I’ve been puzzling about what Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs) do an do not mean for the future of universities, and I think I finally have an insight:
Amy’s Conjecture: The future of universities is in excelling at everything a MOOC is not.
The trend over the last dozen or so years is for people who make money creating intellectual property to be compensated more and more poorly. Fewer people are making a living as musicians. Professional journalism is in crisis. Small newspapers are closing, and major ones are struggling. This hasn’t happened all at once, but like a frog in a pot, raising the temperature/economic pressure a fraction of a degree per year over the long haul has dramatic consequences. MOOCs turn education into a form of IP. The same economic pressures are going to apply.
If you buy that, then what’s next for universities? There will no doubt be MOOC winners–but I suspect that just as Amazon.com seems to be dominating the e-commerce business, there will be advantages to size that will be hard to fight. Margins will be tight, with a small number of big winners.
The future of universities, then, is in everything a MOOC can not do. What is that?
Amy’s Lemma: There are some things that will never be learned as well online.
I believe that there will always be something special in an on-campus experience. Young adults need a liminal period, between dependence and independence, to grow into full maturity. And there are educational benefits to a face-to-face experience that will be hard to capture online. Like project-based learning, undergraduate research, entrepreneurship, oral presentation, writing and teamwork skills. I’m sure you will be able to learn all those things online to some degree–but the in-person experience will always be better.
The challenge for universities then is: are we giving students the very best in their on-campus experience? Are there compelling reasons for students to invest their time and money in an embodied educational experience?
The further challenge for us as a society is: Will we continue to make some degree of face-to-face higher educational experience affordable for students from diverse economic backgrounds? That’s not a forgone conclusion–it’s a political choice, and an important one.
So here’s my call to action for university administrators: If you are concerned about change in the world of higher ed, have you thought hard about the unique value of an on-campus experience? Instead of investing in a new MOOC, how about beefing up programs in undergraduate research and entrepreneurship? Are we doing sound evaluation of the many experiences students are having on campus, and making them better every year? Why don’t we form new high-priority committees and redirect resources to seriously address those challenges?
About a month before the semester started, someone posted a link for Scott Klemmer’s free online HCI course to the Facebook page for our HCI master’s program. My new master’s students both signed up and watched the lectures (but didn’t actually do the assignments). What a wonderful way to get ready for your new degree program!
I asked today: would you have done that if it wasn’t free? And got an answer of “probably not.” Even if the cost was low, they probably wouldn’t have signed up. Free online classes are all the rage lately, but I wonder what happens when people start trying to charge for them.
In his book Predictably Irrational, Dan Ariely writes that “Zero is not just another price, it turns out. Zero is an emotional hot button.” Consider this experiment. Ariely offered students a Lindt truffle for 15 cents or a Hershey’s kiss for one cent. Given the value proposition, 73 percent chose the truffle. Next, he lowered the prices by one cent: the truffle was now 14 cents and the kiss free. And now 69 percent chose the free kiss! Ariely points out that standard economic theory does not predict this outcome. His interpretation is that “most transactions have an upside and a downside, but when something is FREE! we forget the downside.”
In our daily news summary sent out to GT faculty today, there were twelve blurbs on free online courses (“MOOCs”). This stuff is all the rage. Some online course providers are hoping to support them with advertising revenue or by selling names of stellar students to headhunters looking to hire highly qualified people. But others are hoping to start charging for them. And I think they have a surprise in store: free is not just another price. My students say they wouldn’t have paid for their HCI course, even if the fee was tiny, unless they got degree credit for it. Courses for money are a different ball game entirely.