Sunday, September 09, 2012


Competing with “Free,” Part One

If credits are available for free, what will colleges sell?

This is becoming a lot less hypothetical than it was even a few months ago.  The MIT/Harvard MOOC provider edX has signed an agreement with Pearson to allow students who are taking the free online courses to have exams proctored.  The next step, obviously, is credit.  Already, the Saylor Foundation is allowing students who take free online courses to take exams for credit at Excelsior College.  As the “credit for prior learning” movement gains traction, it will be progressively easier for students not only to learn in nontraditional ways, but to accumulate credits for what they’ve learned.

Right now, the arrangements are still nascent, the MOOCs available relatively few, and the routes to transcripted credit scarce.  But they exist, which is more than was true even a few months ago.  And the momentum is clear.  Coursera and edX -- not to mention iTunes -- offer prospective students access to well-presented content, and people are starting to develop methods to turn that knowledge into credits.  Bundle enough credits in the right combination, and you have a degree.

(I know it isn’t as simple as that, but many of the barriers to it strike me as wobbly.)

The prospect of MOOC-derived credits comes at the same time that states are pushing “stackable” non-credit-to-credit certificates as part of workforce development, and at the same time that CAEL is gaining traction for providing a systematic way to assess the content knowledge of people who’ve picked things up along the way.  MOOCs offer a new method to pick things up along the way.

A few months ago, I was much less worried about MOOCs.  They just didn’t seem relevant at the community college level.  And at this point, most of them still aren’t.  But some of the institutional barriers they were up against have already fallen, and in record time.  As MOOCs proliferate, and people start to notice them, colleges will face an entirely new form of competitor.

MOOCs get around Baumol’s cost disease, because they aren’t based on seat time.  The marginal cost of another student is shockingly close to zero.  Yes, colleges now usually have residency requirements -- that is, ceilings on the number of transfer credits that can comprise a degree from them before it isn’t from them anymore -- but I can see the pressure building.  And even with current residency requirements, very few students bump up against the limits.  If large numbers of students start doing that, the economic impact on the colleges themselves could be devastating.

The traditional college model was based on scarcity.  In the earliest days, books were scarce, so lectures consisted of someone reading from the only book around.  (That’s why some places still call lectures “recitations.”)  Later, books were common, but colleges provided both help interpreting them and valuable connections.  When that was true, the way to provide more access to college was to build more colleges.  In the 1960’s alone, the U.S. added almost 500 community colleges -- a rate of nearly one per week.  It has built less than half that many in the forty-plus years since, which goes a long way towards explaining the academic job market since 1970.  

When the public sector stopped growing, the private sector picked up the slack, and for-profit providers become the engines of growth.  The last statistic I saw had nearly 1 in 9 undergraduates in America at for-profit colleges or universities.  The for-profits tweaked the non-profit model in ways both good and bad, but they, too, were based on a scarcity model.

As academic bloggers well know, the scarcity model has been harder to uphold since the building boom stopped.  The trend towards adjunct faculty is only possible because capable people really aren’t all that scarce.  Now the internet is making possible a dissemination of information at a level beyond what even the most ambitious entrepreneur could have imagined just a few years ago.  When it comes to access, after all, “free” is a magic word.

At this point, if they are to survive, colleges need to figure out how to adapt to a world in which its former stock-in-trade -- classes for credit -- can be had anywhere, at any time, by anyone, for free.  Tomorrow I’ll explore some possible adaptations.

I'm anxious to hear your suggestions.

Oddly, our universities and colleges are thriving. The 2 major community colleges nearby have a ton of funding, and are adding on rooms and real estate right and left. Through partnerships with local high schools (graduate at X school, and you get your first year free at Y community college), the community college population has BOOMED.

Our state colleges are thriving too, with our biggest 2 setting record numbers for the year, all while having the highest tuition ever.

Eventually, the gas will run out. We have a very, very strong demand for STEM graduates, and we see more and more struggling liberal arts grads. The only thing keeping them in school is the fact that wages haven't hit rock bottom yet, and we still have a good local economy. Once the open/available positions are all filled for cheap, people will quit going to school, and then we will see the struggles. Of course, the midwest always runs around 3-5 years behind the rest of the nation.
"At this point, if they are to survive, colleges need to figure out how to adapt to a world in which its former stock-in-trade -- classes for credit -- can be had anywhere, at any time, by anyone, for free."


I just got my two-year degree this past May from a state-wide community college, entirely online. I had to go to campus maybe twice to give speeches for my public speaking course. This month I transferred to a state university to finish a four-year degree, and wasn't able to register for one single online course. I can't begin to tell you how STUPID I feel to be wasting my time in these classrooms.

I have to leave two hours early to accommodate sitting in traffic on campus. Then, when I get there, we do nothing more in class than go over the reading from the text. Each class requires 2-4 exams, and one or two might require a paper or two. There are no other assignments. I had far more work to do and was far more challenged in community college working online. Right now, the biggest challenge I face is finding my way to class. And I'm going to have to pay how much for this?

