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 cost of university education has increased dramatically over the last decades, even when one allows for the massive discounts most students receive from the official published prices. 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 significant factor in some places, 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 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 people with the same income in poor countries like India can. In rich countries, salaries for domestic service must compete with the highly productive jobs available in other sectors. Servants are much cheaper in poor countries because so many people have so few 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. And costs don't really decline with scale: teaching more students requires a linear expansion in teaching faculty. Higher education (and other industries like health care) is thus 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.

The rise in costs is a problem that all but the best endowed universities have had to address, and they have generally done so in the most obvious way, by reducing the quality of their product. They have replaced 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.)

MOOCs 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. The most significant feature of MOOCs is that their marginal costs per student are tiny. One trained academic can perform his account of Baumol's cost disease to millions of people rather than only the few hundred who can squeeze into an auditorium.

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 about 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.


The critics point out that MOOCs have made considerably more progress with disseminating information (online lectures and texts) than with online teaching and assessment, which still require expensive trained human attention, making the economics of MOOCs less convincing. 

First, online classrooms 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%), and why most of those who do finish already have a bachelor's degree from a traditional residential university. 

Second, some subjects require human judgement in their assessment. Computer science courses, where MOOCs began, seemed such a roaring success partly because their coursework assignments grade themselves: programmes either run or they don't. However, the humanities are concerned with cultivating students' understanding of difficult and conflicting ideas, and assessment focuses on their ability to make judgements about complex issues like responsibility for starting the first world war or how Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway relates to Ulysses. Supposedly there are computer programmes under development that can already grade student essays as consistently as trained academics, but there just seems something wrong about grading without reading.

These are significant points. Yet the quality critique nevertheless seems somewhat unfair. MOOCs are still at an early stage of development and it is possible that some of their teaching and assessment problems will be mitigated with further technological and institutional innovations. Much of the MOOCs low completion rates can also be explained by their orientation to serving a different and more burdened demographic than residential college students - people holding down full-time jobs and a full family life, the same group distance learning programmes are intended for. In any case, even if the MOOC model never works as well for the humanities (only 7% of US university students) as for the natural sciences, what it can achieve could still be significant.

I am also unconvinced 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 to 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 than some 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 what we have now. 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 rationed access (quotas) or reduced quality (grad students and adjuncts replacing tenured professors). 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. This is very probably over-optimistic. Yet it is hard to understand how the goal of democratising university education can be seen as a social injustice, as some critics suggest. And even if MOOCs fall well short of what is being hoped of them, partial achievement of that goal still seems 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 are really really good at 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, especially in the humanities.

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 difficult 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 reliably churn out. 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. 


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 too feel great discomfort 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 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 making stockings cheaper for everyone to buy!

If MOOCs become as successful as their proponents claim they will transform higher education. That will have massively destructive effects on universities as we know them, and many valuable things may more or less disappear - like the idea of a residential learning community 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.

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. 

One can regret this but at the same time wonder if it is entirely a bad thing. 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.