MOOCs - massive open online courses - have been heralded as inaugurating an inevitable transformation in higher education. They have been called a revolution, a boom, and, in the favoured jargon of techspeak, a "disruption" - a term that at first invokes a welcome alternative to the stagnation and elitism of the American university.
It is not the technological aspects of MOOCs that they tend to find troublesome. MOOCs fail because they are massive, not because they are online or open. Students fail MOOCs because MOOCs fail students.
But the best word to describe MOOCs - at least in terms of their capacity to replace traditional education - is "failure". Most MOOCs have completion rates of under 10 percent. At San Jose State University, a programme to offer course credit for MOOCS from Udacity, a Silicon Valley-based company, was halted when over 50 percent of students failed.
MOOCs have been criticised by education experts who see their impersonal nature as a detriment to student learning. In MOOCs, students usually cannot ask their professors questions and sometimes cannot even receive answers, since MOOCs deliver the same recorded lessons to numerous groups of students. There is little way to prevent cheating or provide individual feedback. Some MOOCs have no assignments or required readings, and nearly all evaluation is done by machines - including the grading of essays.
Critics of MOOCs are often lambasted as Luddites. But it is not the technological aspects of MOOCs that they tend to find troublesome. MOOCs fail because they are massive, not because they are online or open. Students fail MOOCs because MOOCs fail students. They replicate some of the worst aspects of large universities - enormous courses, inaccessibility of professors, absence of mentoring or individual feedback - while capitalising on the desperation of students drowning in debt. MOOCs are not a cure but a symptom of the disease.
As a supplement to education, MOOCs have value. They can enhance student learning - much in the way libraries, videos, and the internet enhance student learning. But MOOCs do not replace traditional courses in terms of knowledge gained or in the prestige and connections a degree provides.
Because MOOCs are inexpensive, they are often recommended for students who cannot afford to pay for a traditional education - a category which, in an era of skyrocketing tuition, now includes almost all Americans. But this only exacerbates inequality. MOOC peddlers answer a social crisis - that a college degree, required for most well-paying jobs, is unaffordable - by accepting that crisis as normal. MOOCs cheapen education in every respect.
MOOCs and inequality
MOOCs are largely a creation of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, wealthy elites known for being out of touch with the hardships of ordinary people. The welcome idealism of MOOCs - that education should be free and accessible to all - is clouded by their refusal to acknowledge structural barriers in the American education system.
MOOCS are promoted by the affluent more than they are utilised by them. Neither the students MOOCs serve nor the adjunct faculty they may displace tend to be among the elite.
"Higher education's issues are economic issues - a vastly unequal economy with stagnated wages and collapsing internal labour markets - and K-12 issues - residential segregation, tracking, and unequal funding," argues Tressie McMillan Cottom, a sociologist and prominent scholar of online and for-profit education. The promotion of MOOCs as an economic alternative masks the broader social inequalities they exacerbate.
A central inequality is labour. Proponents of MOOCs claim that they will save money by replacing overpaid university professors with cheap alternatives - an idea that many educators find laughable. MOOCs are expensive to create and depend on a critical mass of participation to become profitable. Meanwhile, 75 percent of American professors are adjuncts, making an average of $2,700 per course. Most do not have health insurance or benefits. Some are so poor they depend on food stamps to survive.
Over the past two decades, the number of adjunct instructors has soared - and so has college tuition. There is no relationship between the amount of money students pay and the amount of money professors make - indeed, one student's annual tuition is often far above one professor's annual salary. So where does the money go? To fund lavish administrator salaries, luxury dorm rooms, and football coaches, among other aspects of university life that have nothing to do with learning.
Despite their poor wages, adjunct professors do the same work as tenure-track professors. They interact with students, hold office hours, and field questions about courses and careers. They provide guidance MOOCs cannot replace.
But when professors speak out about the value of their labour, they are often derided by the wealthy. In a response to a critique of MOOCs by history professor Jonathan Rees, Slate blogger Matt Yglesias compares higher education to journalism, noting that while a massive number of journalists have lost their jobs, journalism itself is "not just fine, it's fantastic".
In reality, the collapse of the economy has made journalism both more inept and more elitist, a process mirrored in higher education. As a result, both professions tend to neglect the plight of the less fortunate. It is hardly surprising that a writer like Yglesias - who once deemed the unsafe factory conditions that led to the deaths of foreign workers "entirely appropriate" - would also shrug off the concerns of poorer Americans.
MOOCs are promoted by the affluent more than they are utilised by them. Neither the students MOOCs serve nor the adjunct faculty they may displace tend to be among the elite. As MOOCs gain traction, "well-off students will attend the few colleges and universities that are wealthy enough to eschew standardisation and automation," predicts education scholar Peter Sacks. "They alone will have real relationships with great faculty."
As upper class Americans benefit from interpersonal connections through traditional institutions, MOOC students will remain passive recipients of automated lectures. In the American university, the students who can be heard are the ones who can pay for people to listen.
The barriers of prestige
MOOCs are touted for bypassing geographic and financial barriers, but they cannot replace the barrier of prestige. As I've previously argued, higher education has become less about the degree than the pedigree. Employability rests not on intelligence or hard work, but on the acquisition of credentials. When education is exorbitant, credentials tend to be bought rather than earned.
Even if MOOCs provided an education equal to that of a traditional university, they cannot provide the institutional cachet that makes one competitive on the job market. But lower-income students who cannot afford elite institutions are still at the mercy of credentialism. In a lecture at the University of California - Irvine, Cottom describes how students targeted by MOOCs and for-profit universities tend to see education as a means of protection against a disastrous economy:
"People are casting about for the means to protect themselves against insecurity [of unemployment]," she says. "They're looking for a way to be respected at work, to be respected in their communities, to locate their position in the larger social structure, and to find that position congruent with their ideal selves. They are looking for dignity.
"That we have constructed the only means for achieving those things as credentials, or credential hoarding, and that we understand that as market demand - I would call it mass insecurity."
MOOCS are a cheaper way of achieving credentials - but these credentials do not translate into meaningful currency in the job market, because they are a product of, not a remedy for, a failed system. They tackle the problem of exclusion by peddling knock-offs to the excluded.
A common response to the plight of lower-income students is that cheap MOOCs are at least better than expensive but poor quality colleges. But this creates one set of standards for the rich and another for the rest. It ignores systematic inequalities by creating an alternate route for those deemed, by virtue of class, to be less deserving.
Higher education provides a path to professions of influence. That path must be open to all. College needs to be reformed, not replaced.
Sarah Kendzior is an anthropologist who recently received her PhD from Washington University in St Louis.
Follow her on Twitter: @sarahkendzior
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.