Erwin J. Haeberle
A Memo to my Friends and Colleagues
"MOOCs and Consequences"
For many years now, I have been in regular conctact with universities all around the world, and I find most of them ill prepared for the digital future. Indeed, they do not even seem to have thought about its most obvious implications. This is all the more regrettable in an academic field like ours which, for years, has been finding itself in a paradoxical situation:
- On the one hand, sexology has long been underfinanced and is increasingly being marginalized,
- on the other hand it is the one scientific enterprise most capable of meeting the enormous, steadily growing world-wide demand for human sexuality information, especially in developing countries.
If we really want to understand this pardox and find out what else is happening to our field, we must look at the larger picture and become aware of a much more sweeping general trend in academia.
I have, on previous occasions, described our present situation as sexologists and repeatedly pointed to the most promising way to a sustainable future (The Global Future of Sexology, 2004, Sexology in the Internet - Our New Frontier, 2008, Sexology - From Berlin to Göteborg and Beyond, 2009). However, as far as I can tell, among my colleagues this has not led to a serious discussion of the issues involved.
My own Archive for Sexology has been offering a large sexological "open access" online library and "open access" online courses for more than ten years. Such courses have now become the latest academic fashion under the name MOOCs (Massive Open Access Courses). Many universities in many countries are investing millions of dollars in creating the courses, which are increasingly popular all around the world. The fact that I was the one who invented them, and, for a long time, was their only, very lonely pioneer, has been never been noticed by anyone outside our field and, in any case, today is completely forgotten everywhere. The public credit for this invention now always goes to some American, usually from California, who later took the same logical step I had taken years before.
My MOOCs represent a six-course, six-semester curriculum in sexual health according to WHO guidelines. It can be freely accessed not only on PC screens, but just as well on tablets (pads) and smartphones. Moreover, it can be studied simultaneously or separately at two levels - that of the B.A. and that of the M.A.. Right now, it is available in 5 languages: English, Chinese (2x), Russian, Czech, and Hungarian. Soon, it will also be complete in Spanish and Portuguese. I wrote the courses in English, and all translations are the work of enthusiastic, idealistic colleagues in various countries, who recognize their value for their own students. Their help was - and is - invaluable and proof of their progressive, innovative global perspective. They are used to looking beyond their own place and are ahead of their time. Together, we have set an example of a new kind of global cooperation that has been made possible by the internet.
Unfortunately, however, their respective universities have remained stuck in the past, and thus our common efforts have not been put to the use for which they are intended. On the other hand, my MOOCs have, over the years, received a number of international awards, including gold medals from the China Sexology Association (CSA), the World Association for Sexual Health (WAS), and the European Federation of Sexology (EFS). With this kind of recognition, the curriculum could - and should - have been made interactive and offered a long time ago by any and all universities with sexological training programs, but even they still continue to hesitate.
Some universities "do not want to rush" into distance learning and are planning to work on a plan some day. Others prefer to "re-invent the wheel" before they use my own MOOCs which have been ready to go for years. Still others are uncomfortable with the subject of sex and therefore begin with uncontroversial online courses on astronomy, art history etc.. It is also possible that some universities are not really supportive of their own sexology programs and therefore do not want to give them additional prominence. Curiously enough, my online Archive - today the world's largest resource on human sexuality in 15 languages - has also never been reviewed by any of the leading sexological journals. They are more comfortable with reviewing publications printed on paper.
Needless to say, in the meantime the electronic revolution has continued at its own exponential pace, while the academic sexology programs, such as they are, have remained standing still. However, others in other fields are beginning to catch up. Here is a recent example:
Georgia Tech (the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, GA) charges its students on campus $ 45 000. for an M.A. in Computer Science. At the same time - and the first time - they now charge $ 7000. for the same M.A. online.
So what do you think will happen? I think sooner or later this will happen:
1. More and more students will get the degree online, and fewer and fewer students will get it on campus.
2. Georgia Tech will make more money with its distant online students that it ever made with its students on campus.
3. Once most or all of its courses have been fully developed and have become available online, Georgia Tech will be able to manage with fewer and fewer "overqualified" professors and will run its degree programs with cheaper "assistants" and "mentors". The most famous professors will get special contracts for the use of their names, for "updates", and for general supervision. The less renowned faculty members will become increasingly expendable, or at least will have to suffer demotions or salary and budget cuts. There will be less hiring of new, expensive faculty. Tenure will become a thing of the past.
