Is higher education about to go the way of the music industry? (UPDATED)

This is a bit outside our usual domain, but I think it’s interesting and it’s certainly relevant to anyone who has or wants an academic job, so I thought I’d post on it. Author and internet guru Clay Shirky has a provocative post asking whether higher education is about to be disrupted in much the way file sharing disrupted the music industry. He argues that the advent of massive open online courses (MOOCs), like the Introduction to Artificial Intelligence course that two Stanford profs taught to 23,000 (!) students (down from an initial enrollment of 160,000!), have the potential to be just as good, a whole lot cheaper, and accessible to way more people than most courses taught at most US colleges and universities. He suggests that too many of the arguments in favor of traditional colleges and universities implicitly assume that places like Harvard are typical. Just as most people now mostly experience classical music by playing back inexpensive recordings by the best musicians, rather than by attending expensive live performances by less-skilled local musicians, most people will eventually get their college education very cheaply from MOOCs produced by the best people, rather than expensively by attending lectures at their local university.

I don’t know that I agree with all of this, or even much of it, but nor can it simply be dismissed out of hand, I don’t think. For me, reading it was an excuse to step back and think about why I teach the way I do, and why it’s worth paying for. Plus, Shirky is trying to predict the future, and as we’ve just been discussing on this blog, that’s awfully hard, so I’m happy to cut him some slack. I may be somewhat skeptical of his predictions of the future, but it’s not like I’m totally confident in my own predictions either. I don’t have a fully coherent response to his post yet, but here are some thoughts:

-His remarks on the unsustainability of current trends in higher education financing in the US certainly are well-taken, although he doesn’t get much into the underlying reasons. This is actually one of the strongest aspects of the piece–his arguments read much better if you keep in mind the increasing levels of debt that many students are taking on in order to be able to attend college. (Which is not to say that MOOCs are the only possible response to current funding trends–far from it)

-His remarks on unbundling are well-taken. If you just want to ramp up your knowledge or skills in one specific area, taking a single MOOC might be a much more cost-effective way for you to do it than enrolling at your local college or university. Assuming you even have one. Which leads to my next thought…

-He seems to be lumping together the potential for MOOCs to greatly expand access to higher education with the potential for MOOCs to provide an alternative source of higher education for students who currently attend “non-elite” institutions. I think those are two different things that ought to be “unbundled”. Asking whether MOOCs are better (maybe even way better) than nothing is quite different from asking whether they’re better than something.

-Insofar as even the best lectures are bad, MOOCs will be bad. Not sure what to do about this. And I guess Shirky would respond by arguing that, for many students, the choice is really MOOCs or nothing, and MOOCs surely are better than nothing.

-I wonder if MOOCs are better suited to certain subjects than others. In particular how the inability to offer hands-on labs affects a lot of science courses, and how restrictions on the nature of the assignments and exams affects all courses. You can’t offer essay tests to tens of thousands of students in a single course, not without hiring lots of people to mark them, which would cost a lot of money. So I can’t see how anyone’s going to learn to write, or think through open-ended problems in any subject, or learn any “hands-on” skill, solely via MOOCs. Is the idea that we’re all supposed to learn all that stuff before we go to college?

-He takes for granted that the education offered at non-elite institutions mostly is poor compared to that offered at elite places, or at least not worth the cost to the students. Which seems like a pretty big thing to take for granted. As his own examples make clear, by “non-elite” institutions he means a huge diversity of places that charge a huge range of prices and teach a huge range of things, many of them things that aren’t taught at, say, Harvard. He’s lumping together less-selective colleges and universities (both public and private, I think), community colleges, agricultural schools, trade schools… Assuming that all these places doing all these different things are all poor value for money seems like a strangely elitist assumption to make in the context of what’s nominally an anti-elitist piece. Shirky’s argument here really only works in contexts where institutions of very different quality (or perceived to be of very different quality) are charging similarly-high prices for education in the same subject.

