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MOOCs of Hazard

Will online education dampen the college experience? Yes. Will it be worth it? Well...

Photo illustrations by Brock Davis

In the spring of 2011, Sebastian Thrun was having doubts about whether the classroom was really the right place to teach his course on artificial intelligence. Thrun, a computer-science professor at Stanfordhad been inspired by Salman Khan, the founder of the online Khan Academy, whose videos and discussion groups have been used by millions to learn about everything from arithmetic to history. And so that summer, Thrun announced he would offer his fall course on Stanford’s website for free. He reorganized it into short segments rather than hour-long lectures, included problem sets and quizzes, and added a virtual office hour via Google Hangout. Enrollment jumped from 200 Stanford undergraduates to 160,000 students around the world (only 30 remained in the classroom). A few months later, he founded an online for-profit company called Udacity; his course, along with many others, is now available to anyone with a fast Internet connection.

Meanwhile, two of Thrun’s Stanford colleagues, Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng, founded another for-profit company, Coursera, that posts courses taught by faculty from leading universities such as Prince- ton, Michigan, Duke, and Penn. Three million students have signed on. Not to be outdone, Harvard and MIT announced last spring their own online partnership, edX, a nonprofit with an initial investment of $60 million. A new phenomenon requires a new name, and so MOOC—massive open online course—has now entered the lexicon. So far, MOOCs have been true to the first “o” in the acronym: Anyone can take these courses for free.

Many people outside academia—including New York Times columnists David Brooks and Thomas L. Friedman—are gushing that MOOCs are the best thing to happen to learning since movable type. Inside academia, however, they have been met with widespread skepticism. As Joseph Harris, a writing professor at Duke, recently remarked in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “I don’t see how a MOOC can be much more than a digitized textbook.”

In fact, MOOCs are the latest in a long series of efforts to use technology to make education more accessible. Sixty years ago, the Ford Foundation funded a group of academics to study what was then a cutting-edge technology: television. In language almost identical to that used today, a report on the project announced that television had the power to drive down costs, enable the collection of data on how students learn, and extend “the reach of the superior teacher to greater num- bers of students.” From 1957 to 1982, the local CBS channel in New York City broadcast a morning program of college lectures calledSunrise Semester.” But the sun never rose on television as an educational “delivery system.”

In the 1990s, my own university, Columbia, started a venture called Fathom, using the relatively new technology of the Web. The idea was to sell online courses taught by star faculty such as Simon Schama and Brian Greene to throngs of supposedly eager customers. But the paying consumers never showed up in the anticipated numbers, and by the time it was shut down, Fathom had cost Columbia, according to some estimates, at least $20 million. Looking back, the project’s director, Ann Kirschner, concluded that she and her colleagues had arrived too soon—“pre-broadband, pre-videocasting and iPods, and all the rest.”

Of course, we will always be pre-something. Former University of Michigan President James Duderstadt foresees a technology that will be “totally immersive in all our senses”—something like the “feelies” that Aldous Huxley, in Brave New World, imagined would render the “talkies” obsolete. The MIT Media Lab has already developed a vest that gives you a hug when a friend “likes” something you have posted on Facebook. It may not be long before we can log onto a Shakespeare course taught by, say, Stephen Greenblatt and feel the spray of his saliva as he recites “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.” Such technologies will likely find their biggest market through the pornography industry, but there’s no reason to doubt that academia will adopt and adapt them.

The Luddite in me is inclined to think that the techno-dreamers are headed for another disappointment. But this time around, something does seem different—and it’s not just that the MOOC pioneers have an infectious excitement rarely found in a typical faculty meeting. They also have a striking public-spiritedness. Koller sees a future in which a math prodigy in a developing country might nurture his or her gifts online and then, having been identified by a leading university, enroll in person—on a scholarship, one might imagine, funded by income derived from Coursera. This idea of using online courses as a detection tool is a reprise (on a much larger scale) of the one that spurred the development of standardized tests in the mid-twentieth century, such as the SAT, which was originally envisioned as a means for finding gifted students outside the usual Ivy League “feeder” schools.

Koller speaks with genuine passion about the universal human craving for learning and sees in Internet education a social good that reminds me of Thomas Jefferson’s dream of geniuses being “raked from the rubbish”—by which he meant to affirm the existence of a “natural aristocracy” to be nurtured for the sake of humankind. No one knows whether the MOOCs will achieve any of these things, but many academic leaders are certain that, as Stanford President John Hennessy predicts, higher education is about to be hit by a “tsunami.”

