MOOCs, Mechanization, and the Modern Professor


Recently, in a course on classical political economy, my students and I discussed mechanization and its effects on employment. Having read Adam Smith’s classic text, The Wealth of Nations, we examined the productivity gains from the division of labor in his well-known pin-factory example—in which he demonstrated that workers who specialize in particular tasks outproduce those who perform every task themselves.

We talked about industries in which machines are replacing workers to varying degrees of success: grocery clerks swapped out for self-checkout machines, restaurants using conveyor belts instead of waiters and waitresses, and even nursing and elder care performed by so-called “caring robots”.

This got me thinking about academia, where we’re witnessing a similar move towards mechanization. The advent of massive open online courses (MOOCs) is making it clear that university instructors aren’t as insulated from the effects of technological progress as we might have thought.

MOOCs have been billed as many things: an antidote to the boring lecture, a tech-fad bubble waiting to burst, a failed educational experiment, and most interestingly to me, a solution to universities’ budgetary problems. While few would disagree that education’s exorbitant costs are landing many students deep in debt, the promise that MOOCs will lower the cost of education and improve its quality should be met with a healthy dose of skepticism.

I’m no Luddite. I feel nothing but gratitude for technological progress. When I think how hard it must have been to write a dissertation before the advent of word processors—let alone without the extensive research databases and lightening-fast statistical packages that are now at my fingertips—I give thanks to the innovators at IBM, Microsoft, Apple, and so on for making my writing life a lot easier. And I don’t doubt the usefulness of online videos and tutorials, especially in highly technical fields where students can benefit by learning at their own pace.

My studies of political economy, however, lead me to interpret the investment of time and money in MOOCs not as an innocuous innovation that will improve research and teaching, but as a signal of a wider effort to, as we say in microeconomics, shift the labor-demand curve for professors. In other words, MOOCs could further affect the number of professors universities are willing to hire, and what wages those professors earn.

Private and public universities are pouring millions of dollars into MOOCs. Where will the savings be realized? An organization (in this case, a university) won’t invest in a new technology unless there’s a long-term labor cost advantage to doing so—hence the term “labor-saving technology.” Remember Adam Smith’s pin factory? Now picture one professor video-lecturing, another taking attendance, and yet a third grading assignments (perhaps from another country). Rather than producing original research and unique pedagogy, professors could quickly join the ranks of workers providing highly specialized and deskilled services.

What effect will this have on faculty? Automating teaching could make faculty jobs more routine, and less desirable, for talented scholars. We can also hypothesize that the most severe effects would initially be felt by adjuncts and untenured faculty, who are already members of the “precariat,” economist Guy Standing’s term for low-wage workers who are “precariously employed.” (Indeed, the tragic death of Margaret Mary Vojtko, an 83-year-old adjunct professor with no health insurance, has highlighted the stark reality many part-time faculty face.)

Although mainstream economic theory postulates that highly skilled workers should not be adversely affected by technological change, I predict that adjuncts’ wages will be driven down even further if MOOCs are widely adopted. (The machines are already coming for the doctors and lawyers, as David Atkins writes on Daily Kos, so don’t think for a second that academics can escape the coming MOOC-apocalypse. In fact, Jonathan Rees recently warned that the “Lords of MOOC Creation” may be gunning for superprofessors’ jobs, too, and hoping to replace them “with cheaper-but-more-telegenic lecturers.”)

So mechanizing education may cut costs for the university by cutting the cost of faculty labor. But at what price to students? Much blogger ink has been expended on MOOCs’ potential threats to teaching quality. Even if we assume that they provide an acceptable level of teaching quality, MOOCs don’t generally foster the same meaningful faculty-student interaction (or student-student interaction) that comes from being face-to-face with a teacher and other students in a classroom. (Which may explain, in part, why many employers seem to prefer to hire people with traditional degrees over those with online degrees.)

We’d be wise to remember that for as long as there have been boring, absent-minded professors, there have also been brilliant, awe-inspiring, devoted and passionate professors with the power to change the lives of students for the better in and out of the classroom.

Which brings me back to the professor herself. Teaching may not always be rewarded in the publish-or-perish culture of large universities (which is one of the many reasons why I stand by the liberal-arts college model). In my experience, however, the instructor’s greatest personal reward is what she learns in the classroom. It was my students and their novel interpretations of Adam Smith that inspired me to think about my own career as vulnerable in face of technological change. So let’s carefully monitor mechanization in academia, even if it is just a fad.

Cross-posted at:


Categories: 9 to 5, Technology, The Dismal Discipline

Tags: , , ,

3 replies

  1. Excellent piece and so important.

    I often claim (publicly? no?) that authors of distopic sci-fi novels are doing the good work. But something that is usually missing from the 200+ years in the future human-robot war scenario is what happened to humans in that rough transition when /all/ jobs, including the high-skill ones, became completely mechanised? Who had money? Who made wages? Did prices deflate or did the economy shrink to those with highest income? Was there massive income-based starvation? Or did the economy divide into one high-income high-cost and one enormous DIY freegan economy due to massive spoils? What happens when productivity far exceeds effectual demand? What happened to humans who no longer visibly relied on one another for purchases?

    But this is where we find ourselves. When do we get to see Keynes’s future with more free-time and less toil as a result of productivity gains? When does the capitalist class stop warring with the proletariat? Will I ever pay off my student loans?

    Tune in over the next 50 years to see what happens.


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