I want in on this credit for MOOCs, like, yesterday.
Print journalism, advertising, film studios, music labels and more recently legal services are all being massively affected by technology. All of these sectors basically didn't know what hit them and are now struggling to cope with how things are done. Business is not as usual in these areas.

I expect that education's tech disruption is one of the next big movements to come.
I teach at a 4 year public, not unlike the one I suspect Anon 7:05 attends. If MOOC's start offering credits, the Anon 7:05 type of students will be the ones we start losing. We currently have many nontraditional students, and many highly motivated transfer students (a shout out to the NJ Cc's - you are all doing a great job!) who would search out these options.

BTW, I am a math prof who is using a Mathematical Thinking MOOC (rolling out in a week) as a supplement to my face-to-face class. The preview of the course could be followed by a student with enough self motivation. I think my better prepared students (about a third) could easily watch the MOOC and be able to work my assignments etc. But the other two thirds will need classroom explanations tuned to their abilities and lots of interaction.

Simply offering readings from the book and a few tests over the semester, without any other value added features in a course, will not be competitive for 4 year public universities. A for profit, accredited institution that accepts MOOC credits and Saylor credits just needs to add X number of paid credits for a degree to be competitive with a mediocre public 4 year college with ever increasing tuition. I do think this will happen fairly quickly.
What strikes me about MOOCs (and about a lot of what's happening in the non-trad-institutions part of online) is its reversion to a theory of learning/knowledge that has been progressively challenged. There's a growing amount of evidence that active learning (discovery learning, call it what you will) and things like problem-based learning and team-based learning lead to more and deeper learning. But the MOOCs seem to be a return to a talking-head, passive more of learning. So, yeah, they get around Baumol's cost disease, but do they do so at the cost of less learning?
Anonymous at 7:05 is the future for undergraduate education. MOOCs can also be pushed down into the AP courses in high school.

It's all unfolding according to Schumpeter's plan.
I think that MOOCs (and online education in general) are a major challenge to the way that traditional higher ed works, and will be a disruptive technology that will have effects that are difficult to foresee. Traditional colleges and universities may be in a similar situation as Kodak was when faced with the advent of the digital camera or the Borders bookstore when faced with They must be able to figure out a way to adapt or be prepared to be swept away in the oncoming tsunami.

There are still a few kinks to be worked out before MOOCs can start replacing traditional face-to-face classes. One is the problem of how to proctor exams to ensure that cheating is not taking place—this is addressed by the EdX/Pearson deal. Another issue is to be able to figure out a way that students who are having trouble understanding the material can get help. Without this, the dropout rate from online classes will probably be high. Maybe this can be handled by having online tutors who are on tap to answer student questions.

Basically, colleges and universities will have to figure out a way to compete with free. This will be difficult to do, but I suppose that it can be done. For example, water is free right out of the tap, but it is sold by the bottle for $1.50 per liter.

One thing for sure is that fewer numbers of college and university faculty members will be needed in the future. I can foresee a future in which the only faculty members that will be required will be the research superstars at R1 universities, or just a few charismatic face-to-face instructors at the very highest-tier SLACs. The rest of us mortals will have to figure out something else to do.
There's already in decrease in the hiring of full time, tenure-track faculty in smaller colleges like the one I teach at. Licensing MOOC content for more sophisticated courses and hiring part-timers or non-tenure full time faculty to essentially act as facilitators to answer questions etc. will probably be more likely. It's already happening in lower level math courses.

As long as lectures are the primary mode of instruction in traditional classrooms, MOOC's will be competitive, except in institutions which have heavy duty research agendas or in top-tier SLACs, as artmathprof pointed out.

Hasn't it always been true that you could get a textbook and read through it? The big thing that colleges offer is a process of motivating you to stay with a very difficult task.

TL;DR: Colleges will become obsolete shortly after personal trainers are.
Here's a summary, in cartoon format.
Colleges will become obsolete shortly after personal trainers are.

I completely agree. I teach math at a CC, and while there are some students who would excel in MOOCs, very few of my students would be successful without in-person interactions. I actually see this happening on a day-to-day basis: even with online videos available through Khan Academy, Brightstorm, and dozens of math instructors on YouTube, the ones who do the best are the ones who go to the on-campus tutoring center and meet face-to-face for one-on-one help.

Maybe it's difficult in other disciplines that are easier to discuss online (try finding a system of discussing math that's both easy to learn for everyone and clear to understand). But in math, I don't see MOOCs taking over the world anytime soon.
I'm now taking my fourth and fifth MOOC courses. In my experience, the interactive tutoring and one-to-one help students need happens in the discussion forums, and it happens a lot. I never would have managed to get through Coursera's Probabilistic Graphical Models without the other students in that class.

Not everyone can learn in a MOOC. Probably the majority of students can't. But still, a lot of students can and do benefit from MOOCs.

-- Cardinal Fang
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