What is the business model for online education?

I should be clear: I believe that online education has only a very narrow ideal application (i.e., for literal shut-ins or for people stuck in Antarctica). There are more than enough classrooms and instructors to go around nearly everywhere in the US — indeed, colleges are constantly building new satellite campuses to compete with each other. The only benefit is an economic one, namely to create economies of scale. Yet every single credible piece of evidence in higher education research strongly supports the (completely intuitive) idea that high-quality education simply cannot be “scaled up.” Education is something that’s best carried out with some balance between small groups and one-on-one contact with an instructor.

Now it’s not as though most universities are following the ideal practice in any case. Large lecture classes are already essentially “distance learning.” So just from a totally cynical standpoint, one could begin to discuss whether the economic gains are likely to be enough to make up for the loss in quality of an already low-quality model (i.e., the large lecture class that remains a staple of mainstream higher ed despite the overwhelming evidence against its efficacy).

Let’s begin by bracketing the question of whether the money saved is likely to be well-spent — that’s pretty much a lost cause. But even if we start from the proposition that increasing revenue is an unalloyed good in itself, it’s still unclear how online education is supposed to do that. First, it requires significant outlays for both hardware and software — and both are likely to undergo fast development (i.e., become obselete quickly). All that hardware and software requires more IT staff, and there’s going to be administrative overhead in terms of selecting which courses are going to be offered online and registering the new students (who will presumably have more unusual or difficult circumstances than the average student and will certainly demand “flexibility” given that that’s one of the selling points of online ed).

The big savings sought are presumably in the area of direct teaching labor — yet my experience also leads me to believe that a pedagogical relationship mediated entirely through online interactions is going to be more time-consuming than one that’s face-to-face, simply because students stress out easily and will do so even more in the absence of reassuring body language, etc. In order to maintain some plausible level of quality and — importantly for accreditation reasons — an acceptable completion rate, it will almost certainly be necessary to assign even more TAs to a given online section than to a similarly-sized real-life section.

And then we come to the lectures themselves. Let’s simplify the math and say we’re dealing with a 10-week term. That’s approximately 30 hours of footage for a 3-credit class. Presumably we aren’t going to get a high-quality performance on the first take of all 30 hours — and there has to be a certain level of quality for people to tolerate paying tuition for all this. Multiple takes will add to the cost, as will the integration of special effects (Powerpoint slides or the kind of thing one would put on the board). And how often will they have to be updated? I suppose a course on The Odyssey could remain relatively unchanged for a long time, but that’s not the kind of thing that people are generally looking for with online ed — they want things related to up-to-date job skills, and that means things are going to change frequently.

Further, let’s think about the audience here. I’m going to postulate that the number of people who genuinely cannot make it to a real-live classroom within a reasonable distance of their home is small. For most of the audience, I’m assuming that it’s a matter of convenience rather than real need — and the question is how much quality they’re willing to sacrifice for convenience that in many cases is going to be a relatively marginal gain. The deciding factor here may well be prestige. It makes sense that someone would prefer to complete their BA through Northwestern rather than Podunk Satellite Campus or something. But what percentage of colleges really offer enough prestige to “cover” the quality gap compared to simply rearranging one’s schedule sufficiently to pick up some credits at a local school?

This raises the question of competition. Flexible online offerings make education much more of a commodity. Currently a combination of unlimited federal support for student loans and a race to signal prestige has allowed higher education to escape from normal market forces in a lot of ways — but the more strictly utilitarian the marketing is, the more inevitable it becomes that pricing competition will arise. What’s more, if I’m not really going to Northwestern and getting all the Northwestern amenities and really networking in real life with Northwestern students and faculty, then the content and delivery is going to have to be pretty damn good for me to be willing to pay Northwestern tuition — not to mention the fact that the Northwestern brand itself becomes endangered if it becomes associated with a low-quality product and/or low-quality students. (I only choose Northwestern because I see a ton of ads on the L for their programs.) And as soon as any competitive pressures come into play, i.e., as soon as prestigious universities can’t simply name their own price, all the other cost factors become that much bigger of an issue.

