Bubbles, bubbles everywhere.

30 11 2012

Have you ever read EduBubble? I remember first getting there through a link from the New Faculty Majority and thinking, “Why on earth did these people send me here?” About half of what the mostly anonymous author (you have to look around, but apparently it’s someone named “C. Davis”) is totally offensive to any self-respecting faculty member, but their clip-finding skills are phenomenally good. More importantly, I’d say about a quarter of the time, C. Davis is right on the money. Besides, even if you disagree with someone attacking the entire concept of college, you should be able to refute these kinds of arguments or you have no business working in higher education.

Don’t get me wrong. I do not think college is a bubble. Even if it’s a worse bet than it used to be, it’s still the best route into the middle class. [Seriously, how many people get their dream job coming right out of college during a recession?] More importantly, it’s not the failure of American higher education that has made college risky. It’s structural changes in the economy, and foregoing college is just about the worst thing you can do if you want to have a prayer of keeping up with those changes.

I’ve struggled with this bubble question before, and think now more than ever that the bubbly people are both right and wrong. It’s not as if college has become a bad investment, but that hasn’t stopped administrators from doing their darnedest to make it that way. I wrote this in 2011 and it still sounds right to me:

My fear is that it’s the schools themselves who’ve started a speculative bubble, and the bubble they’re creating is in the “market” for students. With state money decreasing or with increasingly more students unable to borrow enough to go to a private university which costs $50,000/year, they’re bidding up the cost of attracting new students because growing the campus is less painful (but not cheaper) than making painful cuts to administrative salaries and sports.

I’m beginning to think MOOCs are themselves an extension of this effort to grow student populations at all costs. However, it’s not the wealthy schools that offer them who are doing the bubbling, it’s the poor ones who are willing to take certificates from whatever MOOC is available in the hopes that students completing their degrees there will still be willing to pay them something in return.

Coursera, which would then take a cut of those payments itself, strikes me as a bubble of a different kind. They have to make money somewhere, so they’ll do whatever it takes to find the labor needed to make their courses functioning. Apparently, that includes recruiting the extra instructional help they need to personalize their massive classes from the ranks of their own students. Do their students actually know something about the course? Presumably if they knew enough to teach it they wouldn’t need to take the course in the first place, but free labor’s most important attribute is cost not quality. Who cares what they actually know when there’s money to be made?

So given the choice between Facebook, Amazon or Pets.com, I think I’m going to pick Pets.com as the best analogy for Coursera’s future. But Coursera’s future is not my primary concern here. What happens to the effectiveness let alone the reputation of higher education when we let students get credit for courses which require no direct contact with a qualified teacher? Come to think of it, do all these new-fangled technological marvels of higher education seem to get a pass on all the assessment rituals that the rest of us get tortured with every semester? Could it be because they wouldn’t pass them?

It starts in my toes and I crinkle my nose, but unfortunately the smell of this particular potential bubble stinks to high heaven.

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2 responses

30 11 2012
Contingent Cassandra

The “college bubble,” to the extent it exists, might be more like the housing bubble than, say, the high-tech/internet business (or another stock) bubble: the basic product is something many people really do need, but poor-quality versions are being offered at inflated prices; unnecessary frills have crept in (while the components of real quality are getting short shrift); and all of the above is being driven in large part by people putting together, and profiting from, questionable loans to make the inflated prices seem affordable, and to a lesser-extent by well-meant but poorly-thought-out government programs that encourage people to try to acquire something commonly seen as part of the American dream despite the inflated prices. MOOCs (or at least what some people hope MOOCs will become) are definitely part of the picture: they supposedly offer another way to produce the basic product more cheaply, and so keep the present flawed system going, rather than rethinking the underlying, flawed structure.

1 12 2012
VanessaVaile

Student loan debt as part of current higher ed issues (or, if you prefer, gorilla in the room) certainly fits categorizing higher ed bubble as more like the housing one. Housing meets dot.com?

Good but depressing article, Pomp and Exceptional Circumstance: How Students Are Forced to Prop Up the Education Bubble (Boston Review, 11/19/12)

(link courtesy of “those people”)

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