Online education isn’t new, of course. But what is new, as Clay Shirky notes in his recent post on the topic, is the emergence of new online innovations and alliances at elite universities. Because these are emerging as higher education continues to grapple with the well-publicized issues that he terms “cost disease,” he argues, MOOCs have become the latest battleground for the argument over what higher education is, who it’s for, and who’s responsible for delivering it.
Skirky’s is the latest salvo in a multi-year debate that has raised several of the usual issues about higher education and online learning:
* Is higher education about credentialing for jobs? And if so, then will employers eventually assign similar weight to the credentials earned through online courses and those earned on the grounds of a campus whose name they recognize?
* Or is higher education about fulfilling a human need for knowledge, and the problem is that higher education is an inefficient business model for fulfilling this need?
* Is higher education something that allows for transformative experiences that best occur within collaborative experiences that bring students and professors together in shared geographic spaces?
* Or, as sociologist Pierre Bourdieu argued, is higher education primarily a vehicle preserving one’s spot in the upper middle class -- and therefore what’s really at stake in the online experiences of MIT-Harvard-Berkeley-and-“add-aspiring-Ivy-League-school here” is control over the elite brand of education, as Ian Bogost has argued?
* Does the Massive Online Open Course promise to replace existing courses, or will it serve primarily as a supplement to the list of courses that might be shared across various campuses?
“Cost disease,” as Shirky terms it, is certainly a problem. University education has become increasingly expensive, thus causing more and more people to wonder whether it is worth the sticker price. It’s a problem that’s built into the structure of college education itself, as Robert Archibald and David Feldman observe in their study that Shirky cites titled, Why does college cost so much? Archibald and Feldman conclude, “colleges need a lot of highly skilled people, people whose wages, benefits, and support costs have risen faster than inflation for the last thirty years.”
Already, parents are figuring out differing ways of addressing the problem of the costs of higher education, because most blanch at the thought of launching their children into adulthood with today’s average indebtedness of more than $26,000.
Enrollments at community colleges have been rising significantly over the past two decades as one means of controlling costs. And today, as Barbara Ray notes, more than 50% of young people under the age of 24 are living at home, as are 13% of 25-34 year olds.
But baby boomer parents are increasingly finding that their parental responsibilities extend well into the young adulthood of their children in other ways, Ray argues. Noting that young adults can now stay on their parents’ health insurance until the age of 26, she also reports on a U of Mich study for MacArthur Network on Transitions to Adulthood that found that 60% of young adults between the ages of 19 and 22 received money from parents. On average, parents provided $7,500/year.
But what if colleges didn’t need so many highly skilled people?, Shirky asks. What if you could choose between a class at the community college or one taught by a Harvard professor? New technologies are making this possible, Shirky points out, and those in education should ignore this at their peril. We need to look to the music, motion pictures, and journalism industries for hints of what’s to come. “Our MP3 is the massive open online course (MOOC), and our Napster is Udacity, the education startup,” he argues. It no longer makes sense to think of the lectures occurring in college classrooms across the country as “artisanal products” that must be produced “from scratch” by individual instructors. Especially when most of those college classroom products – meaning the professor’s lectures -- are mediocre.
But as promising as the possibility of high quality lecture material is (and noting that even among online learning advocates many debate that lectures are the best path to university learning), this solution may not get to the key question of value from a parent’s perspective. Because even as MOOCs promise to lower costs in some ways, they are actually shifting costs, and work, to other sectors.
I was reminded of this when one of my favorite students returned to campus a week ago after taking the quarter off to engage in what might be described as the romantic Utopia of the MOOC. The 18-year-old student had spent the five months following his freshman year travelling around Latin America, taking jobs where he could find them and doing online coursework that interested him along the way. He volunteered in places of need, met interesting people, and gained a renewed perspective on his place in the world, all while learning interesting things through his online courses.
