Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Is the MOOC Bubble Bursting?

I believe firmly that the Internet is going to change education for the better. I am much more skeptical that Massive Online Courses (Open or Otherwise) are going to do to colleges and universities what digital photography did to Kodak. As I previously suggested, Ivory Tower does a good job deflating the Udacity hype, and making the case for human intervention in teaching, at least for those students who are not 100% self-motivated and self-assured (that is, those students who actually need to be educated, rather than left to educate themselves). Two relevant notes of today.

Janet Napolitano (now President of the University of California) seems to be the first big-time college or university president to say that enough is enough with the MOOC mania. (President Faust was too polite to do that to Larry Summers's disruptive utopianism, see A Disappointing Discusion of Disruption.) The full speech is on Youtube but the LA Times has a summary.
For higher education, she said, "It's not a silver bullet, the way it was originally portrayed to be. It's a lot harder than it looks, and by the way if you do it right it doesn't save all that much money, because you still have to have an opportunity for students to interact with either a teaching assistant or an assistant professor or a professor at some level." 
As for preparing the courses, "if they're really going to be top-quality, that's an investment as well." Taking aim at the dream that online learning might be most useful for students needing help in remedial courses in subjects like English and math, Napolitano said: "I think that's false; those students need the teacher in the classroom working with them."
Good for her. I think a lot of university leaders know these things are true but are afraid to say so, because they don't want themselves or their institutions characterized as Luddite, and because they are afraid of deflating donor interest at the same time as they are making big investments without a workable business model for repaying them.

In the New York Times today, David Leonhart documents the ways in which the cost-of-college panic has been stoked by the federal government. What the data mostly show in fact is that public institutions have gotten a lot more expensive -- as a percentage increase over what they used to cost. This is not big news, because we know that state budget expenditures on higher education have been in sharp decline. This leads to such bizarre practices as State A limiting in-state enrollments so the remaining beds can be filled with State B students paying higher tuitions.  Of course if State B does the same thing to attract State A students, the net effect is that taxpayers in both states are being indirectly taxed to support higher education -- but instead of paying taxes directly to support their own university systems, they are paying in tuition dollars being sent to the other state.

In any case, given that the argument for MOOCs is largely based on the spiraling-out-of-control cost of college, the foundational premise for the allegedly coming big disruption is destroyed if college is not so unaffordable after all.

I'll just close with a comment I posted in a followup to an earlier blog post, since it is part of the same puzzlement I have about whether the economic premise for the coming MOOC revolution is oversold. (There are other good arguments for online education; here I am just challenging the thesis that a collapse of the old system of colleges and universities is at hand because they have priced themselves out of business and information will shortly be free as air.)

At Harvard and a handful of other schools, nobody graduates with any debt (unless they have intentionally borrowed so they could avoid making money in the summer, etc., and even then the amounts are likely < $10K). The question of whether those who can afford to pay the high prices at Harvard will continue to think it is a good investment is on the table of course, but I don't think it's a major public policy issue in the way the student debt problem is. 
And I don't doubt that there will be interesting experiments such as Ecole 42 and some of them will succeed. Maybe Minerva will too. My main observation on all this is that it gets us back to talking about what college is actually for. That conversation needs to happen in something other than economic terms. 
But here is a puzzle about the economic argument. I can barely balance a checkbook so forgive me the following dumb analysis. This should be a subject for another day, but I am puzzled about the student debt crisis. There are certainly ways to get yourself in ridiculous amounts of debt going to college, and many people, like the poor woman in Ivory Tower, are in deep trouble. But the average student debt for a college graduate, according to the most recent figures I could find is $29,400, while the median starting salary of people with college degrees is $46,900, and the median starting salary of people with only a high school diploma is $30,000. So you "lose" four years of your life, but in less than two years, you earn back in increased salary an amount equal to your debt. If there is a problem, and I don't deny that there is, it sounds to me a lot more like a problem of personal financial management than a cost-of-college problem.  
Sorry for the quick and dirty analysis. I know I am matching means and medians, some people are unemployed, the data aren't for the same year, and so on. And none of this is to suggest that institutions with very high prices and very little scholarship aid aren't going to collapse. They will. And there may well be more people who get smart and if they fail in their effort to shoot high, go to a lower priced school rather than to the unaffordable "best" school they get into. But again, that sounds to me more a problem of counseling and educating people to make sound decisions, than like the death of Eastman Kodak.


  1. The problem is not that you matched means and medians, but that the poorest students with the least social capital and least access to decently-paying jobs, post-graduation, end up with the highest amount of student debt. Friends of mine were discussing their student debts recently, and they were all in the 6-figure range, with one person also having a child with mid-5 figures debt.

    1. Yes, I am not surprised. What you say seems to support my conclusion: "that sounds to me more a problem of counseling and educating people to make sound decisions, than like the death of Eastman Kodak." To that I would add that there are probably people making money off the practice of putting young people lacking in "social capital" into 6 figures of debt, and the opportunists (schools and lenders both) should be reined in.

  2. Some worthwhile reading from the interweb:
    Amy Bruckman on post-hype issues with MOOCs: http://nextbison.wordpress.com/2014/08/01/talking-sense-about-moocs-and-online-education-the-new-post-hype-era/
    Tressie McMillan Cottom on for-profit colleges admission strategies http://tressiemc.com/2013/03/08/how-admissions-works-differently-at-for-profit-colleges-sorting-and-signaling/
    and on MOOCs and social capital etc http://tressiemc.com/2013/05/15/profit-highered-and-lessons-on-the-prestige-cartel/

  3. "I think that's false; those students need the teacher in the classroom working with them."

    President Napolitano needs to get out of her office and into some University of California classrooms., where many courses take the form of enormous lectures to hundreds of students followed, if the students are lucky, by smaller sessions with graduate school teaching assistants. Essentially no interaction during the lectures is possible. Is Napolitano suggesting that the lectures are ineffective? What's the difference between watching a professor spout as one of hundreds of students in a lecture hall and watching a recording of a professor online (allowing one to bit the pause and repeat button as often as one likes), followed by the same teaching assistant session?

    Napolitano's comment seems like fatuous condescension to the faculty.

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