What’s driving all this risk-taking and excitement? Many people are convinced that the MOOCs can rein in the rising costs of colleges and universities. For decades, the price of tuition has outstripped the pace of inflation. Over the past ten years, the average sticker price at private colleges has increased by almost 30 percent (though net tuition has risen less because financial aid has grown even faster). At state universities, the problem has been exacerbated by public disinvestment. For example, less than 6 percent of the annual budget of the University of Virginia is covered by state funds. Last fall, I heard the chief financial officer of an urban public university put the matter succinctly: The difficulty, he said, is not so much the cost of college, but the shift of the financial burden from the state to the student.

There are many reasons why college costs continue to soar: the expense of outfitting high-tech science labs, the premium placed on research that lures faculty out of the classroom (and, in turn, requires hiring more faculty to teach classes), the proliferation of staff for everything from handling government regulation to counseling increasingly stressed students. At some institutions, there are also less defensible reasons, such as wasteful duplication, lavish amenities, and excessive pay and perks for top administrators and faculty.

But the most persuasive account of the relentless rise in cost was made nearly 50 years ago by the economist William Baumol and his student William Bowen, who later became president of Princeton. A few months ago, Bowen delivered two lectures in which he revisited his theory of the “cost disease.”1 “In labor-intensive industries,” he explained, “such as the performing arts and education, there is less opportunity than in other sectors to increase productivity by, for example, substituting capital for labor.” Technological advances have allowed the auto industry, for instance, to produce more cars while using fewer workers. Professors, meanwhile, still do things more or less as they have for centuries: talking to, questioning, and evaluating students (ideally in relatively small groups). As the Ohio University economist Richard Vedder likes to joke, “With the possible exception of prostitution . . . teaching is the only profession that has had no productivity advance in the 2,400 years since Socrates.”

This is a true statement—but it unwittingly undercuts its own point: Most people, I suspect, would agree that there are some activities—teaching and prostitution among them—in which improved productivity and economies of scale are not desirable, at least not from the point of view of the consumer.

True believers think that the new digital technologies will finally enable educators to increase productivity by allowing a smaller number of teachers to produce a larger number of “learning outcomes” (today’s term for educated students) than ever before. But it’s too soon to say whether MOOCs will really help cure the cost disease. Their own financial viability is by no means certain. The for-profits must make money for their investors, and the non- profits must return revenue to the universities that give them start-up funds.

Coursera has begun to try out a number of different strategies. It provides a matchmaking service for employers looking to hire people with certain demonstrable skills—a logical extension of a role that colleges already play. When a company expresses interest in a top-performing student, Coursera e-mails the student, offering an introduction, and receives a finder’s fee from the prospective employer. The college that developed the course also receives a cut. As for Udacity, Thrun says only that it charges companies looking for talent “significantly less than you’d pay for a headhunter, but significantly more than what you’d pay for access to LinkedIn.”

A few months ago, Coursera also announced a licensing arrangement with Antioch University, which agreed to pay a fee in return for incorporating selected Coursera offerings into its curriculum. The idea is for students to supplement their online experience by working with on-campus faculty—a practice known as “hybrid” or “blended” learning. The college can expand its course offerings without hiring new faculty, and Coursera can earn income that will be shared by the institutions and professors who develop the courses. So far, however, student interest has been low.

Other possible sources of revenue include selling expertise to universities that want to set up their own MOOCs or partnering with textbook publishers willing to share revenue in exchange for selling to online students. Some MOOCs are also beginning to charge fees for proctored exams (in person or by webcam) for students seeking a certificate marking their successful completion of a course.

If new technologies can cure, or even slow down, the cost disease before it kills the patient, that would be a great public service. 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, it would be a classic case of “disruptive innovation”—a term popularized by Harvard Business School Professor Clayton Christensen, who argues that, “in industries from computers to cars to steel those entrants that start at the bottom of their markets, selling simple products to less demanding customers and then improving from that foothold, drive the prior leaders into a disruptive demise.”

We’ve already witnessed the first phase of this process. Early consumers of online courses tended to be students with families or jobs for whom full-time attendance at a residential or even a commuter college was out of the question. As underfunded public colleges struggled to meet the needs of such students, private for-profit “universities” such as Phoenix, Kaplan, DeVry, and Strayer emerged. They offer mainly online courses that serve—some would say exploit—an expanding population of consumers (a word increasingly used as a synonym for students). The first time I heard someone commend for-profit universities was five or six years ago, when a savvy investor said to me, “Look at California—the public system can’t meet the demand, so we will step in.” He was making the safe, and sad, assumption that public reinvestment is unlikely to restore what was once an unrivaled system of public higher education. Last August, nearly half a million students found themselves on waiting lists for oversubscribed courses at California’s community colleges.

