Fixing What Is Not Broken

A recent string of setbacks for one of the leading providers of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and a series of re-validations of the enduring value of bachelor's degrees has us wondering if MOOCs may fix things that weren't broken to begin with. More broadly, if efforts to improve education target things that never stopped working, will they do more harm than good?

Since the large-scale launch of MOOCs last year, much of the excitement around them has been driven by their potential to revolutionize education and thereby solve many of the challenges facing higher ed, namely the perceived diminution of the value of a degree in today's economy and the increased cost of getting a degree. While no one can say for sure exactly how MOOCs will evolve or what role they will play, Michael Horn and Clayton Christensen recently described the potential in a Wired op-ed as follows:

… over time, an approach where users exchange information from each other similar to Facebook or telecommunications (a 'facilitated network model') will come to dominate online learning. This evolution is especially likely to happen if the traditional degree becomes irrelevant and, as many predict, learning becomes a continuous, on-the-job learning process. Then the need for customization will drive us toward just-in-time mini-courses." [1]

Faculty at a number of schools don't necessarily see it that way, nor do administrators.

Amherst College faculty recently voted not to move forward with a partnership with edX, the MOOC started by Harvard and MIT, citing concerns that MOOCs would:

  • "perpetuate the 'information dispensing' model of teaching (e.g., lectures, followed by exams),"
  • "enable the centralization of American higher education,"
  • "intensify the tiered structure of American higher education," and
  • "exacerbate the star [faculty] system." [2]

Somewhat similar concerns incited a small uprising by faculty at San Jose State University. The response followed a proposal for the philosophy department to begin using materials from a Harvard professor's edX course. In a letter to the provost, faculty offered that the "move to MOOCs comes at great peril to our university. We regard such courses as a serious compromise of quality of education and, ironically for a social justice course, a case of social injustice." [3]

It might be easy to dismiss such concerns as conservatism in the face of a new model, or as faculty trying to protect their role in the existing academic model -- the model Christensen and Horn feel may become "irrelevant." But Inside Higher Ed recently released survey data that showed that even college administrators are not convinced that MOOCs will lower costs or improve the educational experience for students. [4] The one area where administrators seemed more optimistic about the value of MOOCs was in their ability to generate creativity in pedagogical strategies although even on this point, a minority of total responses was positive).

In the meantime, there has been a steady stream of reminders that the factors putting pressure on the traditional academic model are not emerging because that model stopped working. More to the point, the traditional degree has not become at all irrelevant. The first such reminder came late last year with the release of a report from the Pew Charitable Trusts on the protection a college education affords against economic downturns. [5] It showed that perception of unemployment among recent college graduates has been greatly exaggerated. The New York Times' Economix blog recently added to the earlier findings with a more recent review of employment numbers since the start of the Great Recession, showing that:

…college-educated workers have gobbled up all of the net job gains. In fact there are now more employed college graduates than there are employed high school graduates and high school dropouts put together." [6]

Yet another validation came from an otherwise gloomy piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education on outcomes for graduates of for-profit schools. A doctoral student in sociology reviewed the supposed promise of for-profit institutions, much of which mirrors the gains expected from MOOCs: extended access to education that enhances graduates' economic prospects. That promise has, as many know, come under a lot of scrutiny in recent years, and the researcher found that there was little difference in earnings for those who had graduated from two-year programs offered by non-profits than individuals with just a high school diploma. However, the outcomes for graduates with bachelor's degrees told a very different story:

Mr. Denice found a negligible earnings gap dividing graduates of four-year programs at for-profit colleges and graduates of four-year programs at nonprofit colleges. 'The bachelor's degree is a watershed event,' he said, 'regardless of where it comes from.'" [7]

What does it take to get many students to that watershed event? For adult learners, it often takes individualized support. The University of Phoenix put it in the following terms when describing their business model:

You come into our program -- you're a working adult, working 40 or 50 hours a week. We demand 15 to 20 hours a week of academic study. You might have a family. You might have life going on. You might be taking care of an elderly parent. And so we really wrap a warm blanket around our students. You have a very -- even though we have 300,000 students in the student body at University of Phoenix, the average class size is 15. You get a real world faculty member, an adjunct faculty that teaches most of our [courses]. We provide a lot of mentoring, assessment, remediation programs. If you want those, you generally get 2, in some cases, 3 counselors assigned to you that -- who are available to you frequently. Again, a lot of high-service, high-touch moments for our students because it helps them persist and manage the challenges of education." [8]

This, by and large, is what's missing from the MOOC model, by necessity and by design. Courses are short in duration, and the student-to-faculty ratio is immense. Faculty answer questions that are common to large numbers of students, not unique to an individual. An education based on individualized support and interaction - whether delivered under something like the University of Phoenix model or the more traditional colloquy of a liberal arts college like Amherst - is inherently expensive to deliver. It always has been. It's also immensely valuable, if it gets people to that watershed event.

Those two facts haven't changed, it's everything around them that has: the demands of the employment market, the nature of jobs in the economy, public direct funding for higher ed, parents' ability to save for their children's education, and students' willingness to load up on debt.

Those are real challenges that may still force education to evolve. But, we have to be honest about the causes of those challenges, and the supposed irrelevancy of the degree and the cost of delivering it aren't among them. If we try to "fix" that, we may lose a great deal more than we gain.

[2] Inside Higher Ed. "EdX Rejected"
[4] Inside Higher Ed. "MOOC Skeptics at the Top"
[6] New York Times Economix Blog. "Life Is O.K., if You Went to College"