Monday, April 1, 2013

An (In)decent Proposal

One of the aggressively advertised promises of the MOOC courses is the fact that it offers anyone in the world the opportunity to learn from "the best professors from the best institutions."  There has been some criticism that, translated, this means mostly older white males and perpetuates an outdated image of most university faculties (though, to be fair, at RI institutions, men still far outnumber women in the ranks of full professors).  Likewise, it has been pointed out that nothing about an appointment at a prestigious institution like Stanford or Harvard is evidence for good teaching (though I *would* argue that, on the whole. these faculty are very good performers in front of a camera: eloquent and self-possessed).

Another topic that gets substantial discussion among higher ed folks is the rapidly aging professoriate.  Without a mandatory retirement age and because of the recession, many faculty are continuing to work well into their 70s and even 80s.  Sometimes they continue to be productive members of the university community.   Too often, though, they are a drain on increasingly limited resources and, some would say, have contributed to the backup in the hiring of newly minted PhDs to tenure-track jobs (of course, others argue that, once the current senior faculty retire, their positions will be lost to attrition and their workload replaced by a flock of lecturers and adjuncts).

So here's a proposal that might, as the proverb goes, kill two birds with one stone: universities who are interested in producing MOOCs should hand the production of these over to all faculty who are over the age of 70 (or even 67).  Emeritus faculty should also be asked to contribute to the project, perhaps as TAs, discussion leaders, and the like.  These senior faculty, many of whom are very experienced lecturers and have long and impressive CVs as well as multiple books that they can market to their worldwide audience of students, would be in charge of producing content but also staffing the courses (an ideal job for an emeritus who is missing intellectual engagement).  These older faculty are less likely to care that they aren't getting compensated for their time (hopefully they already have good retirement accounts in place); and this model would move us away from the use of grad students and lecturers to staff the MOOCs, often on a "voluntary" basis.  Finally, because MOOCs continue to be videos of lectures, these faculty won't need to get up to speed on the latest in education technology and pedagogy if they don't want to.  They can leave that nonsense to their younger and less distinguished colleagues.

Think about it.  This would be a great opportunity for faculty near the end of their careers (perhaps even their lives) to go out on top.  One last worldwide lecture tour and an opportunity to attain a certain immortality.  As well, it would allow universities to capitalize on the skills and reputations of a segment of the faculty population that has proven resistant to incentivized retirement deals and the like.  At the moment, most of the behind the scenes work is done by grad students and low-paid lecturers.  Why not shift that to the other end of the spectrum, to those faculty who are eligible to collect Social Security and Medicare; and to interested emeritus faculty?

Ok, I'm joking.  Sort of.

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