Tag Archives: Distance Education

The Online Course Tsunami (2)

In my first post on this topic, I raised the question of how we might assess student learning in the online environment — at least in history education. Today I want to raise the question of the possible economic impact of the online course tsunami on the traditional institutions of higher education.

This topic is not a new one for me. Way back in 2008 I raised the issue of what technological disintermediation might do to our universities and reprised it earlier this year. In that reprise, I wondered if we might be heading toward a university business model that Milo Minderbinder would find quite congenial? That is, a model where we lose money on every transaction, but it doesn’t matter, because everyone owns a share.

In that reprise post, I staked out my admittedly naive position on the issue of economic models. Today I want to let real experts, such as my colleague here at George Mason, Tyler Cowen, explain the economics of the possible online/hybrid/analog future facing higher education. What the economists understand much better than I is how to propose analytical models that might explain how the future will unfold as the online tsunami gathers strength.

I particularly appreciated a blog post by Bryan Caplan who lays out three possible models for predicting the impact of online education on bricks and mortar institutions and an addendum by Tyler Cowen offering a fourth model. Also worth reading is a post by Arnold Kling who offers some useful perspective on the comparative advantages of hybrid models over standard face-to-face or online only models of course delivery. I think every university president should read these three posts carefully, because, to my mind anyway, they not only lay out the parameters of the real (as opposed to hyped) landscape of the future of online education and how the traditional institutions may or may not thrive in that environment.

To say that the future is unclear is to significantly understate the matter.

And then there is my alma mater, the University of Virginia. Anyone paying any attention to higher education over the past few months knows that one of the key issues in the dispute between the Rector and the president of the university was the speed with which UVa was (or wasn’t) establishing itself as a player in online education. The university announced today that it had signed on with Coursera, one of the several big players in the online education space.

Which of Caplan’s models, I wonder, do the leaders at UVa (and elsewhere) think will prevail? Is it the Human Capital model? If so, they are signing their own death warrants. Is it the Status Good model? If so, they are admitting that the reason they exist is to teach marketable skills, something universities like UVa have resisted for decades. Is it the Signaling model? If so, they are throwing good money after bad. Or, is it, as I suspect, Cowen’s Hybrid model that they are betting on?

If that is the case, and the online course tsunami leaves in its wake a lot of institutions using some sort of online/hybrid delivery to teach the first years of the college curriculum, then get ready for a radical restructuring of the academic labor force and the landscape of graduate education at second and third tier colleges and universities.

If general education is to be delivered through whatever means (online only/hybrid) seems most cost effective and/or universities opt for a competency model such as I proposed in those long ago posts on the free economy and higher education, then we will eliminate the need for large numbers of junior and/or contingent faculty, because our students will be able to present credentials that demonstrate their mastery of what is currently called general education. Someone, somewhere, will be making money on these courses or course-like options.

Who won’t be making much money on such courses are institutions like George Mason. Why not? Because if a prospective student opts to pursue her general education through a company such as Coursera, what are the odds she’ll select an introductory mathematics or history course from Mason over one from Stanford, Harvard, MIT, or UVa? Close to zero is what I suspect. Brands will out in this space, and institutions such as Mason can’t possibly compete on that playing field.

So, at a place like ours, if the cross-subsidy model proposed by Chris Anderson in Free back in 2008 is the one that prevails, institutions like mine should prepare for a radical downsizing of our faculty ranks over the next two decades.

And, at tuition-driven places like Mason where those big intro courses provide the revenue that supports those tiny courses for doctoral students, we should also prepare for a radical downsizing of our graduate programs.

Will that be a bad thing?

Just ask a travel agent…if you can find one.

It’s Nice to Be #2

While I was out of town and off the grid for a few days I got about 200 emails — par for the course in this world of email, email, and more email. One that I was glad to receive came from a colleague who pointed me to this story on people described as among the “most creative” in higher education today. Being #2 on this list was a surprise, given the others further down. While I do consider myself a creative person when it comes to pedagogy, I have to say, I was very impressed with what others on this list are doing. Be sure and read through the entire story, because there are some inspirational ideas there.

The Online Course Tsunami

Higher education has been all aflutter the past year or so about the transformative potential of online and/or distance education mediated through digital media. While the buzz on this topic has waxed and waned since the late 1990s (Web 0.1 for those old enough to remember), now there is some big money behind some of the more interesting attempts to harness that potential.

Nine million dollars in start up grants from the Gates Foundation really puts some oomph behind several of these efforts, most notably the MITx initiative. There is much to be admired in these projects, but it’s less clear to me what this all means for the humanities in general and history in particular. Yes, the MOOCs of the world are drawing in tens of thousands of virtual students for courses such as how to build your own search engine, and the Kahn Academy claims more than 160,000,000 lessons delivered thus far. But the vast majority of the content out there from these types of platforms is in the STEM disciplines.

If you are a professor at almost any college or university in the United States, you know that there are plenty of people on your campus, just as there are on mine, who believe that online/distance education is the future business model for higher education. It’s certainly an attractive one at a place like George Mason, because we are completely out of classroom space, with no relief in sight in the next decade, so if we could convince our students to just stay the heck away from campus, our space problems would be solved.

At this moment, in June 2012, I have no opinion one way or the other about whether online/distance education is really the future of our industry, or like Cold Fusion, it is and always will be the future solution to all our problems.

What I do know at this moment is that no one I’ve been able to find is engaged in serious assessment of the learning that is happening through these courses, especially as compared to other deliver models, whether they are traditional classroom models, or hybrid online/classroom delivery. Given that universities are already pumping untold millions of dollars in the rush to develop these sorts of courses and degrees, and new start ups are popping up almost weekly, it seems to me that we ought to try to figure out just what, if anything, is changing in our students’ learning.

After all, learning is the goal of teaching the last time I checked.

The good news is that, at least in the history business, we know something — a lot actually — about how to assess what and how our students are learning about the past. Those assessment models are not dependent on a particular delivery system and so they can quite easily be applied to the new courses/degrees that are surely to result from the Online Course Tsunami coming ashore on the historians’ coast.

My hope is that one of these big money foundations out there (Bill, Melinda, are you listening?) will set aside at least a little bit of their millions for some serious, scientific assessment of learning gains through these new course delivery systems. Then we’ll have a much better sense for how much time, effort, and emotional investment we ought to make in these models.