Monday, February 11, 2013

MOOCs: The New Cottage Industry for Teachers?


The past 20 years have seen incredible changes in education, not only in the technology that is available, but in the manner in which students attend class. Attend these days can often mean a virtual attendance and class can mean hundreds, if not thousands of students in the course. Where does this leave the instructors?

Regrettably, both unions and tenure are words that now are seen in a different light. Both of them, depending on your perspective, can be seen as self-serving units of an educational system that has failed to educate. Tenure has permitted persons, who may be both unqualified and unmotivated to teach, to have lifetime employment with almost no fear of losing their jobs. Today, however, that is changing with the new call for quality education and the ouster of the tenure system.

Unions, on the other hand, have been depicted as doing nothing more than protecting teachers who shouldn't be teaching and collecting union dues to fill their own coffers and further the aspirations of those in power. They have gotten a bad, or should I say, extremely bad reputation. Is it deserved? You take a look at what has been happening and decide for yourself because I can only see the good that did come from unions in the past. I don't think I'm alone in yearning for that good past that seems to have slipped by and left us in the lurch.

Brave people fought for the rights of workers. They spilled their blood and some of them died in the cause of workers’ rights in terms of reasonable hours, fair pay, sick days, vacations and healthcare in addition to a pension for all the years of their faithful service. Whenever I hear the word "rouge" I'm reminded of what happened at that Ford plant. I'm sure there are other towns or plants with similar stories of corporate violence that never made the history books. Still, honest, hard-working people marched for all of us and we have benefited.

The new educational forums which have arisen, thanks to the Internet and all forms of new technology, have also fostered the rise of anti-union efforts and wages too pitiful to be considered for anyone even working in a fast food restaurant. Consider instructors who are working for on-line, for-profit schools.

Do you know how many hours some instructors actually spend online teaching their students, responding to emails, telephone calls and constant requests for grade changes, paper revisions, special considerations, etc.? These individuals signed contracts which require that they relinquish all rights to any intellectual property which they pass on to their students via the servers of the schools in question. So intellectual property has been given away in the service of getting a job. It's a job that may last one semester and the intellectual property may actually be quite valuable.

Putting intellectual property rights aside, let's consider what these workers are actually receiving in compensation. If an instructor has 45 students in a real class (and that's probably with a number of overtallys), an online instructor can have as many students as the school decides. Even if the instructor is being paid $4000 for a course (that is not the norm and is probably way too high), working anywhere from 12 to 16 hours per day, seven days a week with the expectation of always being available to students comes down to pretty pathetic pay. Of course, they don't have to take that pay, which is probably less than minimum wage in most places, and they can just ride off into the sunset because there's always someone else even more desperate for a job who will fill that slot. It's a sad, sad commentary on American education in this age of virtual learning and MOOCs.

Speaking of MOOCs, which right now, in many instances, are free and may offer a certificate of completion but no college credit, what will they be in the future? Can you imagine having a course with thousands of students? What would the quality of education be? Yes, I know, it makes education available to an enormous number of people who would not otherwise be able to go to school. But isn't this rather an elitist notion of these types of courses? Aren't there large areas of the United States and the world where people do not have access to the Internet or water much less computers? Aren't these the very people to whom we should be aiming this free education? Interesting questions.

And what about computers that are needed for all of these Internet courses? Do you know that there are computers that can cost as little as $25 and they could make the lives of American children that much richer? Who is supplying them to our impoverished American children? I haven't heard of a major firm or even an organization that is doing this.

Who's teaching the poor children coding? Where is the concern and the interest in their futures? Or is it that we want to maintain a poorly educated, desperate class of young adults who will gladly take any job? Are we coming to the return of the, "If you don't come in on Sunday, don't bother coming in on Monday"? Those were the signs posted in offices prior to the workers’ movements for unions and fair pay. Fair pay seems to be riding off into the sunset and leaving thousands, no millions in a dark economic era.

So isn't it wonderful that we have all of this access to these marvelous courses from major university professors and all of this creative activity. But to whom is it aimed and who will benefit from it? Not only who will benefit from it, but what will happen to those who must teach these courses? Oh, should they volunteer their services for the greater good? That might be good, but it really doesn't pay the bills and it's not fair because the universities and the corporations make millions from this.

Next time you see an article about the wonders of the Internet and the wide open areas of education, just think about the other side, which surely exists and which is not as bright and sunny.