MOOCs: What Is a Young PhD to Do?

The following is a guest post by Scott N. Siegel, PhD:

There are many criticisms being leveled at MOOCs today. Some faculty are increasingly concerned that they will face salary cuts and increasingly irrelevancy as universities and liberal arts colleges begin to rely more on MOOCs to deliver course content and actual teaching. As a result, this will only exacerbate an already dire job market for young PhDs who want to be future academics. Those fears, however, may be unfounded. MOOCs could actually be a necessary life preserver as the prospects for young PhDs to secure gainful employment become increasingly more difficult.

The employment situation for young academics is already atrocious. The chances of a young PhD from an elite research university securing a tenure-track job and receiving tenure are worse than ever. Contrary to earlier prognostications and assurances, currently tenured professors approaching retirement age are choosing not to step down to make way for new blood. Declining financial support from state and local governments prevents public universities from expanding the number of fulltime faculty.

Many young PhDs look at the arrival of MOOCs and see them as only making a horrible situation worse. University administrations are smacking their lips at the chance to realize a new revenue stream and limit the costs of instruction at the same time. Why hire expensive instructors when one, famous, fulltime professor can reach thousands more students with the same material? Advances in MOOC technology could mean that young PhDs aren’t needed to grade papers, conduct tutorials, or even proctor exams.

MOOCs could actually help rather than hurt the job prospects of the young academic. But it will require young academics to be more entrepreneurial in spirit than have been in the past. Web 2.0 technologies enable anyone to create a new business to meet the pent-up demand for higher education. Start-ups like give instructors of all types, whether employed at an institution of higher learning or not, to create their own courses and teach what they want. Their payment is based partly on the number of students enrolled. Some of the most successful ones earn tens of thousands of dollars per year.

You also don’t need a title such as “assistant professor” to offer a course, i.e., no gatekeepers preventing you from teaching. With the Internet and a smartly designed website, young scholars can reach more students than they ever thought before. Those who want to learn about Socrates and criminal sociology are not just located in dormitories and between the ages of 18 and 22. There are thousands of people who may not necessarily have the time or resources to attend a 4-year university or college, but still want to learn these topics from qualified individuals. Already some young PhDs in philosophy are resurrecting the 18th century French salon by holding seminars at the back of cafes in Brooklyn and see plenty of demand.

Another advantage of a MOOC is that instructors don’t have to share their profits and income with others. They get keep most of the money they earn, while having little to low overhead. Instead of being saddled with the same course year after year, filling in for more senior faculty who choose not to show up in the classroom, and having to handle a lot of bureaucratic red tape, young scholars can teach what they want when they want.

Of course, one of the greatest risks is that there isn’t a market for what a young academic has spent learning for the last decade. Maybe the demand for Marxist literary criticism is not very big. But this isn’t necessarily so. As the success of the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research shows, there is large pent up demand for a liberal arts education. With the wonders of the Internet, young PhDs can reach out to even more students.

Many would legitimately complain that this just subjects scholarship to market forces. The sad reality, however, is that those forces are already at work and getting stronger. Unless there is a massive political shift and state governments choose to dedicate scarce funds to higher education, which is highly unlikely, young PhDs will face only a worse employment situation in the future. MOOCs at least offer some chance for young academics to shape more of their own destiny by offering the courses they want and earn an income outside the walls of the Ivory Tower without completely abandoning the life of the mind.

The dire job market for today’s young academics is not going to change anytime soon. Nor is the bleak situation necessarily the result of the increasing popularity of MOOCs. MOOCs may become a potentially appealing, and profitable, alternative to becoming a permanent adjunct.  Certainly, offering your own courses online involves a higher level of risk and less job security, but, given current trends, this may be no worse and could even be better than the status quo.


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