Clever Pun on MOOCs

18 February 2013, 2159 EST

Okay, I don’t have one. But I’d like to call attention to some excellent discussion of Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs). Adam Kotsko asks “what is the business model for online education.” Nigel Thrift analyzes the recent “media obsession” with MOOCs. Louis Betty makes unfortunate swipes at Apple in pursuit of a larger point about techno-faddishism, pedagogy, and higher education. Betty’s piece recalls a great satirical post that Paul Musgrave wrote some time ago at the Duck. And Thoreau reminds us that the real problem in higher education is the debt bubble.

You should go read all of them, but I have a few takeaways that I think worth emphasizing.

1. MOOCs are only a tiny part of online education. They leverage the most easily “scaled up” part of the college learning experience — the large lecture course.

As Kotsko puts it:

Now it’s not as though most universities are following the ideal practice in any case. Large lecture classes are already essentially “distance learning.” So just from a totally cynical standpoint, one could begin to discuss whether the economic gains are likely to be enough to make up for the loss in quality of an already low-quality model (i.e., the large lecture class that remains a staple of mainstream higher ed despite the overwhelming evidence against its efficacy).

Indeed, most students get much more out of small seminars, labs, tutorials, and other settings that minimize the right-hand side of the teacher-student ratio. Some form of these can be replicated online–and often quite well. But my experience is that doing so requires more time and labor than doing them in their traditional settings. One main advantages of Small Online Courses (SOCs) come from flexibility: their components can be scheduled after business hours and students need not be in the same geographic space. Another is that they reduce costs associated with physical plants, but they also increase technology costs — which themselves are a growing drain on college and university budgets.

2. The recent obsession with MOOCs has its roots in three interlocking trends: the application of business-school speak to higher education, technology fetishism, and the quest to push down labor costs. It wouldn’t be too much of an exaggeration to say that these are three faces of late-modern capitalism: the colonization of all modes of life by scripts associated with capitalist exchange relations, the “virtuous cycle” of rent-seeking by advocates of “creative destruction,” and relentless pressure to enhance profit by increasing capital-labor ratios. But the last two, at least, do not always conjoin to produce profit. Kotsko again:

Perhaps online education can really be a great revenue stream, but it’s hardly a slam dunk. I suspect that the only reason people have embraced it so enthusiastically is that higher ed administrators have bought into the common ideological notion that labor costs are always the problem — so anything that promises to cut labor costs (even if implausibly, as I argue above) is a good thing. I also suspect that a big factor in the embrace of online education is the fact that it’s what donors are most interested in — because donors always prefer capital-intensive products and because current trends in educational philanthropy are all focused on ways to cut labor costs (also known as “running education like a business”). A final factor is the herd mentality and fatalism that is so prevalent in higher ed — we must do online because online is the future and we will be left behind!

3. The “best case” scenario for aforementioned trends may combine greater access to knowledge (yay!) with even greater status stratification among universities (boo!) that mix best practices (yay?). Thrift:

What is forgotten in all the hubbub is that the financial models of most elite universities nowadays are not based primarily on educating undergraduates. Undergraduate education is undoubtedly central to what a university is, but it is generally a low-margin activity, when it isn’t being explicitly subsidized by endowments and other sources of income, and often makes up a relatively modest proportion of turnover compared with postgraduate education, research, and other sources of income. I suspect that the real issue for the future of most elite universities will be postgraduate education, which MOOCs  have less purchase on. Indeed, in the face of MOOCs and other similar developments, I suspect that the reaction of most elite universities will be to think even more carefully about any expansion of their online or offline undergraduate education.

Meanwhile,  nonelite universities will be caught up in a more general industrialization of higher education. In a previous blog, I called this “Big Ed,” and MOOCs will be one relatively small part.

And there is a historical irony about all this, too. Perhaps elite universities will end up going back to the future. Until recently, at elite English universities like Oxford and Cambridge, lectures were always optional. They were often thought to be incidental to an education based around the tutorial and self-directed reading. Examinations were based on students’ ability to read, and tutors would often say, “If you can read, there is no need to go to lectures.” Perhaps some universities will end up recreating this model but with a mixture of forms of learning, including a scattering of MOOC courses.