Monday, 13 January 2014

Debating MOOCs

The debate about Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) is becoming increasingly polarised, as tends to happen with debates about educational reform. Education systems embody numerous and often contradictory goals and values - like equality and meritocracy, employability and virtuous citizenship. They also have millions of stake-holders and hundreds of organised interest groups, with different perspectives, material interests and beliefs. This is why education is so intensely political. The status quo represents a tenuous equilibrium - or grudging stalemate - between these competing values, groups, and interests. Certainly this is not an optimal equilibrium, but it is one that cannot be moved away from without harming values and interests that some people hold dear. No matter what kind of educational reform one proposes, at least some stake-holders will object vociferously.

In the case of MOOCs, the polarisation seems to be particularly between tech optimists (all the tech intellectuals seem to be optimists) and pessimistic academics, particularly in the humanities (e.g. this open letter to Michael Sandel). I appreciate that the glib rhetoric of the TED Talk mafia about our shiny egalitarian digital future displays a singular shallowness of vision that is in need of critique. Yet so far I haven't seen much of that from the academics who are fighting back against this massively disruptive trend in higher education. Many of their complaints look like a rationalisation of their own unenlightened self-interest rather than following from any real consideration of the interests of students.

 

The cost disease in higher education

Let me first give explain the underlying economic crisis in higher education that everyone is aware of: it costs too much. The price of university education has been rocketing up over the last decades. This is not only due to the questionable budgetary priorities and expansionism of university administrators (whom academics love to criticise), or even 'neo-liberal' governments cutting back on public subsidies. These are certainly a factor, but they aren't the underlying driver of the secular trend in price inflation. That is the economic phenomenon known as 'cost disease' identified by the economist William Baumol.

In brief, cost disease concerns how labour intensive sectors of the economy like education can become more expensive over time because of technological innovations in other sectors. Increases in productivity in some  industries raise the price of labour across the economy and not only in the original sectors. This is because, even if one can now make a car with 100 hours of labour instead of a 1,000 hours, cars are not the only thing we need. If one still wants things like hospitals, live music, and schools, then one must pay people in the caring or performing or education industries a salary that competes with what they could get if they switched to working in the auto industry where their economic output (and hence wages) would be higher.

The problem is the unevenness of productivity growth. While every year it takes fewer and fewer labour hours to make a car or computer, a string quartet still requires the same number of skilled musicians as in Beethoven's time. But those 4 musicians must be paid much more than in Beethoven's time, or they will leave for other jobs that are paid well enough to afford the lifestyle that the modern economy makes available.

(This, by the way, is why middle-class people in rich countries can't afford to live the Downton Abbey lifestyle even though we are so many times richer than in 1913, while comparably wealthy people in poor countries like India can. In rich countries salaries for domestic servants must compete with the highly productive jobs available in other sectors. Servants are much cheaper in poor countries because of the absence of well-paying alternatives.)

Until very recently, it seemed that there had been no technological innovation in higher education to speak of since the invention of textbooks (and perhaps machine graded multiple choice exams). It still took a professor with 6 years of graduate training 50 minutes with a piece of chalk to explain Baumol's cost disease to a class of undergraduates. Higher education (and other industries like health care) is in the position of the string quartet, with labour costs rising steadily while quality stays flat, hence the rise in costs that have changed a university education into a luxury good. An obvious response by the universities was to offset some of that increase in costs by reducing the quality of their product, replacing expensive full-time tenured faculty with adjuncts and graduate students paid a pittance per course. (Non-tenured staff now make up 75% of America's academic workforce, according to the New York Times.)

The most significant feature of MOOCs is that they have the potential to mitigate the cost disease phenomenon in higher education, and thus disrupt its economic conventions, rather as the recorded music industry did for string quartets. Of course MOOCs aren't the same thing as residential degree programme classroom courses with tenured professors. In at least some respects they are a clearly inferior product. But then, listening to a CD isn't the same experience as listening to a string quartet, nor are movies the same as theatre. But they are pretty good substitutes for many purposes, especially when the difference in price between them is so dramatic. And, like MOOCs, they also have non-pecuniary advantages over the original, such as user control and enormous quality improvements on some dimensions.