Perhaps online education can really be a great revenue stream, but it’s hardly a slam dunk. I suspect that the only reason people have embraced it so enthusiastically is that higher ed administrators have bought into the common ideological notion that labor costs are always the problem — so anything that promises to cut labor costs (even if implausibly, as I argue above) is a good thing. I also suspect that a big factor in the embrace of online education is the fact that it’s what donors are most interested in — because donors always prefer capital-intensive products and because current trends in educational philanthropy are all focused on ways to cut labor costs (also known as “running education like a business”). A final factor is the herd mentality and fatalism that is so prevalent in higher ed — we must do online because online is the future and we will be left behind!

For a detached observer, though, it seems obvious that online higher education is no more inevitable than online medical treatment or online shoe repair. It also seems obvious that if it was genuinely obvious that online education was a good thing, it wouldn’t need to be constantly propagandized. The only way to make online education genuinely inevitable is to produce a self-fulfilling prophecy effect where everyone rushes to adopt online education lest others beat them to the punch.

Now as poorly as people have thought things through in terms of “traditional” online education, the case is even worse for MOOCs. Now it is true that MOOCs increase “access” to education in terms of content. Leaving aside the fact that essentially the whole of human knowledge is already available for free online, MOOCs are missing the really crucial factor of certification. I could start teaching college courses for free in my living room, but that wouldn’t really be increasing “access” to higher education in the way that really counts — not even if I printed off a certificate of completion for all successful graduates of Kotsko Kollege.

MOOCs “work” because the institutions that do them are super-rich and are concerned with their public image. If MOOCs are going to be a vanity project for prestigious universities, I say more power to them — and open up JSTOR to the general public while they’re at it. But if they are really going to “change the face of education,” there needs to be some way of getting college credit for them. What employer is going to be enthusiastic about a potential employee who swears that they’ve watched a lot of videos online? Currently it seems like universities are creating a new form of pseudo-credit to certify completion of MOOCs, but if people are seriously going to be pursuing degrees, MOOCs will have to become more like “traditional” online education, meaning that all the administrative overhead and all the questions surrounding tuition, prestige, etc., are going to come up.

Overall, I have a hard time seeing any outcome for the online trend other than reinforcing the competitive advantage of real-life prestigious colleges and thus perversely increasing their already robust pricing power. The net effect, it seems, will be to introduce yet another layer of “fake college” in the hierarchy of higher ed, which may drag down the credibility of a lot of marginal institutions to the level of prestige currently enjoyed by the University of Phoenix. And of course it will create a lot of debt slaves out of all those hopeful people churning through the process. All this, with no real guarantee that the economic pay-off is forthcoming!

Imagine if we actually invested money in improving instruction rather than actively degrading it for the hope of greater efficiency! We might not wind up making more money or boosting economic growth or providing employers with free pre-trained workers — but we’d at least educate people, right?

45 thoughts on “What is the business model for online education?

  1. I know you know this, but “efficiency” is a cover for “give me that money.” The “me” here are the tech vendors, among others. One of the things we see over and over in the US is the grab for whatever pool of money is sitting around. Taxpayer money: let’s have a war so I can have it. Social security money: privatize! Here, it’s tuition dollars. You and other make a clear, cogent, and (to me anyway) utterly irrefutable case that those dollars are best spent according to the research that suggests that smaller classes, etc. work best. Instead, the drive seems to be “give that money to the capitalists, administrators, and the contingent labor of all forms that works for them, rather than to the teachers and support staff who might know a thing or two about, you know, teaching.” The Clay Shirkeys of the world give cover to this dollars-grab with their prognostications and disruption. Shirkey argues for a sort of busy work: let’s do this because we need to do something because I am bored! Disruption! Reasons!

  2. Unfortunately, it does look as though some schools are beginning to offer college credit for MOOCs. Georgia State announced this January that they’ll be doing this. And apparently a group called the American Council on Education is now recommending some select MOOCs to various schools as exemplary courses that should be offered for credit (mainly math and science courses.) This has probably been the plan all along. And I think the basic business model is: turn the teacher into a software program and make radical cuts to the cost of education.

