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Assuming the Distance Learning Can Opener


While conceding that Johnathan Rees’s argument against MOOC’s focuses too much on the self-interest of faculty members and not enough on the massive problems of distance learning, Jon Chait’s touting of the promise of MOOCs is suffers from two major flaws.

First, Chait seems to be making an implicit assumption that tuition increases — which are indeed a serious problem — are driven primarily by spending on faculty. The problem is that this just isn’t true — the additional revenues that don’t go to increasing infrastructure expenditures have been much more likely to have been captured by administrators than faculty (especially outside of a few specialized areas like law and business.) Which brings us to a related problem — Chait’s even more crucial implicit assumption that cost savings from using MOOCs will be passed on to students rather than captured by administrators, used for physical or marketing expenses, and/or taken as profit when applicable. Given that the turn towards extremely low paid adjuncts instead of decently paid tenure track faculty has coincided with skyrocketing tuition, I’m not sure what the source of Chait’s faith that students will be the primary beneficiaries of reduced education costs is.

There’s an ever bigger problem with the argument — namely, the idea that MOOCs have any realistic possibility of meaningfully replacing college education:

MOOC stands for “massive open online course,” which is a super-cheap way to provide college instruction. It’s one of the tools Obama referenced as a solution to the tuition crisis. The concept is extremely new, and the trick is to develop it in such a way that you can weed out cheating, and ensure that students really learn. If you can do that, then prestigious universities can start providing degrees for their online courses, and you would have a powerful, extremely affordable new path for cash-strapped kids to obtain the benefits of a college degree.

There’s rather a lot of hand-waving going on in this paragraph. Sure, if there’s a way of weeding out cheating without in-class exams or any contact with students and ensuring that most students can learn effectively solely from videotapes, without any meaningful supervision or direction, MOOCs may well be a good idea! And, similarly, if there was a magic pellet we could shoot into the air that would reduce carbon emissions to 1960 levels global warming would be much less of a problem, but this doesn’t make the solution plausibly viable.

As Reihan Salam notes, far more likely is that online education can be cheap, or it can be good, but almost certainly not both:

But as Jason Dearen reports, earlier this month San Jose State suspended five of its new online courses, all of which were offered in conjunction with Udacity and had no classroom learning. The courses — in elementary statistics, college algebra, entry-level math, introductory programming and introductory psychology — were in theory exactly the right kind of courses for an online instructional provider to teach, as they covered basic introductory material. Outsourcing this kind of teaching could in theory be an enormous boon to the bottom line of colleges and universities, as the most effective providers could spread their online courses across the country, sparing the need for large numbers of expensive faculty members. Indeed, Udacity’s entry-level courses were offered for $150 each, far less than the $620 San Jose State charges for traditional classroom-based courses.

The problem, however, is that between 56 percent and 76 percent of students who took the final exams ultimately failed them. Udacity has acknowledged that the results of its collaboration with San Jose State have been disappointing, and the startup is committed, in classic Silicon Valley fashion, to learn from its mistakes. That online learning will experience growing pains is to be expected.

But what if there is no free lunch to be had? That is, what if the only way to reduce the failure rate in online courses is to blend them with some of the more labor-intensive — and thus, more expensive — aspects of traditional education?


True MOOCs that make almost no use of faculty labor will be very cheap to deliver, but one can easily imagine that they will be plagued by an attrition rate at least as high as what we see in today’s for-profit colleges. Blended online courses that stream lectures while also making use of face-to-face teaching assistants might have a success rate closer to land grant public institutions, where interaction with senior faculty is limited but there is a human support system for students. It should go without saying that the latter are going to be much more expensive than the former.

One way of thinking about higher education, and education more broadly, is that once you get past the students who are the most prepared and most eager to learn, you have to apply increasing amounts of both help and hassle. That is, you need to offer personal attention and tutoring as well as discipline and structure, all of which are labor-intensive in the extreme.

And it’s for this reason that noting the cost-cutting (of things other than their own salaries) of administrators is relevant beyond the self-interest of tenure-track faculty members. That MOOCs are being highly touted by some administrators when as of now there’s no good reason even in theory to believe that they can deliver quality education to most students, what does that tell you? Shouldn’t that raise red flags, particularly in a context in which wages for most people but not those in the positions of greatest power, are stagnating?

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