Wither MOOCs? Different Degrees of Education

In April this year, the philosophy department at San Jose State
University sent a well-reasoned letter to law professor Michael Sandel
at Harvard, explaining to him why they did not need his online justice
course imposed on their students by the management of the California
State System. Being ordered to feed your children someone else’s
cooking is an affront, to put it mildly.

The debate about traditional pedagogical delivery and the new kid on
the block — online education — is alive, and the SJSU faculty went
to battle, against the online upstart, and their administrative
overlords. Universities are run by academics (or we professors like to
think so), but state systems are run by bureaucrats. Conflict in our
education system has been engineered in, sadly. Academics are never
paid enough to often realize costs are an issue, and bureaucrats only
care about costs. The truth is, the fight over online education is
being fought on a battleground of costs. It would be sad if this were
the only thing that mattered.

Like two cars driving in their lanes and obeying the rules of the
road, massively open online courses (MOOCs) and bricks and mortar
(BAM) education have been motoring down the education highway,
glancing nervously at each other but not meeting in open conflict. The
presence of a cost speedbump has eventually resulted in fenders
touching and sparked a conflagration. Road rage is immminent, and the
SJSU folks were extremely calm. So far so good.

But MOOCs do bring several benefits to the table, the first and most
compelling being the democratization of education, cost-driven or
not. For the millions of folks with no access to good education (and I
emphasize good, there is plenty of poor quality education out there)
MOOCs offer a way to learn from great teachers when students have no
access to even poor ones. Admission to today’s U.S. college system is
tilted in favor of families with resources to groom their kids for the
application process, let alone the ability to pay for college
eventually. Second, MOOCs globalize education by making it possible
for anyone in the world to sign up and excel. And if they do well,
they are offered jobs in markets they would never have access to.
Employers are more concerned that people with degrees actually have
the skills their colleges certify, and the openness of the MOOC system
ensures skills. In some ways MOOC testing has become a quasi entrance
exam to the job market. It betrays the lie in academia of real
education, where it should be harder to graduate than to get in to
play the game.

Third, MOOCs offer the much-touted “flipping the classroom and home”
phenomenon, where lecturing occurs offline and exercises (homework)
and discussion can take place in class. This is a model that has a
positive feel to it, but research and evidence of advantageous
learning outcomes remains to be provided. Fourth, MOOCs will enable
good professors to reach thousands of students, and put pressure on
faculty who teach poorly and do no research to shape up or ship
out. And that would be great. This would alleviate one of the biggest
costs of the tenure system, i.e., checked-out, expensive
professors. Fifth, almost every university is facing a classroom
shortage, i.e., insufficient plant and equipment. A hybrid MOOC-BAM
approach will relieve this capacity constraint. If half the curriculum
is pushed online, say, we could enroll up to twice the number of
students, while reducing fees. That’s a win-win.

What’s not to like? If education were a production process, isn’t
increasing output and cutting costs exactly what MOOCs do? But do they
deliver a better learning approach, and are the students that come out
of this channel better educated? In other words, should we also strive
to deliver higher quality graduates, while working on the costs? My
personal preference is that these criteria be lexicographically
ordered: quality first, cost second. If we don’t worry about quality
we’ll end up with too many people with degrees, but no education. And
quality education is not only about quality teachers, but also about
quality environments (and I don’t mean manicured lawns, stone
buildings, and expensive football stadiums). The Culture of The
University is a huge part of it all. We want not only a trained
population, but also a learned one.

BAM education has its advantages too. First, and very important,
students are directly connected to faculty doing research. I counsel
parents who ask me to help their children choose between teaching and
research schools, and I always say that if your kid is going to learn
how to really think at college, the best way is to do research, and
that is much easier to do if you are at a research university. It’s
also the reason why I think the production of knowledge (research) and
the communication of knowledge (teaching) should co-exist in
educational institutions. It’s why we don’t see a collection of
community colleges and Bell Labs like outfits rather than research

Second, quality education does not have to cost as much as it does,
the community college system and colleges in other countries manage to
deliver an effective and good product at low cost to the student, and
the subsidies are well worth it. I just finished a semester-long
motorcycle mechanics class at the CC in San Francisco, and I learned a
huge lot, in a very hands-on, refreshing, and confidence building
manner. Separating education from unrelated university overheads will
cure the system. We pay way too much for the “country club” feel of
colleges and for expensive sports teams. It’s a chicken and egg issue,
the sports teams bring in alumni donations, which then go to support
these teams to bring in more revenue. Somewhere along the way, the
point of education is lost, and money does not go towards teaching and
research. To it’s credit the MOOC model is a wake up call to these
paradoxes of our system.

Third, the BAM model is one of the last bastions against
commoditization of our entire lives. When everything is becoming “one
size fits all”, we cannot afford to let education go in that
direction. As all of us with children know, no two siblings are alike,
and they need different handling. And our kids do prosper in a system
where they choose (voluntarily or otherwise) what sort of place of
learning system they fit in to. No doubt some may fit the MOOC model
better and that’s what they should adopt.

What will we end up with? Will MOOCs kill off all the universities?
Will the MOOCs of brand name universities (such as Harvard and MIT’s
edX) decimate smaller, less branded schools? Will we end up with some
hybrid system? Will we get fully online degrees and will they be
valued differently from BAM ones? How will we measure the quality of
education in this new world?

I worry whether I will have a job in ten years. Will my profession go
the way of airline travel agents and physical book stores? It’s hard
to say, but I suppose I’ve had a good education, and it’s trained me
to learn, so I’ll go off and do something else with my skills. What
will decide how this plays out? Quality (I would like to see the
system with the higher quality product win) or cost? For the economicsĀ of MOOCs, see this interesting graphic.

But I think there is another important determinant than quality and
cost. It is the human factor, and it will save the BAM model from
extinction. The primary reason why brick and mortar universities will
survive is that most people are unable to muster up the discipline to
work through a sufficient number of meaningful online courses, without
structure, discourse, and no transmission of perspective. Those who
can are disciplined and talented human beings for whom going to
college does not really matter. Those who cannot really do need to go
to college, but they seem to get degrees but often no
education. Herein lies the wasteful and expensive paradox of modern
day undergraduate education. If modern day college education
eventually flounders it will be because it collapses under the weight
of its own costs, not because of a technology driven paradigm
shift. But if it survives, it will be because of a deep human need for
a learned society engendered in a place of deep and higher learning –
The University. Hope springs eternal.


2 Responses to Wither MOOCs? Different Degrees of Education

  1. Lamiya says:

    Thank-you, Sanjiv – always welcome perspective. So well thought out- currently reading William Bennett’s latest book – also very interesting.

    cheers, Lamiya


  2. Ashley says:

    I like the valuable information you provide in your articles.
    I’ll bookmark your blog and check again here frequently. I am quite sure I will learn plenty
    of new stuff right here! Good luck for the next!

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