The Radical Implications of Online Education

I enjoyed Alex Tabarrok’s essay, which makes a compelling case for online higher education while reminding us that, as with so many things, Neal Stephenson got there first. My only criticism is that Tabarrok’s vision of the future is not radical enough.

Tabarrok makes the sensible observation that higher education is likely to benefit star teachers, whose lectures and courses can be replicated for near-zero marginal cost. This was the model of online education in its infancy and adolescence—the best university lecturer performances, recorded and repackaged in a student-friendly way.

But courses in the new generation of online learning go much further. Like some of the video games Tabarrok mentions (Skyrim!) the latest online courses are being developed by teams of specialists with rich budgets and advanced production tools. Watching them be constructed is something to behold. Subject matter experts debate content items point by point, virtual laboratories are created, and cognitive tutors are fine-tuned to lead students toward the most useful materials, depending on their academic progress.

It’s an approach that was, as Alan Ryan notes in his response essay, presaged by the rich production values of British Open University courses produced for television. But the levels of interactivity, customization, and real-time communication now possible online represent an order of magnitude improvement in pedagogical quality. In the future I suspect that well-known scholars will serve a role similar to John Madden’s titular relationship with the blockbuster EA Sports football video game franchise. Their names will bring credibility to the product while the learning designers do all the real work behind the scenes.

Tabarrok may be too sanguine about the fate of traditional universities. He predicts that “many institutions will be able to raise the quality and breadth of the classes that they offer.” Perhaps—if they can afford to stay in business. The rise of Udacity, Coursera, edX, and others mean that, from this point forward, high-quality, impeccably branded online courses will be available to anyone in the world, anytime, anywhere, for free, forever. We will take this for granted in the same way that we simply assume free search and social networking as birthrights of the modern age.

The introduction of “$0” into a market characterized by rapidly increasing prices is sure to matter in important ways. How and when, exactly, is not yet clear. But it seems unlikely that traditional universities will be able to keep charging students thousands of dollars for ill-designed commodity courses in basic subjects when much better courses can be found online for free. And it is these high profit-margin courses that subsidize the cost of smaller, professor-dependent specialty courses in the upper divisions. Take away those revenues and university budgets—already stressed by shrinking public subsidies and the declining possibilities of revenue enhancing price discrimination—will struggle to remain solvent. Ryan calls this “sinister.” I think it’s just an honest appraisal of what is sure to come.

This assumes, of course, that students will be able to garner useful college credit from MOOCs, MRUniversity, and the like. They can’t, at the moment. But any traditional university administrator who thinks the present combination of regulatory barriers and consumer habits will keep back the tide of MOOC credits forever, or even for much longer, is living in a fantasy world. Just this week, the American Council on Education, the nation’s foremost traditional higher education lobbying organization, announced that it would begin evaluating MOOCs for credit recommendation. There are thousands of accredited colleges and universities and any one of them can choose to accept MOOC certificates as transfer credit. A few already have. Many are sure to follow.

The sheer weight of empiricism and common sense will also push this process rapidly forward. Last month, the Chronicle of Higher Education reported that of the tens of thousands of students who enrolled in an MIT-sponsored circuits-and-electronics MOOC, only 320 aced the final exam. Anant Agarwal, the president of edX, recently told me that the final was designed to be particularly difficult—“nasty,” in his words. Agarwal estimated that had he himself sat down to take the exam—this is a man who until recently ran the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at MIT—he might have scored 80 percent. Yet one of the students who scored 100 percent was a 15-year old in Ulan Bator, the capital of Mongolia.

Earlier this week, the Chronicle published a very different tale of online education. In this one, an obscure junior college in the Midwest is giving three academic credits to thousands of academically deficient football players around the nation who take 10-day long online courses in challenging topics like “Creating a new folder in Windows XP.”

The idea that a teenage math genius in Mongolia deserves no academic credit for acing an MIT-grade final after months of hard work whereas a bunch of lazy jocks deserve three credits for taking week-long gut courses is ridiculous. It shocks the conscience. It cannot, and will not, endure.

We’re also going to find out how good traditional college courses really are. Tabarrok cites the “ineffable” qualities of learning in-person, while Siva Vaidhyanathan waxes poetic about traditional courses that “don’t end when the lecture is over and the book is closed. They are essential and embedded parts of a rich, humane project.” I would find this more persuasive if I had not taken many traditional college courses myself, nearly all of which ended promptly with the last lecture.

I don’t argue that the very best higher education experience is better than what MOOCs offer today. But traditional higher education is awash in mediocre education experiences that fall far short of that ideal. The number of traditional courses that are both worse and more expensive than the emerging gold standards in online learning is, in my estimation, very large. MOOC providers will be highly motivated to articulate clear academic standards and set a high bar for excellence, particularly those that aren’t branded by world-class universities. That’s what will distinguish them from their competitors. Those standards will become the benchmark against which traditional courses are compared. Many, I predict, will not measure up.

It’s also important to remember that traditional college credits are only the coin of the realm because we have collectively agreed it is so. We could agree on something else. New “open credentialing” movements like the badge competition recently sponsored by the Mozilla Foundation (creators of the free Firefox web browser) offer an alternative to the old regime of credits and transcripts. Badges are technically much superior to credits, giving users access to far more information about what the bearers know and can do. And since badges are an open system, they offer the possibility of a credentialing regime built to match the open learning resources of which MOOCs are a part.

Of course, you can’t easily get a job with a badge—yet. But this, again, is mostly a matter of habit, convention, and government regulation. These are not barriers on which traditional colleges and universities can permanently depend.

As Orwell and others have observed, sometimes it’s very hard to see what’s right in front of your nose. The new normal of great universities providing great courses online for free marks a turning point in the economics and conduct of higher education, one that will ultimately benefit students worldwide.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Alex Tabarrok reviews why traditional education is getting more expensive; he finds that its productivity has not been able to rise as fast as productivity in other sectors. Online education offers a promising alternative, and he explains how, if done properly, online education can realize productivity gains along many different dimensions. He concludes that online education is disrupting traditional educational forms, and that it is not yet clear what new forms will emerge from this exciting transition.

Response Essays

  • Alan Ryan views online education as potentially beneficial for students of lower-income families, but he demurs somewhat: As a technology, lectures have mostly been obsolete ever since the spread of the printed book. And the tutorial system as employed at Oxford will not realize many efficiency gains by going online. Additionally, the ability to selectively view the best fifteen minutes of any current professor’s oeuvre bodes ill for the professoriate, whose careers may all become just that short.

  • Siva Vaidhyanathan criticizes the “hypodermic needle” theory of communication, in which a communicator uses mass media to inject content into a passive audience. He argues that Alex Tabarrok’s lead essay is to some extent guilty of employing this theory. The true value of higher education lies not in injecting information, but in students’ and educators’ interactions. Online education can sometimes duplicate this process, but MOOCs are typically little more than “fancy textbooks.” While they have promise in some areas, we shouldn’t trust the hype.

  • Kevin Carey argues that the implications of online education are even more radical than Alex Tabarrok’s lead essay might imply. The introductory courses that scale well are almost certain to go fully online soon. Accreditation for online learning can’t be far behind, possibly by way of systems other than the traditional university credit. Little stands in the way of this shift except “habit, convention, and government regulation.” But afterward, the old university system may no longer be solvent.