Will Computers Replace Profs? California College Tries Out Online Learning


pajamas computer

Are we one step closer to replacing (most) tenured faculty members with automated emails and online aides?

Today the online course company Udacity is announcing that it will partner with San Jose State University to offer a pilot slate of remedial courses to California students who are under-qualified for normal college coursework. Starting with algebra and statistics, students will consume course material online, but traditional faculty members on campus will be involved as well.

Much of the material will delivered through video lectures and with the help of online "mentors" employed by Udacity, which offers massively open online courses, or MOOCs. Students who are struggling will even get automated emails generated by the course software encouraging them and offering tips. There will also be automatically generated quizzes to test comprehension.

Since all these computers performing professorial functions tends to make tenured faculty and thier parasitic administrators nervous, the pilot offers a sop: San Jose faculty members will be part of the project as well, calming the jitters of the traditional education establishment–for a minute, anyway.

Udacity says this isn't just a P.R. move. The New York Times quotes founder Sebastian Thrun suggesting that employing elements of a more traditional model will help reduce the stratospheric dropout rates that current plague online courses: 

"I am personally troubled by the 90 percent dropout rate," Mr. Thrun said. "The students signing up are highly motivated — and MOOCs will only succeed if they make normally motivated students successful."

But frankly, I'm not so sure. 

The goal is eventually to have hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of students enrolled in the best of the MOOCs. They will be the courses that have the most effective lectures, comprehensive material, and useful outputs to demonstrate achievement. Once you get to that kind of scale with online offerings, faculty job security starts to look less ironclad at schools like San Jose State.

There's a lot of money pouring into these massively open online courses (MOOCs), with MIT and Harvard dropping $30 million each on their venture, EdX. Another competitor, Coursera, received $16 million in venture capital in April and currently boasts well over 1 million enrollments. Udacity, which (like Coursera) was founded by members Stanford faculty picked up $15 million from investors in October.

But for now, despite the big names affiliated with the projects—who also stand to lose the least, since demand for Harvards and Stanfords will disappear last—these online course providers are struggling with legitimacy. At a time when people believe that a college degree is worth $1 million in lifetime earnings (it's not, by the by), the clamor for diplomas is louder than ever. Partnerships for credit with traditional universities are a way around that quandary. 

On a sidenote: It is perhaps not a coincidence that San Jose State was the academic of home of John Sperling, who was a faculty member there when he got the idea for the University of Phoenix, one of the early leaders in online ed. Phoenix may be on the decline these days, but perhaps the folks at San Jose decided not to let the bus pass them by this time around.