10 May 2013

MOOCs and Their Discontents, Part 1: Financial Winners and Losers

Anyone who deals with higher education has heard of MOOCs -- pronounced exactly like the ethnic slur, but spelled differently -- and the controversy surrounding their emergence, dissemination, and utilization. The Massive Open Online Course promises at this point to give access to education previously untouchable by the unwashed masses: lectures from Harvard and MIT, for example. Moreover, they promise not only to give access to these courses, but also to provide some form of "credit" for completing the course. Credit is not in scare quotes to undermine the legitimacy of the courses, but rather to indicate that "credit" can mean anything from a printable certificate, to a badge, to actual college credit hours depending on university and course.

It's this last part that has some faculty and administrators nervous. For instance, why should Student A pay $1500 for a 3 credit course in Western Civ from their local college when they can transfer in the credits from passing their free MOOC course in Western Civ? For faculty, the danger is that with fewer courses to teach, fewer faculty members are needed. For administrators, it amounts to roughly the same thing: fewer courses means fewer tuition dollars rolling in. While many administrators delight in the idea of destroying faculty power and reducing the labor costs associated with faculty, the sane ones understand that one can't really burn the village to save it: the administrators only have jobs because of the surplus value they've extracted from faculty labor.

So who benefits from MOOCs?

The first answer would seem to be students. After all, if you can get for free what used to cost you $1500 (and we can extrapolate beyond my one example to let's say, the maximum credits an institution would allow a student to transfer in, we'll pretend it's 30 credits...that's a savings of $15000), then it seems like you benefit. Furthermore, you could argue that perhaps the student is getting better instruction from a MOOC from Harvard than they would be getting from their local college or university. I'll let that point go for now, though: the issue of MOOC quality is another post altogether.

The second answer, I would argue, would be the big name brand universities that produce the MOOCs. Harvard and MIT, along with a few other well-respected universities, are nationally known names that can attract participants (or at least enrollees) in their MOOCs based on name recognition alone. Even the slightly curious might sign up for a Harvard MOOC in The Heroic and Anti-Heroic in Ancient Greek Civilization. The university gets free publicity and good will -- not an entirely bad thing when some segments of society love to hate you -- and perhaps revenue down the road through selling course materials, advertising, and other peripheral products. I would argue, though, that the MOOC revolution will stand or fall based upon its ability to make money.

The losers here seem to be nearly every other college and university. It's hard to see how they make any money accepting transfer credit from MOOCs. Now it's easy to say that they don't make any money now off transfer credits, regardless of where the student took the credit, and that's true. However, it's also true that currently most students are paying for those credits somewhere, and if MOOCs become more accepted for transfer credits, fewer students will be paying community colleges, state schools, and even the small liberal arts colleges for those credits, which means that collectively those schools will lose out on a substantial amount of revenue. More importantly, those students who spend four years at an institution, in other words those students who were taking all or nearly all of their undergraduate credits from your institution, may decide that summertime is better spent getting six free MOOC credits than six paid credits from your summer offerings.

Small schools can't even get in the game in the same way as the big players, although some will try, I'm sure. However, unlike traditional online courses (it feels odd writing "traditional" and "online" together like that), which many small schools have shown are viable forms of outreach for them, these MOOCs do not generate revenue: they are IT resource intensive for a small school and would to a large extent cannibalize the pay-for-credit offerings those schools have already put online.

It's this dynamic, free courses for students and the consequent squeeze-out of the small schools by the big names, that sets the stage for the questions that follow: the pedagogy and the ideology of the MOOC. MOOCs threaten fundamental structural changes in higher education in the way that online education never did: online education has been quickly subsumed into the traditional structure of colleges and universities, either as separate "world campuses" or as another delivery method in the existing continuing education structure. Sure, online education has given rise to diploma mills like the University of Phoenix and Capella, but even that phenomenon isn't new -- it's just easier to get access to, and with student loans as a lucrative revenue stream, it's not going away anytime soon. The MOOC threatens to do away with revenue altogether -- it doesn't just divvy it up differently. As such, it strikes at the core of the current university model.

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