-His post makes you think about where you as an instructor really add value, and how having students in the same room as you three times/week adds value. Especially in big introductory lecture courses. Frankly, if you really are just standing in front of the class lecturing, I do think there’s a case to be made that students would be better off watching videos of a better lecturer. So I think much of the value added comes from having an instructor there to answer questions (both in class and outside of class), and also to do things besides lecture (“pair and share”, short discussions prompted by clicker questions, whatever). And while an instructor for a MOOC certainly can answer some questions, there’s no way one person can quickly address every single question from tens of thousands of students. Similarly, a MOOC certainly could include things like chat rooms where students can discuss their questions with each other, but again I’m not sure that’s a good substitute for things like TA-led discussion sections. To which I suppose Shirky’s response might be that this is making the best the enemy of the good, or the good-enough.

-Presumably if Shirky’s right, practices of accreditation and credentialing also get radically disrupted?

-There’s no discussion of the research function of colleges and universities. Not sure if that’s supposed to be another issue that only “elite” institutions and their employees care about. More broadly, colleges and universities of all sorts typically do lots of worthwhile stuff (and yes, some less-worthwhile stuff) besides teaching undergraduates. MOOCs wouldn’t do any of that.

-Shirky notes that many existing MOOCs are terrible, but argues that they’ll improve, just as recording technology did. Which is fair enough as far as it goes. But why can’t conventional colleges and universities improve too? Maybe not in terms of their costs (not on current trends…), but certainly in terms of the education they offer. Shirky relates an anecdote about the instructor of a bad introductory statistics MOOC responding quickly to negative feedback and promising to improve the course in future. Shirky’s bizarre implication is that nothing like this ever happens at regular colleges and universities, at least not at non-elite ones! Conversely, just as there are reasons why regular colleges and universities might not improve, there are reasons why MOOCs might not. Shirky has a lot of faith that just because something is online and “open” (in some rather vaguely-defined sense of “open”), it will quickly become awesome. I don’t share that faith.

-In passing, I’ll note that Shirky himself, like other leading advocates of MOOCs, didn’t himself get his undergraduate degree via MOOCs. Make of that what you will.

For pushback against MOOCs that gets into various larger issues I’ve intentionally glossed over or set to one side, see the Chronicle of Higher Education.

UPDATE: Evolutionary biologist Joan Strassman offers her thoughts on MOOCs here. She’s very excited by MOOCs, but not as a replacement for traditional classes, more as either a supplement/complement (online videos for “fact delivery”, in-class time reserved for discussion), or just as an act of altruism. Joan recommends Mohammed Noor’s thoughts on MOOCs. He just finished teaching “introduction to genetics and evolution” as a MOOC to thousands of students.

13 thoughts on “Is higher education about to go the way of the music industry? (UPDATED)

  1. Jeremy,

    You bring up some excellent points in your analysis of Clay Shirkey’s post.

    MOOCs may not be the solution to the ‘crisis’ that US higher education is entering, but it is a good starting point for change. Change is needed in higher ed due to the increasing cost of attending university for the average family. The elite’s will be fine, they will have a steady stream of students due to their reputation and large endowment funds. It is the middle-tier that is in trouble and will need to reform because of the cost. On average in a private university one year of undergraduate education costs between $40,000 and $55,000 for year. That includes tuition and room and board. So a four year degree costs on average $200,000, though many students graduate in five years if the make it through. The cost of a public university is on average $20,000 to $30,000. Because public schools are underfunded and crowded, it’s a given that students will need five years to graduate, so you are looking at $100,000.

    I disagree with Shirkey, that a MOOC is just recorded lectures and multiple choice tests. There can be a high level of interaction on class discussion boards, Facebook and Twitter. Often students form virtual study groups, and Coursera students organize ‘meet ups’ in certain cities. I wonder if Mr. Shirky has ever completed a MOOC with Coursera or other such platform?

    Thanks for you insightful and interesting post. And you are right, “… why can’t conventional colleges and universities improve too?”

    • There can be a high level of interaction on class discussion boards, Facebook and Twitter. Often students form virtual study groups, and Coursera students organize ‘meet ups’ in certain cities.

      All of these options are available to students enrolled in traditional higher education institutes. One doesn’t need to be enrolled on a MOOC to get the benefits of alternative study methods.

  2. Traditionalists predictably foresee the demise of higher education with this type of teaching, but I don’t see why you shouldn’t successfully learn standard techniques such as introduction to statistics in online courses, with the advantages that a lot more effort is going in the preparation of the teaching and in the control of whether it works for the students.

    Plus, as I point out in an older post , no one has a problem with traditional textbooks, which, in some sense, try to fulfill the same function as an online course, only using different medium.