    Nigel Thrift argued in his blog, yesterday, that MOOCs are basically the new frontier of techno-utopianism and corporate evangelism. And the MOOC is, ” based on the idea that higher education is the next sector in line for the high-volume, low-margin information-technology treatment after finance, retail, and the media.” (http://chronicle.com/blogs/worldwise/to-mooc-or-not-to-mooc/31721) I think he’s right.

  3. I wonder if MOOCs are just a long-term plan to rebrand online education, which has been tainted by association with Phoenix, etc. It’ll come back around to being the same thing once it comes time to grant credit — but it’ll be this cool thing, MOOCs, that Thomas Friedman was raving about! Not shitty internet college.

  4. Adam, if that’s the case, I won’t be entirely disappointed. Honestly, I’m not against online education. I’ve been teaching online for a couple of years now. My reasons for doing so were entirely pragmatic (I got into a terrible accident and could no longer commute to one of the schools I was adjuncting at). It’s isolating, sure. But I’ve also been given very small classes (23 is the cap, but they’re more often between 15-18). I spend quite a bit of time on them. But those are also hours that I could be spending on a daily commute. There are some students who struggle with the format. But there are some students who really love the writing intensive format. And they also learn a lot from reading their classmates written responses to things several times each week. Honestly, I do think that on average the writing that my students produce in these courses is better. I’ve been frustrated by entirely dismissive approaches to online education from faculty in elite universities (I wrote a piece about this for the Chronicle this fall: http://chronicle.com/article/More-Than-MOOCs/134014/). Because I do think it’s possible to think about online education contributing something to the ecology of the university. But I think that, yes, we have to stress how much time it takes to manage these classes (as much as any class in meatspace). And I think that fighting to keep these caps on courses that require written work, just as professors have been fighting to do in physical spaces, is one of the most important things.

  5. I also think that, if the outcome is eventually just a “re-branding” of online education (and the employment of various course models, including both MOOCs and smaller online courses), there’s still going to be quite a bit of debate ahead. I think that the people who’ve invested in developing the software for these MOOCs really want to intimate that they’re doing something new, and entirely *transformative*. And I think that the ivy leagues that are partner with them aren’t going to want to think of themselves as simply doing something that Phoenix (and community colleges) were doing before them.

  6. I can say as someone working for a for-profit ‘university’ with a large online presence that they don’t care about quality as much as they do about numbers. For example, student evaluations of instructors are based on the same metrics that are used in, for example, Chick-fil-A (NetPromoter) and they actively seek the same kind of grade inflation in their reviews. My campus is actively telling students that a rating of 10 means ‘we’re doing our job’ and anything below an 8 means the student is a dissatisfied customer which may harm the brand image. That’s verbatim from the materials I’ve found in the evaluation summaries I get.

    Secondly, courses are required to provide 45 (38.5) hours of primary contact with the instructor (e.g. classroom time) in a term to count for the equivalent of a 3-credit semester course. A ten week class must be scheduled for 45 hours and must actually be in class for 38.5 hours to count towards accreditation.

    Thirdly, this particular ‘university’ is moving towards call-center style instruction where they hire instructors to sit in a call center and handle multiple online courses (each with fewer than 30 students!). The full-time faculty already are required to teach sixteen courses in a year (four per quarter) in addition to providing 20 hours of ‘academic advising’ (code words for cold-calling students to ensure they attend often enough to continue enrolling and paying money). This organisation has already begun piloting its call-center teaching and will seek to replace their ‘traditional faculty’ (i.e. adjuncts) with staff that are even more ‘cost effective’. I’d imagine this school having no qualms with putting an instructor in a cubicle with a computer and a telephone for eight-hour shifts teaching eight courses, if not more. After all, they reason, the instructor is merely facilitating the group discussion on a preset lecture video using a preset syllabus with five preset online examinations and perhaps marking the three terribly short assignments (one, two, and three-to-five pages, respectively).

    Fourthly, these for-profit ‘universities’ don’t have a huge IT infrastructure — all of their courseware is hosted by BlackBoard and verified by TurnItIn. They have a technical support team which consists of a handful of people in a call center who reset passwords. Students do not have a school email (and those that do — such as Phoenix — use Google Apps). Currently, they spend more on on-campus computers than they do on infrastructure. There’s no intranet in the traditional sense (it’s been moved to a portal website). The ‘university’ with which I’m most familiar has an MS Exchange server farm for staff/faculty email. They use LDAP (connected to the Exchange server farm) for all passwords (and users must log in to each site individually with the same username and password). They’ve got a handful of relatively cheap laser printers with a service contract for each one. That’s really it as far as their IT investments.

