MOOCs versus universities?

Online higher education experiments are proliferating, and some of the world’s most distinguished and ancient universities are dipping their toes into the new technology-enabled possibilities. It is absolutely certain that the technology will disrupt the university business, as the conventional pathway to higher education has become much more costly. I mean this literally – not that students are being charged more or that government funding has been cut or the structures changed, but that the main cost of delivering higher education is the salary bill for staff and the higher education sector is affected by Baumol’s cost disease. So as soon as substituting some capital for labour (or some peer-provided labour for paid labour) becomes possible, as with online courses, some universities will do so.

What is not at all clear is the form the technological disruption will take. Just recently, I’ve come across a couple of interesting essays on the issues at stake. One is William G Bowen’s Higher Education in the Digital Age.

Higher Education in the Digital Age

In the first half his focus is the unsustainable cost pressure and the scope for productivity improvement. He notes that the technology has already led to some improvements in the ‘scholarly infrastructure’ – JSTOR and online libraries facilitate research, as does the capacity for data-based empirical work impossible before cheap computer power and online data sources. Collaboration has become easier. Students can take tests online and their work can be marked by machine in some cases. In the second half Bowen turns to the implications of the technology revolution. He is moderately sympathetic to MOOCs and in particular their scope for enhancing access to higher education, but pleads for a portfolio approach to instruction and argues against the disintermediation of human instructors. Universities are particularly important as institutions, he argues, to defend freedom of thought and pass on values to successive generations of students. While agreeing in theory, one does have to question how impressive all universities are as institutional bulwarks, or how brightly all academics shine as role models for their students. After all, although we’re no longer in the era of The History Man, many academics have no interest in their teaching responsibilities and are entirely focused on their own research and careers.

Another essay is by Andrew Delbanco (who also comments on Bowen’s essay in his book), drawing from his forthcoming book College: What it Was, Is and Should Be. (I’ve not yet read this).

College: What it Was, Is, and Should Be

He notes that there is already – at least in the US – quite a wide range of higher education offers, in for-profit universities and online courses as well as cheaper community colleges, albeit all looked down on by the grand universities. There is some variety in the UK too, with the Open University, Birkbeck, Buckingham University, FE colleges. Delbanco also notes the great hopes for TV as a means of extending educational access – the OU in Britain used TV broadcasts as course material pre-internet; indeed my big brother used to appear lecturing on chemistry, and the family would gather round the set at an ungodly hour in the morning to watch him talk about things we didn’t understand at all.

This is a useful reminder, because it flags up one function of higher education neither author writes about, namely the signalling role of a degree (see Mike Spence’s models). The signal a Princeton or Oxford degree sends to potential employers is at least as important as the improved quality of education a student might have received there. Attending university is also a positional good because access is limited, and all the more so as fees rise. So MOOCs will have big consequences for traditional universities, but need not be an existential threat to the best of them.

Delbanco concludes that face-to-face will always be important in HE: “No matter how anxious today’s students may be about gaining this or that competence in a ferociously competitive world, many still crave the enlargement of heart as well as mind that is the gift of true education. It’s hard for me to believe that this kind of experience can happen without face-to-face teaching and the physical presence of other students.”

I agree with him that human encounters will always be part of learning, for the transfer of tacit knowledge, the stirring of the passion to understand, the exchange of complex ideas. I’m less certain this has to happen in universities. Philosophy cafes, public lectures, book clubs and the like may well substitute for formal teaching in a university, especially when the quality of the latter is mixed at best and dismal in many cases.

Both Bowen and Delbanco see the technology as an opportunity to spread learning and the love of learning, and so it is. It has spread access to ‘books’ and music and images already. Yet it seems to me highly likely that many universities will be as thoroughly disintermediated as the gatekeepers of other parts of the culture, and this will not be a bad thing. If I were running a university now, I’d be focused on the quality of the core purposes of the institution – including the quality of teaching, the poor relation in too many of them – because the more-or-less captive market is being liberated. I would also look to use online offers to change the character of the university experience rather than making it a cut-price version of the existing product. Why not build a community of learners and researchers out of previous students or local communities? Why not at the same time open the physical space of the university much more to the local community? Shouldn’t they be running their book clubs on campus, and be able to borrow e-books from the library?

We’ll end up with a much wider variety of means for people to learn, at all stages of their lives not just 18-21. We might or might not end up with more innovative and better universities depending on how well they respond to the challenge.



2 thoughts on “MOOCs versus universities?

  1. Interesting piece. I can’t get over the thought of your family staying up to the small hours to watch some chemistry lectures.
    One thought: in some Western European countries in dire fiscal straits ( I’m thinking of Ireland but I think it’s more general) Baumol’s disease is off the agenda. Central government, the source of most funding, is cutting back steadily. So such universities may be doubly threatened, struggling to maintain quality with Moocs eating away at their student base.

    • I agree – as in so many other areas, we could well see a hollowing out of the squeezed middle ranks, while the genuinely low-cost and the high quality upmarket prosper.

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