Do MOOCs Spell the End of the Traditional College Experience?

At The American Interest Nathan Harden, playing prophet, makes a pretty alarming prediction:

In fifty years, if not much sooner, half of the roughly 4,500 colleges and universities now operating in the United States will have ceased to exist. The technology driving this change is already at work, and nothing can stop it. The future looks like this: Access to college-level education will be free for everyone; the residential college campus will become largely obsolete; tens of thousands of professors will lose their jobs; the bachelor’s degree will become increasingly irrelevant; and ten years from now Harvard will enroll ten million students.

What’s alarming about this is that it’s so plausible. Here’s Harden the Prophet again:

[R]esist or not, major change is coming. The live lecture will be replaced by streaming video. The administration of exams and exchange of coursework over the internet will become the norm. The push and pull of academic exchange will take place mainly in interactive online spaces, occupied by a new generation of tablet-toting, hyper-connected youth who already spend much of their lives online. Universities will extend their reach to students around the world, unbounded by geography or even by time zones. All of this will be on offer, too, at a fraction of the cost of a traditional college education.

Harden bases his prediction on a pattern he detects in recent history. The internet, he claims, has shown itself to be the “great destroyer of any traditional business that relies on the sale of information.” That means that the internet train that ran over the “traditional stock brokers and bonds salesman” is heading for the brick-and-mortar colleges and the professors who stand at their lecterns:

Prior to the Wall Street meltdown, it seemed absurd to think that storied financial institutions like Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers could disappear seemingly overnight. Until it happened, almost no one believed such a thing was possible. Well, get ready to see the same thing happen to a university near you, and not for entirely dissimilar reasons. […] If a faster, cheaper way of sharing information emerges, history shows us that it will quickly supplant what came before. People will not continue to pay tens of thousands of dollars for what technology allows them to get for free.

Harden also thinks the future belongs to what Harvard and MIT recently did:

This past spring, Harvard and MIT got the attention of everyone in the higher ed business when they announced a new online education venture called edX. The new venture will make online versions of the universities’ courses available to a virtually unlimited number of enrollees around the world. Think of the ramifications: Now anyone in the world with an internet connection can access the kind of high-level teaching and scholarship previously available only to a select group of the best and most privileged students. It’s all part of a new breed of online courses known as “massive open online courses” (MOOCs), which are poised to forever change the way students learn and universities teach.

MOOCs are certainly democracy in action. All the great professors that once belonged exclusively to Harvard and MIT students alone are now coming to a screen near you. But what about the human intimacy of the traditional college and university experience? Here’s Harden on this:

Clearly, online education can’t be superior in all respects to the in-person experience. Nor is there any point pretending that information is the same as knowledge, and that access to information is the same as the teaching function instrumental to turning the former into the latter. But researchers at Carnegie Mellon’s Open Learning Initiative, who’ve been experimenting with computer-based learning for years, have found that when machine-guided learning is combined with traditional classroom instruction, students can learn material in half the time.

In other words, Harden believes a hybrid model of internet and traditional instruction is coming that will be far more efficient than the way classes are structured today. That model won’t wipe out all physical colleges, just half of them. And the model will not only accelerate student pathways to degrees and certificates, but also introduce serious economies-of-scale:

The real value of MOOCs is their scalability. Andrew Ng, a Stanford computer science professor and co-founder of an open-source web platform called Coursera (a for-profit version of edX), got into the MOOC business after he discovered that thousands of people were following his free Stanford courses online. He wanted to capitalize on the intense demand for high-quality, open-source online courses. A normal class Ng teaches at Stanford might enroll, at most, several hundred students. But in the fall of 2011 his online course in machine learning enrolled 100,000.

The new MOOC-based model, according to Harden, is thus coming. Get used to it:

MOOCs go beyond this [internet video viewing] to offer a full-blown interactive experience. Students can intermingle with faculty and with each other over a kind of higher-ed social network. Streaming lectures may be accompanied by short auto-graded quizzes. Students can post questions about course material to discuss with other students. These discussions unfold across time zones, 24 hours a day. In extremely large courses, students can vote questions up or down, so that the best questions rise to the top. It’s like an educational amalgam of YouTube, Wikipedia and Facebook.