    Reduce the physical presence, and they’ll spend even less in equipment because there’s no more need for those extra computers lying about. Tuition will stay the same (at roughly $1700 per course). For a class of 20 students, that gives the company $31,700 after the instructor’s salary. If they go to eight deep on an instructor and keep the current FT pay (also, FT faculty do not get any benes), the company looks at getting roughly $1M in revenue annually — while still keeping small class sizes and maintaining accreditation!

    While they’ve been good at keeping admin overhead on the academic side low, consolidating things to a call center will allow them to cut even more. They’ve currently got a campus ‘dean’, an admin assistant, and a librarian. Above them, there’s a regional ‘dean’ and up to two vice/’provosts’ (plus admin assistants), a national ‘dean’ and up to four vice/’chancellors’. There’s a few other academic officers (e.g. ‘college deans’ and academic affairs ‘provost’). Going to a call center model will allow them to cut all local librarians, and reduce the ‘deans’ and admin assistants by a large percentage (one per call-center shift at most). They’ve already consolidating their staff recruitment to about ten (one for each of the four regions plus perhaps a few admin overhead). The rest of the staff they have are admissions and business office characters, which again are mostly tied to the local campus. Get rid of the campus and they can cut that staff as well. Provided they keep accreditation, they’ll (continue to) make a shitload of money (primarily from GI bill and federal student loans).

  7. Interestingly, the UK has a 40-year old example of what the best possible outcome of MOOCs might be: the distance learning courses run by the Open University; at first the recorded lectures weren’t “online” they were “on TV,” but the principle is the same. Of course, as the Open University provides a pretty good education by employing actual academics to tutor the students (and also to do research, ensuring that they are up to date with the subjects they are teaching), it isn’t really any cheaper than offline education.

  8. I don’t see the current university model working as/is. Tuition is way too expensive. Not to mention that four years at a college run by college schedules puts your life on hold while pursuing a degree. I foresee a caste system for universities — (1) there will be brick-and-mortar universities for students of relative wealth who can afford the luxury of attending college, living in a dorm, eating in a cafeteria, listening to lectures in a lecture hall, and so on.
    (2) there will be online universities for everyone else. Many universities, like brick-and-mortar stores, will close or be severely reduced, because the education commodity can be more cheaply conveyed online than by physical attendance in a class room.

    I’m not denying the educational experience is for the most part better live than online. But is it worth $100K+ if you can pay considerably less with an offline option? And why shouldn’t students be able to listen to lectures etcetera at their convenience, rather than the school’s schedule? The current education model puts student lives essentially on-hold for four years. If you could take a major chunk of your courses on-line, you could also work a job in the 9-to-5 “real world” while pursuing your education.

    The other painful issue is what the college curriculum will look like in … oh…. 20 years. Can we support the same number of students with bachelor degrees and advanced degrees from the various humanity programs? I don’t think so.
    Or take your average MDiv program? Does a prospective theology student who intends to work at a church really need to spend three years located at some divinity school somewhere?

    And timing being what it is, an email from edX just popped into my mailbox offering five (!) new courses.

    If I could get college credit for one or more of these courses from some institution, what would be the compelling reason for me to deal with the hassle of driving, parking — not to mention the time and inconvenience on *my* schedule — to take something similar from a brick-and-mortar school?

  9. I find the glib resolve that the academic caste system is only (inevitably) going to become MORE radically entrenched sort of horrifying.

  10. I just looked it up, and there are approximately 4500 institutions of higher learning in the United States. They appear to be spread across the states roughly according to population. That’s a lot of buildings with rooms, tables, chairs, and blackboards, conveniently located basically everywhere — and again, a lot of colleges are expanding and building new satellite campuses all the time!

    We probably should deemphasize “going away to college,” for a lot of reasons. But there is no reason to assume that live, in-person instruction simply cannot be provided on a large scale. We have the seats. We have ample instructors. It’s just a matter of will. Trusting that online will make everything work out is a cowardly and incoherent attempt to dodge necessary political choices — including the possibility of undoing the political choices that undermined public higher education and led directly to ballooning tuition in the first place.

