. Saranna Thornton, Hampden-Sydney College professor, and co-author of the Annual American Association of University Professors faculty salary report, recently lamented the bleak outlook for college faculty pay, and tenure security.

Thornton decries the status of future higher education professorships – hounded with superficial “contingent” offers. In addition to discouraging doctoral candidates, this Economics professor hits a bull’s eye – with more than she envisions.

Relentlessly, higher education seems jettisoning toward MOOC land.

MOOC’s (“massive open online courses”) is a thriving technological approach – teasing and threatening traditional higher education tenets.  College and University administrators gravely “saddle up”, addressing succinct challenges from open online courses. Should MOOC’s be revered or reviled?

Dr. Amy Gutmann, President, University of Pennsylvania, is bulking up about promoting MOOC’s. Appearing on C-Span, Gutmann labels them a “bold experiment”, declaring “2012 was the year of the MOOC.”  She masterfully ties together MOOC’s brief five year history with recent faculty achievements of 10 new courses “on the platform”, for instruction.

Acknowledging baffling skepticism within academia, Gutmann peppered her audience by extolling Coursera, partnering with 33 top universities in the world – offering online courses. Additionally citing edX – these non profit operations will hone in online courses designated for dozens of colleges, universities.

MOOC student numbers astonish – in the 100’s of thousands. Liberty University’s recent news release brags “eighty percent of the school’s more than 15,000 graduates were online students.”  This technology offers streaming of lectures, papers, notes on a global system of interconnected computer network. Proponents assure the average student will “gain a near-universal access” to high level teaching – with minimal cost.

Between residential (read “elite”) education of selective schools, with history of applicant rejection…and  the populist formula of educating those community college students, or other “nonselective” regional schools, the struggle convenes. Triggering a tradition of “selected” classroom opportunities versus “virtual education” for millions continues to provoke. Ballooning tuition fees add to the fracas.

Some quarters claim advanced technology will stoke a democratization of accessibility to higher education; many educators theorize it’s sadly overdue. Sardonically, academic traditionalists are unconvinced with this techy reach threatening eleven centuries of solid education. Amherst College faculty roils, voting over 60% against joining edX, an organized confederation of courses funded by Harvard and M.I.T. How does one foster meaningful discourse in a “classroom” of ten thousand students, or grade their work?

“LAPTOP U”, Nathan Heller’s piece in The New Yorker (05/20/13), lays out what future online classrooms could dismantle. Heller warns course assessment techniques must be carefully designed; students would receive rigorous evaluations.  “I’m concerned about electronic approaches to grading writing. I think they are ill-equipped to consider irony, elegance, and…I don’t know how you get a computer to decide if there’s something there it hasn’t been programmed to see.”, said Drew Gilpin Faust, Harvard president, in The New Yorker piece.

Student access to “elite education” could be less about a professor’s classroom than his/her access to “elite” social circles. Heller observes Bill Clinton, a lower-middle class kid out of the Ozarks, might have received high level preparation without going to Georgetown, Oxford, and Yale; yet, he wouldn’t have enjoyed access to the U.S. Presidency.

Still…it’s about the student, isn’t it?

The late Dr. Allan Bloom, University of Chicago, worried over students developing “souls without longing” – their developed absence of care, called indifference…or as David Brooks, NYT columnist, recently speculated in his The Way to Produce a Person, “We don’t merely want to know if they have done good. We want to know if they are good.”  How will MOOC’s contribute to that end? Can they?

Saranna Thornton, H-SC professor, internalizes: “I so loved teaching then….but if I was in that position now, I would not have gone into the profession.” While sympathizing, can we culturally afford such deficit? Traditional teaching may not be there for those so inclined….to the detriment of all.