    I’m not sure whether those courses will result in less money being spent on higher education. People have a certain amount of money at their disposal which they distribute according to their preferences. When new technologies arrive that make things cheaper, this often just results in more products of the same type being sold – think about music, electronic devices, … So, if we get the main lectures cheaper, it might well be that universities offer more specialized lectures or personal coaching, etc., which doesn’t sound bad to me.

    • The analogy to textbooks is interesting, that hadn’t occurred to me. Of course, textbooks traditionally are only a part of the course.

      Thinking out loud here (and the thoughts are prompted by your comments, but not so much a reply to them): if you said to students “here’s a wiki for a free textbook, read it and gather yourselves together to talk about the material if you have questions, there’s an online exam in X weeks, you’ll get a certificate of completion if you pass”, how is that all that different from a MOOC? (an honest question, I don’t really know) How is it different than having students just teach themselves? (only in giving them a certificate for passing an exam, I’d say)

      Your broad point, that it’s not at all clear what form any “disruption” will take, is surely right.

  3. The enrollment numbers are quoted as being indicators of ‘success’ of MOOCs, what about some data on dropout rates and/or completion rates? What about mastery of topic – any data?

    Also, how many of the students already have a working knowledge of the subject and just want the “badge of honor from Ivy schools” that these MOOCs offer? Is the volume of interaction on class discussion boards commensurate with ‘high-level of interaction’?

    Just for the record, I am not for/against MOOCs, just questioning the ‘MOOCs – the panacea for what ails higher education’ that appears to be the sweeping through the country.

    • All good questions, to which I don’t have answers. I’m sure data on some of these things are out there.

      I suppose Shirky might argue that dropout rates don’t matter if the course is free; it’s not like the dropouts wasted any money.

      Re: interaction on class discussion boards, I worry more about interaction with the instructor. Note as well that you can force some level of interaction among students, by requiring them to post to the class discussion board X times/week or whatever.

  4. I can’t see MOOCs bringing the demise of traditional learning and teaching myself. I’ve tried learning through MOOCs and it can be very a confusing and unreliable way to study – certainly no substitute for the seminar room and class discussions. The technology still has a way to go, and it’s probably a vehicle that’s unsuited to a wide range of subjects.

  5. I think your final summary offers a great glimpse to the greatest value of MOOCs, Jeremy: they will provide an additional teaching resource.

    In some cases, this will free up lecturers’ time to develop other teaching/study methods, such as small group teaching, or Q&A/discussion based learning sessions in what were previously ‘lecture’ slots. Many students in biological sciences gain enormous benefits and motivation from lab/field time, and will spend most of their future careers in the lab or field. It’s hard to see how MOOCs can replace this hands on element of science degrees, but they may be more relevant as a whole-scale replacement of traditional courses in other fields.

    I think the field will continue to develop though – as with traditional lectures, there will be good and bad MOOCs. As more people provide them, it may become harder to filter the good from the bad. And the economics of them will surely influence the process and lead to some feedback mechanism – will the ‘best’ universities (those who produce the best MOOCs) want to continue to subsidise the education of students at their own cost, or even when they feel profit can be made from these valuable resources?

  6. It will be interesting to see what MOOCs do to the North American college/university system, because I think they will, over time, put considerable pressure on the traditional colleges and universities to reform. But what I think will be really fascinating is what the effect will be on areas of the world where access to higher education is almost non-existent. I had a fascinating two-hour conversation with a passionate Kenyan education advocate as we drove out to a field site a few years ago; she explained how in most parts of Sub-Saharan Africa, only the wealthiest can afford to travel to a good university, and even then the professors don’t always show up to teach class. Her belief was that online education was what was going to transform higher education, as access to affordable medium- and high-speed internet was spreading much faster than access to universities.

  7. Traditional online courses (what we in the UK at least call “distance learning” courses) have been a feature of higher education for decades. The Open University delivers all of its courses that way and has been a huge success. But the bottom line is that the students pay fees for these courses that cover staff and infrastructure costs. MOOCS are different; they are free of charge at the point of delivery. What I’ve yet to see is a satisfactory explanation of how they will be funded. I’m all in favour of widening HE participation to everyone who can benefit from it (and I work in a university which prides itself on its work in this respect) but what is the business model for MOOCS? Has anyone any insights in this regard?

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