  11. To build off of what Beatrice is saying: I’m going to go out on a limb and say that the actual difference in instructional quality across traditional, non-profit institutions is probably not that great. Going to a more prestigious college is probably going to mean getting access to greater resources, etc., but a lot depends on student motivation — I went to a subpar college, but I think I came away with a great education because I took advantage of what’s there. My career path would presumably have been easier if I’d gone to Harvard, but I doubt my intellectual development would’ve been substantially better.

  12. Ha… That’s a running gag of mine whenever a missed educational opportunity comes up — I’ll say, “Man, if only I’d done that! Maybe I could be a college professor right now!”

  13. I only wish I was sophisticated.The spambot is optional. I just think there are a lot of venerable institutions that are deeply in trouble. I cannot walk down Santana Row here in San Jose without bemoaning that Borders is shut down for good. And now Barnes & Nobel is also going the way of the passenger pigeon and the Dodo. The last recession and declining demographics exposed the underlying institutional rot under a lot of mainline seminaries e.g. Lexington and Seabury-Western. I seriously would not be surprised if more seminaries simply go out of existence in the next 5-10 years, when students cannot find jobs and they do not want to go into substantial debt to study theology at a brick-and-mortar school. I do not doubt a campus component included in future education. But does it really need to be for nine months of a year? Maybe you can concentrate a Biology class with labs into specialized weeks (or a long weekend) if you must dissect a frog or something. Also, can your community college (or even Cal State) adjunct ethics professor really compete with studying with Michael J. Sandel?

  14. Point of information: does Michael J. Sandel attract many eighteen year olds to his first year courses? Like, when kids select where they want to go to school, do they say, “The one with Michael J. Fucking Sandel?”

  15. To expand on my previous “quip”: I’m pretty sure having Michael Ignatieff teach a half credit course once per year does not attract many undergraduate students to the University of Toronto. And, worse, if it does, who wants those students at their university?

  16. Thought Experiment — Think back to Junior High (7-9 where I went) and High School (10-12). Would you rather slog through 6 years of mathematic classes or log onto Khan Academy? Too much time is wasted in the average student’s day that could be better spent in more worthwhile activities. Learning is more productive when it’s at the student’s pace than the teacher’s.

  17. The whole point of middle and high school is to waste students’ time. The world would go up in flames if all of those adolescents were running free.

  18. When I think back to junior high I feel shame and embarrassment for the way I convinced myself that I didn’t want to pay attention to math because I would have rather been talking about the emotional worlds of fictional characters in English class. Or shopping at the mall with my girlfriends. I am grateful that I was coerced into learning the little math that I did. I would never have given Khan and his academy the time of day. And I am grateful for the math teachers who patiently tolerated me while I caused trouble in order to distract the class from the lesson ( one of them actually called me a pissant and my mom had to pay her a visit.) I am grateful for those real human beings and the fact that they were able to help me learn something about social accountability and self discipline. And math.

  19. Here is the obligatory ‘KHAAAAANN!!’ reference: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wRnSnfiUI54

    A bit more seriously: no, I would not. I had the opportunity to teach myself (err, I mean do homeschooling) and I chose to go to school. I’m quite suspicious of anyone who thinks they can teach themselves any sufficiently advanced subject without the direct interaction of someone who is at least qualified to understand the subject matter. For example, calculus. I’ve met a few people who claim to have taught it to themselves, and the truth of the matter is that they don’t know it at all. Sure, they may be able to some basic differentiation, but give them a Taylor series and they’ll panic. Give them what my HS calculus instructor called a ‘barn-burner’ (the full answer would take a full legal-size page to write out), and they’ll have a coronary. At least, that’s been my experience.

  20. Calculus is probably a good example of where traditional school is needed. I taught a couple calculus classes and feel fairly confident saying those kids would have been about 0 for 40 in sticking with it without a LOT of hand holding.