I think this cost advantage is the real challenge the opponents of MOOCs have to address. Why isn't this cheap alternative good enough? Given that one can now distribute recordings of lectures by the most brilliant and eloquent academics in the world for a marginal cost of close to zero, the idea that a higher education requires collecting millions of 18-25 year olds together in residential schools in order to attend lectures by relative mediocrities and read the books collected in the university library needs a justification. Otherwise it will come to seem an expensive and elitist affectation. Like paying for a real string quartet at your party, or a handmade mechanical watch rather than just one that works.

The reply

In general, the academics critical of MOOCs have evaded the economics issue, labelling it the kind of profane calculus that neoliberalism imposes on the world, commodifying education at the expense of its intrinsic value and integrity. (The usual charge - 'the price of everything and the value of nothing'.) When they do address it, it is only to say that the rising costs of university could be met by an expansion of government funding from general taxation to allow them to educate the same numbers of students in the same way as they did 30 years ago. This is head in the sand stuff.


Instead the opponents of MOOCs focus on other concerns, especially education quality, social justice, and academic scholarship.

Quality

The critics point out that MOOCs have made considerably more progress with disseminating information (online lectures and texts) than with online teaching and assessment. Indeed, while computer science courses, where MOOCs began, seem to fit the model quite well (e.g. coursework assignments grade themselves: programmes either run or they don't), the humanities especially require human attention in their assessment. And that attention is expensive, making the economics of MOOCs less convincing. Online classrooms also seem to do a poor job of supporting and motivating students. Certainly, there is no sense of community, which a residential college programme can achieve. This may be why the non-completion rate for MOOCs is so high (well over 90%).

Yet the quality critique seems somewhat unfair. The kind of people taking MOOCs are from a different demographic than ordinary college students. For example, they may be holding down full-time jobs and a full family life. Also, MOOCs are still at an early stage of development and it is possible that some of the teaching and assessment problems can be mitigated. Finally, even if this model never works as well for the humanities (only 7% of US university students) as for the natural sciences, its success could still be significant.

In addition, it isn't clear to me that a university should be quite so focused on teaching anyway. Certainly not all university systems take that view. My own undergraduate experience in Britain was of being treated as a learner who was expected to work things out for myself using the resources the university made available (this helps explain why the British university system is one of the cheapest in the rich world). If one takes a learner model of higher education, rather than the extended high-school model that follows naturally from having 18 year olds as one's main customers, the advantages of MOOCs are more clear cut. Autodidacts and those interested in learning for its own sake may be particularly well served by the flipped classroom model; those who need spoon feeding or are only there to please their parents or network their way to a job at Goldman Sachs less so.

Social Justice

Some critics have argued that MOOCs would introduce elitism, since those who could afford it would still go to the prestigious and extraordinarily expensive residential institutions for their degrees, with all the networking possibilities that affords. This leads to social injustice. Well, yes, but what's new about that?

Graduating from our existing elite universities is already a ticket to success that goes far beyond the quality of the education one might receive there. Oxford and Cambridge graduates dominate Britain's political, corporate, and cultural institutions. Likewise for America's Ivy League universities. Yet the students who get into these institutions are overwhelmingly the children of the already rich and successful.

At the same time, the economic constraints faced by all universities have led to a reduction in their ability to serve their educational rather than networking role. Many universities have already cut back on academic staffing costs and are providing a much lower quality education than they used to, or that other richer institutions are still able to provide. Many have drop out rates of well over 50%, especially those that serve students from the poorest backgrounds.

The social injustice is already here. The rich are overserved and the poor are underserved by the status quo. The critics must show not only that MOOCs have inegalitarian implications, but that they will be worse for socio-economic inequality than the status quo. I haven't seen this done. In particular, I haven't seen the positive 'democratising' potential of MOOCs taken very seriously.

Let me suggest a different way of looking at the social justice implications of MOOCs: considering the burdens imposed on students by our current model and how they would change. The increasing cost of a university education currently falls on the students, whether through increased tuition fees or rationing access [previously] or reducing quality (adjunct professors hired as freelancers to replace tenured positions). MOOCs have the potential to address that cost problem at its source and thus enormously increase the total number of people, and the proportion coming from poorer backgrounds, who can afford to access a university level education. That would seem to be a plus for social justice.