Many online students meet the low-income eligibility threshold for federal Pell grants—a ripe market for the for-profit universities. These institutions offer cheaper courses than traditional private colleges, usually in practical or technical subjects such as cosmetology or computer programming. Their business model depends heavily on faculty who receive low compensation and on students with high loan obligations. It’s a system that works well for investors. (In 2009, the CEO of Strayer University collected a cool $42 million, mainly in stock options.) How well it works for students is another question. Last summer, a U.S. Senate committee noted that for-profit universities spend more on advertising and recruiting than on instruction and that, without significant reform, they “will continue to turn out hundreds of thousands of students with debt but no degree.”

So far, the for-profit sector has been regarded with disdain or indifference by established universities. This fits the Christensen theory of “disruptive innovation”: The leap by low-end products into higher- end markets is sudden and surprising because the higher-ups have been lulled into thinking their place in the pecking order is unassailable. What has happened to newspapers and publishing are obvious examples. Suddenly everything changes, and the old is swept away by the new.

Because of the durable value of prestige, it will be a long time before Harvard has to fear for its existence. But one reason to think we’re on the cusp of major change is that online courses are particularly well- suited to the new rhythms of student life. On traditional campuses, many students already regard time offline as a form of solitary confinement. Classrooms have become battlegrounds where professors struggle to distract students from their smartphones and laptops. Office hours are giving way to e-mail. To the millions who have used sites such as the Khan Academy, the idea of hour-long lectures spread out over 15-week semesters is already anachronistic. “Disruptive innovation” is a variant of Joseph Schumpeter’s famous declaration that capitalism works by “creative destruction.” What will be innovated and created in our colleges and universities, and what will be disrupted and destroyed?

One vulnerable structure is the faculty itself, which is already in a fragile state. This is especially true of those who teach subjects such as literature, history, and the arts. The humanities account for a static or declining percentage of all degrees conferred, partly because students often doubt their real-world value. And as humanities departments shrink, some institutions are collaborating to shrink them faster (or close them altogether) in order to avoid duplicative hiring in subjects with low student demand. For example, Columbia, Yale, and Cornell have announced a collaboration whereby certain languages—such as Romanian, Tamil, or Yoruba—will be taught via teleconferencing. This is good for students, since the subjects will still be available. But it’s bad for aspiring faculty—as the number of positions dwindles, research and scholarship in these fields will dry up.

MOOCs also seem likely to spur more demand for celebrity professors in a teaching system that is already highly stratified. Among tenured faculty, there is currently a small cadre of stars and a smaller one of superstars—and the MOOCs are creating megastars. Michael Sandel, for example, who teaches a famous course on justice at Harvard, has become a global figure with millions of followers, notably in Asia, since his lectures became available online through Harvard’s website and at a site called Academic Earth. A few months ago, Harvard announced that Sandel had signed up with edX. Sandel is an exceptional educator, but as master-teachers go global, lesser-known colleagues fear being relegated to a supporting role as glorified teaching assistants.

In some respects, this is the latest chapter in an old story of faculty entrepreneurship. By the mid-twentieth century, the president of the University of California, Clark Kerr, was already describing the Berkeley faculty as “individual entrepreneurs held together by a common grievance over parking.” Today, as star professors increasingly work for themselves, more faculty members at less prestigious institutions face low wages, meager benefits, and—since many lack tenure—minimal job security. But if the new technology threatens some professors with obscurity, others face obsolescence. Language instructors may someday be replaced by multilingual versions of Siri on your iPhone. One of my colleagues speaks of the imminent “evisceration” of graduate study, once young people who might have pursued an academic career are deterred as it becomes harder and harder to find a dignified job after years of training.

These prospects raise many pressing questions—not just speculative ones about the future, but actionable ones about the present. What, if anything, can universities do to formulate new rules governing conflicts of interest? As faculty stars relocate to cyberspace, how can institutions sustain the community of teachers and students that has been the essence of the university for a thousand years? (The pacesetting Thrun, who is a vice president of Google, resigned from his tenured teaching post at Stanford, though he remains a “research professor.”) In this brave new world, how can the teaching profession, already well on its way to “adjunctification,” attract young people with a pastoral impulse to awaken and encourage students one by one?

There are also unanswered questions about how much students actually learn from MOOCs. Coursera recently withdrew one course at Georgia Tech because of student discontent and another, at the University of California, Irvine, because the professor disputed how much students were really learning.