  21. The big thing, at least for me, with calculus being one where traditional school is needed, is that calculus is the *first* course counted as credit for a major in maths and sciences (at least at my po-dunk, local university). I would wager that most courses at that level and higher in most fields are where traditional school is needed. I similarly would not expect someone trying to teach themselves Kant (another 2x-level course at my undergrad institution), inorganic chemistry, theory of religion, or similar mid-level courses to get very far without a lot of hand-holding. That’s saying nothing about upper-level courses. So basically, it seems to me that these online courses are only worth anything for intro-level courses.

    Sadly, in my experience at the for-profit ‘university’, those courses are the ones most rampant with plagiarism. To me, that means that even in those courses, a traditional school is also needed — not because the majority of students can’t understand the material but because someone qualified needs to be able to recognise what is and isn’t on par with the calibre of the class.

  22. I cannot agree any more strongly with this statement: “I think they can definitely compete with the illusion of “studying with Michael J. Sandel” when you’re really watching videos from him and getting interaction from an underling.”

    Another, quite different but equally important problem: most academic “superstars” gain their recognition from other scholars who recognize and use their work. If you get rid of most academics, you not only get rid of the people who produce all the new books and studies that filter into classrooms (getting rid of this would essentially freeze the content of lectures; can you imagine if we had frozen the content of lectures in 1955 and still repeated that today?) You also get rid of the academic process of validating, checking and critiquing work. How do you know what is good work, and what’s bad work? If you’re not a specialist in a particular field I guess you can try to figure it out yourself, but most people end up trusting in some way the evaluations of scholars who *are* specialists in that field. Online education provides for the

    Eventually, what we would be left with is the popularizers (because they have good “stage presence”) without any new research to popularize. Imagine Malcom Gladwell rehashing the same stuff fifty years from now.

    I realize this relies upon a sense that the experts “really know,” and it assumes the narrative of the “progress of knowledge,” and that it posits a hierarchy of qualification, and so on. But if we don’t at least tacitly subscribe to these ideas, then let’s just shut down the whole thing while we’re at it. Getting rid of all higher education would be the cheapest option, right?

  23. I realize this relies upon a sense that the experts “really know,” and it assumes the narrative of the “progress of knowledge,” and that it posits a hierarchy of qualification, and so on. But if we don’t at least tacitly subscribe to these ideas, then let’s just shut down the whole thing while we’re at it. Getting rid of all higher education would be the cheapest option, right?

    I think you’ve hit on the mindset of a great many on management side of things who have become MOOC enthusiasts over the last year or so.

  24. “And the MOOC is, ”based on the idea that higher education is the next sector in line for the high-volume, low-margin information-technology treatment after finance, retail, and the media.”

    And we’re obviously all worse off with a finance, retail and media sector that is more technology based. So much so we only use technology because we have to even if we know it was so much more fun to go to actual banks, stores, and stack copies of CD’s, tapes and so on. The worst is it was also much cheaper before technology spoiled it all.

  25. Think how much cooler concerts would be if they played in one location and it was broadcast straight into people’s living rooms! And they could consume the concert content on their schedule!

  26. Well, my daughter finds it cool because it allows her to pick out the right concerts for her; given she only has money to go to a few real ones every year.

    Think how much cooler it would be if the best teachers would continue to appear only for select audiences and their skill was wasted on who happened to be around in that location and on their schedule.

  27. I guess this is where we differ: I don’t think that the “best teachers” are radically better than the average teacher. Surely they’re not so much better as to make up for the gap between in-person and recorded instruction.

  28. I also don’t think they are radically better but I do think anything which is really good is scarce (like good concerts). If so anything that improves the balance, for instance by reserving in-person time to actual instruction i.s.o. wasting it by reproducing things that can be recorded, is a good thing. Sure, any good thing can be used badly.

    Also, some things are radically better (like good rock bands) and in these cases mass distribution helps. The fact that it helps to mass distribute nonsense as well should not put us off it.

    Anyway, as the last posts show, it is very possible to interact in person without having to be annoyed at each other’s smell and appearance.

