Open systems are open. For people used to dealing with institutions that go out of their way to hide their flaws, this makes these systems look terrible at first. But anyone who has watched a piece of open source software improve, or remembers the Britannica people throwing tantrums about Wikipedia, has seen how blistering public criticism makes open systems better. And once you imagine educating a thousand people in a single class, it becomes clear that open courses, even in their nascent state, will be able to raise quality and improve certification faster than traditional institutions can lower cost or increase enrollment.
Excerpted from a fascinating essay by Clay Shirky:
(MOOC = massive open online course/class)
“Every college provides access to a huge collection of potential readings, and to a tiny collection of potential lectures. We ask students to read the best works we can find, whoever produced them and where, but we only ask them to listen to the best lecture a local employee can produce that morning. Sometimes you’re at a place where the best lecture your professor can give is the best in the world. But mostly not. And the only thing that kept this system from seeming strange was that we’ve never had a good way of publishing lectures.
This is the huge difference between music and education. Starting with Edison’s wax cylinders, and continuing through to Pandora and the iPod, the biggest change in musical consumption has come not from production but playback. Hearing an excellent string quartet play live in an intimate venue has indeed become a very expensive proposition, as cost disease would suggest, but at the same time, the vast majority of music listened to on any given day is no longer recreated live.
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Harvard, where I was fortunate enough to have a visiting lectureship a couple of years ago, is our agreed-upon Best Institution, and it is indeed an extraordinary place. But this very transcendence should make us suspicious. Harvard’s endowment, 31 billion dollars, is over three hundred times the median, and only one college in five has an endowment in the first place. Harvard also educates only about a tenth of a percent of the 18 million or so students enrolled in higher education in any given year. Any sentence that begins “Let’s take Harvard as an example…” should immediately be followed up with “No, let’s not do that.”
This atypical bent of our elite institutions covers more than just Harvard. The top 50 colleges on the US News and World Report list (which includes most of the ones you’ve heard of) only educate something like 3% of the current student population. The entire list, about 250 colleges, educates fewer than 25%.
The upper reaches of the US college system work like a potlatch, those festivals of ostentatious giving. The very things the US News list of top colleges prizes—low average class size, ratio of staff to students—mean that any institution that tries to create a cost-effective education will move down the list. This is why most of the early work on MOOCs is coming out of Stanford and Harvard and MIT. As Ian Bogost says, MOOCs are marketing for elite schools.
Outside the elite institutions, though, the other 75% of students—over 13 million of them—are enrolled in the four thousand institutions you haven’t heard of: Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College. Bridgerland Applied Technology College. The Laboratory Institute of Merchandising. When we talk about college education in the US, these institutions are usually left out of the conversation, but Clayton State educates as many undergraduates as Harvard. Saint Leo educates twice as many. City College of San Francisco enrolls as many as the entire Ivy League combined. These are where most students are, and their experience is what college education is mostly like.
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The fight over MOOCs isn’t about the value of college; a good chunk of the four thousand institutions you haven’t heard of provide an expensive but mediocre education. For-profit schools like Kaplan’s and the University of Phoenix enroll around one student in eight, but account for nearly half of all loan defaults, and the vast majority of their enrollees fail to get a degree even after six years. Reading the academic press, you wouldn’t think that these statistics represented a more serious defection from our mission than helping people learn something about Artificial Intelligence for free.
The fight over MOOCs isn’t even about the value of online education. Hundreds of institutions already offer online classes for credit, and half a million students are already enrolled in them. If critics of online education were consistent, they would believe that the University of Virginia’s Bachelor of Interdisciplinary Studies or Rutger’s MLIS degree are abominations, or else they would have to believe that there is a credit-worthy way to do online education, one MOOCs could emulate. Neither argument is much in evidence.
That’s because the fight over MOOCs is really about the story we tell ourselves about higher education: what it is, who it’s for, how it’s delivered, who delivers it. The most widely told story about college focuses obsessively on elite schools and answers a crazy mix of questions: How will we teach complex thinking and skills? How will we turn adolescents into well-rounded members of the middle class? Who will certify that education is taking place? How will we instill reverence for Virgil? Who will subsidize the professor’s work?
MOOCs simply ignore a lot of those questions. The possibility MOOCs hold out isn’t replacement; anything that could replace the traditional college experience would have to work like one, and the institutions best at working like a college are already colleges. The possibility MOOCs hold out is that the educational parts of education can be unbundled. 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.
Those earlier inventions systems started out markedly inferior to the high-cost alternative: records were scratchy, PCs were crashy. But first they got better, then they got better than that, and finally, they got so good, for so cheap, that they changed people’s sense of what was possible.
In the US, an undergraduate education used to be an option, one way to get into the middle class. Now it’s a hostage situation, required to avoid falling out of it. And if some of the hostages having trouble coming up with the ransom conclude that our current system is a completely terrible idea, then learning will come unbundled from the pursuit of a degree just as as songs came unbundled from CDs.
If this happens, Harvard will be fine. Yale will be fine, and Stanford, and Swarthmore, and Duke. But Bridgerland Applied Technology College? Maybe not fine. University of Arkansas at Little Rock? Maybe not fine. And Kaplan College, a more reliable producer of debt than education? Definitely not fine.
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Udacity and its peers don’t even pretend to tell the story of an 18-year old earning a Bachelor’s degree in four years from a selective college, a story that only applies to a small minority of students in the US, much less the world. Meanwhile, they try to answer some new questions, questions that the traditional academy—me and my people—often don’t even recognize as legitimate, like “How do we spin up 10,000 competent programmers a year, all over the world, at a cost too cheap to meter?”
Udacity may or may not survive, but as with Napster, there’s no containing the story it tells: “It’s possible to educate a thousand people at a time, in a single class, all around the world, for free.”