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Are MOOCs Really Destroying Education?

Free online education is starting to make a lot of people nervous, and for good reason. If done right, MOOCs could pose a serious threat to many current colleges and universities. Andrew Delbanco writes in The New Republic:

The dark side of this bright dream is the fear that online education could burst what appears to be a higher education bubble. Consumers, the argument goes, are already waking up to the fact that they’re paying too much for too little. If they are priced out of, or flee from, the market, they will find new ways to learn outside the brick-and-mortar institutions that, until now, have held a monopoly on providing credentials that certify what graduates have supposedly learned. 

If that happens, according to the New York Times, then MOOCs will do to traditional colleges what free news has done to newspapers:

[MIT Professor Michael A.] Cusumano’s concerns grow out of his study of the software and media industries in the face of price pressure from free, open-source software and digital distribution over the Internet. Two-thirds of the public companies in the software industry disappeared between 1998 and 2006, as companies failed or were acquired.

Give-away pricing in education, Mr. Cusumano warns, may well be a comparable misstep. The damage would occur, he writes in the article, “if increasing numbers of universities and colleges joined the free online education movement and set a new threshold price for the industry—zero—which becomes commonly accepted and difficult to undo.”

Cusumano fears that second- and third-tier universities that can’t compete with MOOCs may eventually disappear. Popular online courses will shoot a small number of professors to stardom, while other faculty become obsolete. And in the absence of face to face contact, professors will lose the ability to directly mentor and inspire students, somewhat eroding the power of education.

Perhaps Delbanco and Cusumano are right. It’s certainly true that MOOCs will be extremely destabilizing, and many of those who have structured their lives and careers around the status quo need to make some serious adjustments. MOOCs can’t offer the connections and cachet of, say, the ivy league, but it’s entirely possible that they will poach students from second- and third-tier schools.

But it’s important to remember that colleges are supposed to serve the needs of students first, and not those of the faculty and staff. Students want a high-quality education for much less money, and with some development and seasoning, MOOCs can deliver that.

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  • Quoth Jim Pinkerton and one of the DARPA guys who founded the precursor of the internet, “Information wants to be free.” Ever since the invention of the printing press, those with the information have tried to control who gets it so they can charge handsomely for it, and ever since the invention of printing press, they have failed. Might as well try to tax breathable air.

  • ronan

    I agree with the (blog) author’s assertion that the loss of face-to-face contact will erode the power of education, but I’m not sure today’s (and tomorrow’s) students see things the same way. They are accustomed to getting their information online, and have grown up in an “on demand” world where things come to you, when you want them. Most talks and lectures on campuses are recorded now, and a growing number of students opt out of attending in person, choosing instead to “catch it later” on video at a time that better suits them. I could envision a strong preference developing for online courses, even if the student is in attendance at said university.
    Also, a distinction should be made between undergraduates and graduate students. Graduate students operate more on the level of a consumer, and are more discrimminating, cost-conscious, and aware of what they are getting for their money (probably because they are paying a greater share of the cost of their education than the typical undergrad).

  • Anthony

    “A lesson from the technology industry is that it’s better to be in front of a big change than to be behind it.”

  • Berourke

    Higher education has failed a large proportion of its students( how is that medieval poetry from eastern #%}^ state paying the student loan bills), the middle class can no longer pay tuition with a home equity loan, political correctness has changed universities from a marketplace of ideas to something out of Orwell – and now that there may be a little competition the ivory towers are worried? They’re about 40 years late. If universities as we know them don’t get their act together soon they will disappear.

  • Jeff Z

    MOOC’s may not be able to offer the connections of the Ivy League–at first, but what is more connected than the internet? Especially, as ronan points out, for a generation for whom internet connectivity is second-nature. It is easy to foresee the connections that MOOC’s will spawn within businesses and vocations, and across the world.

    Another way this will boost students is in allowing parents to reallocate capital from the university to their children. Instead of 150 – 200K to the education provider, 75 – 100K to help a child get started in life will be at least as helpful as all but the most rarified of connections.

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