President Obama is on fire to make higher education more available at a reasonable cost to more Americans. Addressing the faculty and students at the University of Buffalo on Thursday, he made a convincing case that unless higher education wakes up to the challenges and opportunities of the 21st century we will find ourselves uncompetitive and increasingly vulnerable economically and socially.
On the innovation front, the president advocates awarding credits based on learning, using technology to redesign courses (read MOOCs) and using technology for student services. Overall, the president’s recommendations were sweeping such as tying financial aid to college value, developing new college ratings based on access, affordability and outcomes, and a Race to the Top for higher education.
In all modesty, we have been promoting innovation and lower costs in higher education at Education Sector for some time. Most recently, Research Director Andrew Gillen shook up the policy world with his analysis In Debt and In the Dark: It’s Time for Better Information on Student Loan Defaults where he identified colleges that, as President Obama said Thursday, have “higher student default rates than graduation rates.”
We need the President’s visionary leadership. But before we put too many innovation eggs into the technology-driven course-redesign basket we might want to hit the pause button.
According to a recent New York Times article, the Georgia Institute of Technology is partnering with Silicon Valley’s Udacity to offer a master’s degree in computer science online for a fraction ($6,600) of the cost of a regular on-campus degree ($45,000). By enrolling thousands of students at low cost Georgia Tech’s dean of computing hopes to enroll 10,000 students annually.
There is a gold rush mentality behind this surge of investment in massive off-campus, online courses that has me concerned. In the immortal words of former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld there are many “unknown unknowns.” Here are a few:
- The economic model underlying MOOCs is untested and unproved. Can Georgia Tech really make money offering a master’s degree for $6,600 without destroying its $45,000 on-campus degree program?
- The educational model underlying MOOCs is questionable despite the hoopla. A free MOOC offered for the last two years by Stanford University has enrolled 170,000 students. The New York Times article points to a 15-year-old Mongolian boy who earned perfect scores on his exams as proof of the quality of the Stanford MOOC. We need more evidence than this before we toss out traditional learning.
- The human resources model underlying MOOCs is shaky. Do MOOCs graduates actually get good jobs after sitting in front of their computers for hundreds of hours? Let me put this in the form of a question: If you had to choose between a candidate for a position in your company who spent hundreds of hours on his or her computer (with occasional meetings at a local Starbucks with other students) or a candidate who spent two years on the Georgia Tech campus and had letters of recommendation from her or his professors, which one are you likely to choose?
- The ethical model underlying MOOCs is open to violation. I know that online companies make scads of promises that they know who is taking their courses, but in reality the potential for abuse is huge. Even in face-to-face teaching, there are students who game the system and usually get away with it. Imagine the gaming potential of MOOCs.
Even if these obstacles could be overcome there is the larger issue of what an education means and how useful is it to monetize it? Let me say for the record I was not born with an educational silver spoon in my mouth, far from it. I am not the beneficiary of attending elite schools and colleges. Much of my education is street earned. I couldn’t read for meaning until my mid-twenties. I am not a defender of unearned privilege.
But attending college turned my life around. To be in a place where ideas and learning matters is irreplaceable. Intellectual exposure to unconventional thinkers expanded my horizons; I learned to appreciate scholarship and diving deeply into a subject. I was humbled by my own ignorance. I benefited from the mentoring of many professors who helped me learn to think for myself. I learned to be criticized and how to respond to criticism. I made friends with other students who enriched my social development. I learned to complete tasks even when they were not easy or all that interesting.
Today, when I am on a college or university campus I feel a sense of opportunity and hope. I know from the inside-out that higher education has lots of problems, but it has many important virtues. Colleges and universities are the incubators of the next generation of thinkers and doers. That mission is not easily monetized because learning is messy. If we put dollar signs next to every “learning object” we kill creativity, adventure, and genuine innovation.
MOOCs have their place, and I have no doubt in our winner-take-all economy some colleges will cash in while others will waste a great deal of money. Some will strike gold, other fool’s gold. Let’s just hope that the meaning of going to college is not lost in the rush to the cash registers. Let’s hope the deeper meaning of what it means to be educated is preserved.
Photo Credit: Laramie County Community College