  29. Guido, I don’t think the issue is that teaching is becoming digitized. Having an issue with the MOOC as an educational delivery model isn’t the same as harboring a nostalgic hatred towards all things technological. I think all of us who regularly engage with this blog can probably agree that technology is not inimical to intellectual discourse. I teach online, and I do think there are a few things that are a bit easier to teach online, rather than in person. Digital education is not the apocalypse. Rather, I think the most serious questions being raised about MOOCs in particular, and online education in general, are about the hope that these technologies will turn education into a high-volume, low-margin business… thus “saving” the university from its predicted ruin.

    Adam voiced skepticism about this in his post, and I concur. I just don’t buy the hype that online education can drive a radical financial restructuring of the university. I don’t doubt that it might be nice for some university students to take a MOOC or two, over the course of their education. They should probably, also, pay a little less for that model of delivery. As an undergrad, I did take a couple of massive lecture courses. That was fine. I liked the opportunity to be a bit invisible from time to time. But I took mostly seminars. I did a different kind of learning there and, ultimately, preferred this format. If online education is going to be delivered as a high-volume, low-margin business, these kinds of conversations (where students actually converse and engage with experts in the field, or with well-trained teachers who have been given ample opportunity to develop this skill by their employers) just won’t be possible. We’re going to see students in classes of 30,000 people. Their papers and exams are going to be graded by software (or by one another!) Their teachers are going to be recorded video footage (that can be played over and over, until the information becomes obsolete.) How well will this format work for an Introduction to Composition class? Inevitably, classes like these are going to demand more labor… actual teachers who can give students real feedback on their writing. And (unless these instructors are going to be making minimum wage in a call center), this is going to threaten the aim to make these courses high-volume and low-margin.

  30. beatrice, I can see all of the threats you mention. I’m even quite sure a number of them will materialize. Still, I think it is better not to just focus on what can go wrong. This not just because – as before – the trend will be irreversible but because there are clear advantages to it that are otherwise unattainable. The fact is that we all learn differently and that we do not all have similar access (both these things are correlated). If by technology it is possible at same time to play into individual student differences, make teacher/student engagement more efficient (less determined by the physical co-incidence of proximity) and increase student co-operation then that is a good thing which does not deny the key values of education but re-enforces them. Whether that will be possible is another thing, personally I think it is and I see my kids benefiting from technology in education (although I’m frustrated it is still so peripheral).

    Now as to MOOCs, I can also agree that the first examples (e.g. the Stanford AI class) focus on only one element – that of mass distribution and mass grading – and maybe highlight more of the potential con’s than show a potential set of pro’s. So I also have no issue with denouncing all the ho-ho saying MOOCs will save the world. It is just that in denouncing MOOCs the risk is that the baby is thrown out with the bathwater. There is quite some research (I’m not an expert but he – http://erikduval.wordpress.com/ – is) to find out how to help you and your students with your Introduction to Composition class. MOOCs are just the first thing to get attention. For instance the concept of the ‘flipped classroom’ where class time focuses on co-operation and going through the material is done individually is one that for me makes sense (maybe just because I never went to classrooms where people went through material).

    Anyway, I didn’t want to be polemic. I just think education is important and if we can use technology to make it more available then I don’t care about the business model. I do disagree that education is available enough though. I am sure not all people interested in Composition get the chance to be introduced to it.

  31. “Leaving aside the fact that essentially the whole of human knowledge is already available for free online…”

    Except not at all. Not even close. I know it seems this way at times, but that perception is false. Additionally, there is no guarantee that what is available today will be available tomorrow; indeed, we can reasonably except that it might not be, unless there is some kind of successful push-back against encroachment on internet-commons the part of humanity-at-large.

    If this quote were true, Aaron Schwartz would still be with us today. But, I know, one battle at a time…

  32. Can we differentiate between great researchers and great teachers. The really famous people in academia out there tend to be in the former category not the latter. For example, more people would want to take a class on technology corporations taught by someone like Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerburg rather than someone who is actually a better teacher. At least in my experience in natural science courses, the better teachers weren’t nearly as famous as the high-paid researchers (who generally sucked at teaching their own subject).

  33. You really need to include the commute time savings to students. This time can easily equal actual classroom time.

    While these savings do not acrew to the schools, they are real savings. They can enable potential students who are a reasonable distrance (30 minutes?) from campus to take courses they might not otherwise. These times savings can results more reading, better writing, etc..

    I am no great fan of online education, but these savings need to be factored in.

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