Furthermore, by freeing students from the residency requirement, MOOCs dramatically reduce the total opportunity cost of an education: the value of the option path you have to give up in order to attend. One reason university students look so much alike - young, single, middle-class - is that they are the only demographic that doesn't have anything more important to do than go to school. The vast majority of adults who might like to study at the university level have jobs, dependants, partners, the wrong citizenship, etc which are incompatible with the residential model. MOOCs have the potential to dismantle that barrier and thus vastly increase the real affordability of a high quality university education.

People around the world want the best possible education for themselves, and to be able to prove that with certification. But the world's top traditional universities can only accommodate the lucky couple of hundred thousand teenagers with the highest SAT scores. This is to me an obvious and enormous social injustice. The promoters of MOOCs claim they have the potential to end the scarcity problem in education and thus end the invidious competition for a good education that entrenches socio-economic inequality and calls it meritocracy. Perhaps this is over-optimistic. Yet it is hard to understand how this goal of democratising university education can be seen as a social injustice, as some critics suggest. And even if in practice MOOCs fall well short of what is being claimed for them, that seems a goal worth trying for. 

Academic Scholarship

Many academic critics of MOOCs argue that they would bring about the destruction of the scholar-teacher ideal of the university professor. On this, their area of professional expertise, they are probably right. At present, tenure track academics are expected to both teach and publish original research. The idea is that those who do original research at the frontiers of their discipline will bring an intellectual quality and vigour to their teaching that non-researchers who are simply teaching what they learned 20 years before would not. Thus, a great deal of academic research, especially in the humanities, is paid for out of the teaching budget as a byproduct of this Gold Standard for university teaching.

This huge effective subsidy for research is why university teaching looks so expensive compared to high schools. Lecturers are paid for a full-time job, but much of their time is set aside for research and they may well only teach a couple of two hour classes per week (vs more like 22 hours per week for a high school teacher). Thus, despite the fact that many university courses are lectures to a hundred or more students, and that most students have far less than a full-time class schedule, the ratio of students to faculty in universities is generally lower than in high schools.

MOOCs threaten this because they don't require nearly as many scholar-teachers, just a few super star performers like Michael Sandel who really understand what they're doing. Any other teaching staff required by a MOOC only need to be expert in facilitating student learning using the course materials provided, like high school teachers, rather than being genuine masters of the topic of study. Thus, the adjunct model, which has already been spreading through higher education as a cost-saving measure, will take over completely. Only a tiny number of teacher-scholars will survive, in rich prestigious private universities, and the video stars will be drawn from them. University research will fall dramatically, and in the humanities is likely to collapse altogether.

Yet the underlying problem here does not seem to be due to MOOCs per se, but to the systematic undervaluation of academic research. Particularly in the humanities, where it is hardest to 'prove' the contribution to society of one's research and thus hard to get specific funding for research projects, academics have long depended on cross-subsidising the scholarship role of the university with the tuition fees and public funds that pay for the education role. Clearly this has been a mistake. For instead of making a clear argument for the independent value and public service of their scholarly research, academics have tended to argue that their scholarship is merely a necessary part of good quality teaching (an instrumental, subsidiary relationship). This has only made the teaching part of university budgets seem more expensive, excluding large numbers of potential students and motivating administrators to cut its costs by the expansion of adjunct teaching (and now MOOCs).

Now that the scholar-teacher model seems to be in decline (even without MOOCs), if academics want to save the idea of the university as a place of scholarship, they will have to start talking directly to the public about the value of their research and the importance of continuing to fund it. If that involves a greater commitment to putting the results of our research into the public sphere in an accessible non-jargon cluttered way, all to the good.

The social sciences and the humanities face particular problems in demonstrating the value of what they do since, unlike the natural sciences, they tend to focus on interpretation rather than on discovering new things. As a result, their achievements are rather less obvious - all talk, often about the same old things, rather than the brand new nuggets of shiny knowledge that the natural sciences can reliably produce. Yet, the topics they grapple with - the human condition - are certainly no less important than the Higgs boson and generally much more difficult. It is time for us to stand up and say so. 

