MOOCs and the future of higher education [Part 1]

By | April 4, 2014

I do a lot of thinking when participating in online discussions. One of my early posts here was about how such discussions have served as a significant source of professional interaction despite my current lack of major university affiliation. Traveling out to professional conference isn’t an option for me either, so I spend perhaps more time that I ought to in online discussions. LinkedIn groups have lately been providing a lot of these opportunities, in which I certainly appreciate the opportunity to participate (whether this sentiment is shared by those with whom I have occasionally sparred may be open to question.)

The latest such discussion has centered on the value of massive online open courses, or MOOCs for short. I’m admittedly a fan (for example, see here and here and here and here and here and here and here – well, you get the idea) and it’s not just about my being a technofreak. I believe that the American higher education system is about to experience a major and drastic reconfiguration – the first one since our current “traditional” HE model came into being following WWII, as a result of the GI Bill’s having dropped an entire generation of highly UNtraditional students into colleges and universities everywhere.  Until then, college was largely reserved for the sons and daughters of the elites, and professional schools tended to be cozy little associations. Many of the features that we consider to be “traditional” HE features date from the period of this adaptive change, including faculty tenure arrangements and the current structure of PhD programs; traditional doesn’t mean forever.

 We are well overdue for a new revolution in HE; it’s quite evident that the current structure just isn’t working any more. If the student loan crisis isn’t enough to make this evident, then the fact that nearly 70% of university courses are currently being taught by low-paid benefitless adjunct faculty ought to be. Universities have rushed into online education, typically without a good model for it or a faculty comfortable with the approach. The rise of for-profit schools has drastically altered the expectations for what role the faculty play in educational governance and what kinds of returns on investment can be expected in education. Student dissatisfaction and alienation is rampant as costs rise and employment prospects recede.

 The adjunct faculty crisis is a pretty direct result of the general collapse of the tenure process. Formerly, anyone who graduated with an earned PhD from a school of any degree of repute had a reasonable chance of securing a tenure-track slot, if not at the first school where they worked, then at the second. But in the last 10-15 years, the availability of tenure-track slots has significantly decreased as overall funding for HE has decreased, particularly on the part of states. At the same time, the supply of PhDs has skyrocketed, and not only because so many online for-profit schools have found PhD enrollments to be a solid cash cow; traditional PhD programs have also expanded, partly for the same financial reasons and partly because tenured faculty would much rather teach PhD seminars than undergraduate classes. So we have a classic labor market failure, with supply overtopping demand and the price per unit (i.e., faculty salaries and benefits for the new entrants) dropping dramatically. They don’t call economics “the dismal science” for nothing. Overall, the system is jiggling on the edge of collapse.

 There will soon be a more or less painful translation into a new equilibrium of some sort. I don’t know what all the elements of this new system will be; if I did, I might be able to invest shrewdly and coin money. I do believe that the new system will be much more diffuse and decentralized than what we now have. There will probably be less clear separation between the different levels (K-12,  undergraduate, graduate, adult/lifelong learning). Opportunities for lifelong learning will expand; at the same time, there will clearly be a distinction between training sought for employment purposes and education sought for personal enrichment. The “one-size-fits-all college model will break down. The two-class faculty structure will be reformed, with the former privileged tenured group facing painful new realities. And within all this, MOOCs can and will be a useful component.

 The new system will probably de-emphasize “degrees” as all-purpose credentials and the “credit hour” as any sort of indicator of learning; we’ll find new ways to test for capability in settings where it will matter. Hopefully also we’ll find a way to open up opportunities for personal networking that at present are confined largely to the elite universities and professional schools. There will also continue to be a place for the small elite college as a sort of boutique educational environment, but with more inclusion of people of all ages – perhaps a sort of retreat that can be engaged in occasionally when needed. In any event, the future of higher education will look vastly different that today’s system, and thanks for that!

Stay tuned for Part 2 – coming up shortly!