong learning, all of which can be transferred to any field. Having those skills are necessary in a rapidly changing workplace. Lastly, having mentors who guide students as they attain these skills and communicate their successes to future employers is important in a highly competitive world.

—Elaine Carey is vice president, Teaching Division, of the AHA and chair of the Department of History at St. John’s University in Queens, New York.