In Our MOOC Moment, Public Opinion about Teacher Quality Irrelevant - Higher Education
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In Our MOOC Moment, Public Opinion about Teacher Quality Irrelevant

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by Ali Hangan


The New York Times published an editorial last month, “Why Other Countries Teach Better,” that compared three countries to the U.S. and raised concerns that poorly trained teachers would lead to an unprepared workforce for the global labor market.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, defended teachers in response, noting that, reforms have not worked and there should be more investment in teacher training.

They are both correct, but opinions may not matter much as the specter of disruptive technologies, such as the Massive Online Open Course (MOOCs), slowly marches into the public education system.

Critics have cited the dismal results of the MOOC experiment at San Jose State in California, launched by the company Udacity. However, MOOCs will most likely remain apart of the education landscape as President Obama’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology have urged him to let market forces develop better systems to employ the technology.

What effect will MOOCs have on teachers?

To answer this question, one might look to the changes that took place in the music industry in the early 20th century to serve as a historical parallel.

In the 1920s, the radio led to the rise of the music industry, creating an entire ecology of jobs for musicians, dancers, singers, promoters and concert staff.

The music industry workers formed unions, which reached their apex in 1942. That same year a general strike was called over royalties, spurring companies to cut costs to produce music. This process took place in three phases:

  • The rising star of Frank Sinatra signaled a sea change in the industry to focus on the less expensive option of a vocalist rather than a band.
  • The invention of the jukebox offered a cheaper form of entertainment and club owners actually made money as patrons paid to hear each song play.
  • A massive PR campaign was led by the music industry to curtail the use of bands. Nightclubs were cast as unseemly and attracted crime, all the while the jukebox was sold to the public as a healthy form of entertainment for youth to keep them off the streets dramatized by the sitcom “Happy Days.”

If we consider the recent media coverage of MOOCs, teachers and education, there are clear echoes of the processes that took place in the music industry unfolding in education today.

Predicting the effects of disruptive technologies’ impact on jobs is not a perfect science, but applying basic market logic, one can make a case that once parents and students begin to see a much more efficient and cheaper way to get an education, the adoption of MOOCs could take hold quickly. It’s important to note that the jukebox had been around for a number of years, but it only took a few years for this technology to aid in the fall of the musicians’ union and catapult a broad swath of musicians into the gallows of the unemployed.

People still enjoy listening to live music, but ask any average musician today if they hold a day job to make ends meet and the answer is most likely yes. We will need human teachers in the future, but just like the music industry today, there will be a few highly paid stars performing in videos and the rest will be seeking tips, as they carve out an existence on street corners and dive bars.

Ali Hangan is a Desert Storm veteran and high school economics teacher in Pomona, Calif., who writes on technology and education.

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