And how will all this be managed? Perhaps primarily by for-profit ventures like Coursera:

In the future, the primary platform for higher education may be a third-party website, not the university itself. What is emerging is a global marketplace where courses from numerous universities are available on a single website. Students can pick and choose the best offerings from each school; the university simply uploads the content. Coursera, for example, has formed agreements with Penn, Princeton, UC Berkeley, and the University of Michigan to manage these schools’ forays into online education. 

Harden likens all this to iPod music delivery:

[Music] consumers have been given, for the first time, the opportunity to break the album down into individual songs. They can purchase the one or two songs they want and leave the rest. Higher education is about to become like that.

Of course, this iPod model, via the eBook, will put pressure on the textbook industry as well. Why buy a whole fat textbook of essays, short stories, or chapters when you can just download onto your Kindle the ones your class is actually scheduled to use?

My assumption is that, if all that Harden predicts comes to pass, we’re looking at a two-tier system in which the traditional role of Harvard and MIT (to confer high status degrees to the best and brightest after an intensive on-campus experience) is supplemented by a populist role: to award prestigious and valuable credentials and certificates (or even MOOC degrees) to those who complete pathways of online coursework. To an employer deciding between two candidates for a job, a Harvard MOOCs certificate on a resume might prove far more impressive than a traditional bachelor’s degree conferred by a university like Cal State Bakersfield. And a Harvard MOOCs certificate, ten years from now, might be had by a student at a fraction of the cost of the usual four year degree. Traditional colleges and universities, after all, can be damn expensive:

Along with luxury dorms and dining halls, vast athletic facilities, state of the art game rooms, theaters and student centers have come layers of staff and non-teaching administrators, all of which drives up the cost of the college degree without enhancing student learning. The biggest mistake a non-ultra-elite university could make today is to spend lavishly to expand its physical space. Buying large swaths of land and erecting vast new buildings is an investment in the past, not the future. Smart universities should be investing in online technology and positioning themselves as leaders in the new frontier of open-source education. Creating the world’s premier, credentialed open online education platform would be a major achievement for any university, and it would probably cost much less than building a new luxury dorm. […] Last year Yale finalized plans to build new residential dormitories at a combined cost of $600 million. The expansion will increase the size of Yale’s undergraduate population by about 1,000. The project is so expensive that Yale could actually buy a three-bedroom home in New Haven for every new student it is bringing in and still save $100 million.

I can relate to this. At the community college where I teach, we recently spent $30 million dollars in public tax dollars on a theatre that seats perhaps 500 people. $100,000 of that $30 million was spent on the piano, which raised more than a few eyebrows around the office of the local newspaper, The Antelope Valley Press.

And Harden has a suggestion for community colleges like mine: try a Huffington Post type model, beating elite universities at their own open-source game, making quality adult education dirt cheap:

One potential source of cost savings for lower-rung colleges would be to draw from open-source courses offered by elite universities. Community colleges, for instance, could effectively outsource many of their courses via MOOCs, becoming, in effect, partial downstream aggregators of others’ creations, more or less like newspapers have used wire services to make up for a decline in the number of reporters. They could then serve more students with fewer faculty, saving money for themselves and students. At a time when many public universities are facing stiff budget cuts and families are struggling to pay for their kids’ educations, open-source online education looks like a promising way to reduce costs and increase the quality of instruction.

Such a move might be bad for tenured professors like me (I’d be out of a job), but good for students and state budgets. Then again, maybe the college would let me tutor and grade papers:

In the online world, the only concern is having enough faculty and staff on hand to review essays, or grade the tests that aren’t automated, or to answer questions and monitor student progress online.

Harden isn’t too sentimental about what’s being lost:

For nearly a thousand years the university system has looked just about the same: professors, classrooms, students in chairs. The lecture and the library have been at the center of it all. At its best, traditional classroom education offers the chance for intelligent and enthusiastic students to engage a professor and one another in debate and dialogue. But typical American college education rarely lives up to this ideal. Deep engagement with texts and passionate learning aren’t the prevailing characteristics of most college classrooms today anyway. More common are grade inflation, poor student discipline, and apathetic teachers rubber-stamping students just to keep them paying tuition for one more term.

So good riddance to me, I suppose, and hello MOOCs.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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