As the media's infatuation with massive open online courses (MOOCs) continues unabated, some academics seem to be succumbing to the hand-wringing about whether MOOCs will destroy higher education as we know it (see "Will MOOCs Destroy Academia?" by Moshe Vardi in the November 2012 issue of Communications). Is it a bad thing that we "have let the genie out of the bottle," as Vardi suggested in his Editor's Letter? I argue that a close, systematic, and sustained look at how MOOCs are actually being used should persuade the careful observer that tasteful use of MOOC technology can strengthen academia.
Note I do not say "MOOCs will strengthen academia." They certainly can, but whether they do depends on how they are received and used by academics. Full disclosure: besides being a MOOC instructor myself, I am the recently appointed faculty director of Berkeley's MOOCLab, which extends Berkeley's existing online education programs with MOOC research and practice. But I am not cheering for MOOCs because I have this position; rather, I agreed to take the position because I am excited about the possibilities of MOOCs and other online education. In particular, if MOOCs are used as a supplement to classroom teaching rather than being viewed a replacement for it, they can increase instructor leverage, student throughput, student mastery, and student engagement. I call this model the SPOC: small private online course.