His parents were less thrilled with his experiences than he was, however. His sojourn effectively extended their work of having to manage his health insurance, income, and safety from a distance and with no intermediary organization helping in the process of supervision and guidance. And this student actually did complete some distance learning modules, unlike the majority who drop out. Perhaps it’s not surprising that his parents were anxious for him to return to the residential program at the University of Denver for the next quarter.
What was instructive to me is that this was a highly motivated and capable student who saw himself as an active and engaged learner. And while many university students aspire to this, the truth is that most are more bewildered than capable when it comes to selecting courses and designing a curriculum that will enable them to meet their learning goals and to work toward their career aspirations. This is why even as most universities have increased their course offerings over the past century, they have sought to add flexibility to their programs while also ensuring that learning scaffolds from beginning to intermediate to advanced coursework. As a result, advising offices have mushroomed, adding to the hidden costs of education but raising the value of that education for students enrolled in their programs.
This trend plus the promise of the MOOC leads me to a very different vision of the future of education. In place of that promising avant garde learner who was retooling for a changing job market while learning the ways of the world, I imagined the other 30 students I had in class with that student. Instead of mastering new languages and catching trains to exotic locales, I can more easily imagine them hanging around in their bedrooms with their moms (for the most part) nagging them to get that certificate thing done so that they could get a job that's better than the one they currently have at Starbuck's.
Granted, many of the people who engage in learning through MOOCs are not traditional college students in that they are over the age of 21 (a fact that is sometimes lost in the discussions of these options). But the fact remains that someone is going to have to figure out how all of these various pieces of the online puzzle fit together. And that, I fear, will lead to Mom U.
Parents are already in touch with their college age students to an unprecedented degree. As Barbara Hofer and Abigail Sullivan Moore observed in their book The iConnected Parent, thanks to mobile phones, parents and their college-age kids were communicating an average of thirteen times a week by 2010, and are undoubtedly in touch even more today. Mom and Dad have become Google and Wikipedia for their children and already attempt numerous end-runs around FERPA to help guide their children through the university experience.
Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the MOOC discussion, then, comes in this assertion from Shirky: “MOOCs expand the audience for education to people ill-served or completely shut out from the current system, in the same way phonographs expanded the audience for symphonies to people who couldn’t get to a concert hall, and PCs expanded the users of computing power to people who didn’t work in big companies.”
Yes, I would agree that they have the potential to do this. But we need to recognize that this vision may be presuming an availability of time and expertise on the part of an already- overburdened generation of parents who would advise their young adult children toward the value of these options. Given the downward spiral of many baby boomers and the growth in the low-wage service sector, we are effectively asking parents who in many cases lack the training, guidance, and career opportunities to serve as academic advisors and career counselors for the next generation. In my interactions with parents, I can attest that this is not what many of them envision for their middling to golden years. It's also potentially blocking an important avenue in how higher education has facilitated upward mobility in the past.
University life serves as an important moment in time for young people to become exposed to ideas and life experiences that differ from those of their immediate family. This happens in campuses across the country, and even occasionally in classrooms where the instructor is mediocre, because that’s the serendipity of face-to-face education. This is why education has been a driver in social equity, and this is why we need to figure out how MOOCs can better facilitate interaction within real-life college settings so that even those mediocre lecturers can allow learning to blossom in real time, same place interactions.
Faculty members still do have to add value, and there are many questions that can be raised about how institutions of higher learning will spend money more efficiently than they do today. But as a parent who is looking forward to liberating my own children into a community that supports those late adolescent years, I see some real barriers to the MOOC model that might be more obvious from a perspective of what feminists term unpaid parental affective labor.
So I'd like to see parents included in the future discussions that universities have around the possibilities of the MOOC and the various savings and costs they might present.
Do you think parents want to extend the option of home schooling into the young adult years through MOOCs? Do you see the value of MOOCs primarily in supplementing higher education, much as Khan Academy has done for pre-collegiate math and physics education? Add your thoughts to the conversation below!