Conclusion

The horror of many academics at seeing the worker cooperative model that supports their livelihood, status, and identity dissolve around them is quite understandable, but it generates an obvious conflict of interest in their assessment of MOOCs. The San Jose philosophy department's open letter to Michael Sandel concludes,
Professors who care about public education should not produce products that will replace professors, dismantle departments, and provide a diminished education for students in public universities.
I feel great discomfort too at seeing the academic system - which I am still hoping to join - embarking on such a revolutionary disruption. But I am still sufficiently distanced from institutionalised academia to want to celebrate the potential benefits of this long time coming gale of creative destruction for those whom education is supposed to be for: the students. I worry that many academics' opposition to MOOCs resembles the self-interested complaints of the Luddites about stocking frames destroying jobs and converting artisans into wage-labourers......by making stockings cheaper for everyone to buy!

Certainly MOOCs if they succeed will have massively destructive effects on universities as we know them, and some valuable things may more or less disappear, like the idea of a residential community of learning or the scholar-teacher. But the mere identification of costs is insufficient to condemn an innovation like MOOCs. A fair assessment requires impartially considering their potential benefits too. The promise of MOOCs for the democratisation of higher education is so great that it deserves to be given the chance to work.

Update
One issue I didn't mention above is that most universities are still run as worker-cooperatives by the faculty. The debate about MOOCs is thus linked to the ongoing transformation in the corporate structure of universities, as faculty are pushed into a merely contractual rather than owner-manager role. 

Is this so bad? The problem with the worker-cooperative model, for all its romantic appeal, is its incentive to limit production and hiring (cf Joseph Heath), because new hires dilute ownership. It is thus not so surprising that so many universities have embraced a two-tier employment system in response to financial difficulties, rather than cutting faculty members own research time and pay. Being mean to employees is not a prerogative only of shareholder capitalism. New academic hires have a merely ad hoc contractual relationship to the university as adjuncts or teaching assistants, often at ridiculous wages and no benefits, yet at the same time many universities have vigorously opposed efforts by them to form unions on the grounds that it would undermine the collegiate character of the university.

6 comments:

  1. Very much enjoyed this essay, thanks.

    I'd be interested to hear the arguments you allude to about the value of scholarly research in the humanities. A quick thought experiment: let's say we live in a post-MOOC world, where teaching has been more or less decoupled from research, and now we have to make a more explicit decision about what types of research to subsidize. In such a world, I'd understand the value of academic work that is accessible to a non-expert audience, in both the humanities and the natural sciences. And I'd also understand the value of non-accessible, highly specialized research in the natural sciences, as this type of research can enable technological advances. But I'm not sure what argument I'd make for specialized, non-accessible research in the humanities.

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    1. I tend to agree. Research in the humanities should be directed to contributing to public knowledge rather than being conceived as the private business of some secular monastic order.

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  2. The real good thing is the availability of video lectures. Live lectures are obsolete, and that means that we can use the time spared from having the professor parroting the same things for years, to organize activites for students to learn better (labs, etc), even in humanities.

    I have a degree in philosophy, and yet we rarely did some discussions, speech or group work. And I don't blame the university or the professors that much, it was 10 years ago, the priority was give us the knowledge the best way they could (lectures).

    But now you can put the same lecture online, and it is even better. I can pause and rewind if I don't understand you or if I have to write something, there are no noisy kids, I can clearly see the board, you as the producer of the lecture can fix what you are saying to me.

    So why they still have the kids attend inefficient live lectures? Also they treat teachers like parrots. Let them do something different. Organize activities, labs, etc. Make them live the university, learn things even better than their dads (or me). Make me, the student, an active part of the learning environment.

    As for the certification, I think it would be fair to cut the connection between paying for learning and paying for being tested.
    Of course there are some knowledge that requires a constant supervision and a lot of lab activities, but that's why we can make exceptions.

    Also I don't think that "the idea of a residential community of learning" is at risk, infact it will be improved since you'll be an active part of it.

    Sorry if I wrote something unclear, but I'm not an English native speaker.

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    1. I like this perspective - the technology behind MOOCs can complement the best parts of the contemporary university system and so should not only be seen as a competitor.

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  3. Would the analysis apply also for advanced forms of education such as PhD?

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    1. PhDs are the opposite of mass education - really more like academic apprenticeships. (And fewer academic teaching jobs means less need for academic apprenticeships.) But they do have a similar emphasis on learning over teaching as MOOCs.

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