4. There will be an ever-widening gap between a university's money-making education and its money-devouring research. The latter will demand a percentage of the new income, and the former will resist that demand. The ensuing permanent budget wars will not be pretty. Eventually, research will lose out and will, even more than today, depend on outside funding. In the long run, the teaching and research functions of our universities will become totally separate and may even result in separate institutions with their own campuses, budgets, and administrations. (In Germany, well-funded, large research organizations have already taken over much of the expensive, high-quality research formerly undertaken by universities, e.g. the Max Planck-, Fraunhofer-, Helmholtz- , and Leibniz-Societies.)
One can easily figure out the rest. I myself predict this:
5. As more and more universities around the world follow this trend, more and more distance students will flock to fewer and fewer "top addresses", i.e. to famous universities with proven records, the most successful programs, and the best cost-benefit balance. Less attractive universities will not be able to compete. Or they may try to compete with lower prices - a policy that could force them and other competitors to start a financial "race to the bottom" with everyone losing in the end. The "losers" will be "left behind" and gradually fall by the wayside, as the "winners" will be swamped with applicants and, with a relatively small senior faculty, will successfully handle hundreds of thousands of distance students. After all, in late 2011, Sebastian Thrun and his colleague Peter Norvig - both at Stanford at the time - already proved that it is very well possible to teach a world-wide online course and monitor its over 160 000 students from 190 countries. Indeed, these two tutors were able to determine how many of this unprecedented number did pass the course and deserved the respective confirmation (in the end, ca. 20 000 of them received a "statement of accomplishment").
It does not matter here whether the real Georgia Tech actually does follow the path outlined here or changes or even reverses its policies at some later time. I am citing it merely as an early example of a likely trend that many, if not most universities will have to follow in the future. Growing economic pressure alone will see to that. This pressure will also affect university libraries and other academic resources, and the accelerating "open access" movement will do the rest. In other words, "the times they are a-changin'„ faster than most people think. In any case, two problems now still common in some countries, have, thanks to the internet, long become unnecessary - overcrowded classrooms and unreachable literature. Where these problems persist, the universities have simply failed to adapt to the fast-growing potential of modern technology. Sooner or later the students will notice this failure and will no longer accept the present degrading, utterly obsolete conditions.
This is not the time and place to discuss the ultimate implications of this tectonic shift in the university landscape. They will be immense beyond anything now being contemplated by administrators and financial planners. These still largely "unforeseen consequences" will turn much of the academic world as we know it upside down.
In the meantime, Sebastian Thrun himself has founded a new university Udacity. It offers a variety of courses for high school students, college students, and professionals. Subjects taught include physics, mathematics, statistics, programming etc.. Catching up, Harvard and the MIT have invested millions of dollars in a common venture: "edX". In partnership with UC Berkeley and the University of Texas System, it offers online courses and interactive online classes in subjects including law, history, science, engineering, business, social sciences, computer science, public health, and artificial intelligence. Another large international group of institutions named "Coursera" offers online "collaborative programs which strive to make education a basic human right ". They cover an increasing number of subjects in both the sciences and the humanities. Finally, well-established and well-financed "think tanks" of various persuasions are beginning to enter the field and may very well "develop into small boutique universities", as a perceptive journalist recently put it (A. Chafuen, in Forbes Magazine, May 22, 2013). In this latter case, still another problem will appear on the horizon: A "think tank university" may very well have an ideological agenda, and its online program may thus simply be a means to some ulterior end. And should that still be called science?
Taken together, these developments amount to a "writing on the wall" for our traditional, universities. So far, they have done little or nothing for the many millions of highly intelligent, highly motivated possible students in the developing world. Their potential lies fallow, because they cannot reach or cannot afford universities and libraries where they live. Now, for the first time in history, the internet has put the world's knowledge within their reach.
Fully aware of this new state of affairs, Udacity, edX, and Coursera have developed new forms of education, indeed, of mass education. And they operate world-wide. They rely on cooperation between a number of institutions in different countries, and they encourage individual professors all around the world to go beyond the boundaries of their local institutions.
What will these institutions do in response?
Will they promote or otherwise reward those of their faculty members who have gained new international fame and thus attracted tens of thousands of distance students? What will happen to their less prominent, less profitable colleagues? How many universities will give credit to their students for distance courses offered by professors in foreign countries? (Some major universities already do.) If a university does give credit for external courses, will it reduce its own personnel accordingly? Will it then be forced to give up some, many, or all of its own programs? How many universities will try to resist the increasing concentration of course offers in the hands of a few global operators? Would this kind of resistance have a realistic chance? Or could Sebastian Thrun be proven right, who predicted in 2012 that "in 50 years there will be only ten universities left in the world."