So far, most testimonials to the value of online learning come from motivated students, often adults, who seek to build on what they have already learned in traditional educational settings. These are people with clear goals and confidence in their abilities. Stanford has even established an online high school “for gifted students” from around the world (a residential program brings them together in the summers). Its medical school has introduced “lecture halls without lectures,” whereby students use short videos to master the material on their own, then converge in class for discussion of clinical applications of what they’ve learned.

And yet it’s one thing to expect brilliant teens or medical students to be self-starters. It’s another to teach students who are in need of close guidance. A recent report from the Community College Research Center at Columbia finds that underprepared students taking online courses are, according to one of the authors, “falling farther behind than if they were taking face-to-face courses.” Michael Crow, one of the architects of Fathom and now president of Arizona State University and certainly no traditionalist, warns against a future in which “rich kids get taught by professors and poor kids get taught by computer.”

Back in the mid-twentieth century, the Ford Foundation report on “telecourses” asked the key question about technology and education: “How effective is this instruction?” When I came upon that sentence, it put me in mind of something Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote a long time ago. “Truly speaking,” he said, “it is not instruction, but provocation, that I can receive from another soul.”I first understood this distinction during my own student days, while struggling with the theologian Jonathan Edwards’s predestinarian view of life. Toward the end of the course, my teacher, the scholar of American religion Alan Heimert, looked me in the eye and asked: “What is it that bothers you about Edwards? Is it that he’s so hard on self- deception?” This was more than instruction; it was a true provocation. It came from a teacher who listened closely to his students and tried to grasp who they were and who they were trying to become. He knew the difference between knowledge and information. He understood education in the Socratic sense, as a quest for self-knowledge.

Nearly 40 years later, in my own course on American literature, one of my gifted teaching assistants received an e-mail from a student after a discussion on Emerson:

Hi, I just wanted to let you know that our section meeting tonight had a really profound effect on me. ... [T]he way you spoke and the energy our class had really moved me. ...I walked the whole way home staring at the sky, a probably unsafe decision, but a worthwhile one nonetheless. I actually cannot wait for next week's class just so I can dive even further into this. So I just wanted to send you a quick message thanking you, letting you know that this fifty minutes of class has undeniably affected the rest of my life. ... [S]ome fire was lit within me tonight, and I guess I'm blowing the smoke towards you a little bit.

No matter how anxious today’s students may be about gaining this or that competence in a ferociously competitive world, many still crave the enlargement of heart as well as mind that is the gift of true education. It’s hard for me to believe that this kind of experience can happen without face-to-face teaching and the physical presence of other students.

Yet I’m convinced that those leading us into the digital future truly want to dispense the gift of learning more widely than ever before. Currently, the six-year graduation rate at America’s public four-year colleges is approximately 58 percent. It would be a great benefit to society if online education can improve on that record—although it should be noted that, so far, the completion rate by students who sign up for MOOCs is even worse—barely 10 percent.

In one experiment, Udacity is providing remedial courses to students at San Jose State for a much lower price than in-person courses. A bill is now under discussion in the California legislature that would require public colleges to offer online courses to students whom they can’t accommodate in their classrooms. If the new technology can bring great teaching to students who would otherwise never encounter it, that could lessen inequities between the haves and have-nots, just as digital technologies now give students and scholars worldwide access to previously locked-up books and documents. But so far, there is scant evidence on which to base these hopes.

Quite apart from the MOOCs, there’s an impressive array of new efforts to serve low-income students—including the online public Western Governors University, which charges around $6,000 in tuition and awards reputable degrees in such fields as information technology and business. Southern New Hampshire University—also a nonprofit—has moved aggressively into online learning, which it combines with on-campus programs; and Carnegie Mellon University has launched an “open learning initiative” that offers non-credit free courses, with substantial interactive capabilities, and seems to be working well in science, math, and introductory languages.

The best of the new education pioneers have a truly Emersonian passion for remaking the world, for rejecting the stale conviction that change always means degradation. I sense in them a fervent concurrence with Emerson’s refusal to believe “that the world was finished a long time ago” and with his insistence that, “as the world was plastic and fluid in the hands of God, so it is ever to so much of his attributes as we bring to it.”

In the face of such exuberance, it feels foolish and futile to demur. In one form or another, the online future is already here. But unless we are uncommonly wise about how we use this new power, we will find ourselves saying, as Emerson’s friend Henry David Thoreau said about an earlier technological revolution, “We do not ride the railroad; it rides upon us.”

Andrew Delbanco’s most recent book, College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be, will be published in paperback later this month.

  1. Bowen delivered his Tanner lectures, appropriately enough, at Stanford. They will soon to be published by Princeton University Press, under the title Higher Education in the Digital Age.