Why don’t we just cut to the chase and start selling “A”s?

27 09 2012

Kate explains to us what happens when market values really start to take over higher education as an Australian politician asks:

“What is a lecture worth if the best lecturer in the world at MIT is online for free for all to access?”

Of course, the best lecturer in the world isn’t at MIT online for free, but the important assumption behind that question is that a fifty minute online video lecture and fifty face-to-face minutes of classroom time are interchangeable. They’re not, as Tim Burke explains in a must read article on MOOCs by my hero, Nicholas Carr:

He contends that distance education has historically fallen short of expectations not for technical reasons but, rather, because of “deep philosophical problems” with the model. He grants that online education may provide efficient training in computer programming and other fields characterized by well-established procedures that can be codified in software. But he argues that the essence of a college education lies in the subtle interplay between students and teachers that cannot be simulated by machines, no matter how sophisticated the programming.

From an administrative standpoint, the problem with that subtle interplay is not that it occurs. The problem is that the kind of people who can conduct that subtle interplay demand crazy things like wages and health insurance. Therefore, they drive up the cost of a college education. More importantly for purposes of this post, they do crazy things like assign homework or award “F”s. Such behavior turns off students customers. Get those professors on the team, and this problem will disappear.

Regular readers may remember my description of our department’s administration-imposed movements towards offering an all-online history degree. [I described them here.] Perhaps my foremost objection to these efforts isn’t that these courses are going to be offered online. It’s that the compensation for the instructors who teach them is currently pegged to the number of students in the course. In other words, the more students who sign up, the more money the instructors make. This is not exactly a formula that encourages rigor. I’ve mentioned this twice via-email now, once to the dean and the provost at the same time. So far, the response has been crickets chirping.

Here’s what happens when you take this principle to its logical conclusion. A new startup is going to let college professors pitch their courses directly at students:

What Straighterline offers, Smith said, is a path to accreditation through its introductory course work. Students can receive credit toward a degree by transferring their course work to schools the company partners with, which are accredited. But Straighterline can’t offer its own degrees to students, because it is not accredited.

With Straighterline’s new model of enabling professors to customize courses and charge more for them to students means, at least theoretically, that the professors who offer the best value and services attached to the courses could attract more students as paying customers.

Under Straighterline’s model, which is set for a pilot this fall, Smith estimated that a college professor who attracts a large, potentially global following of student course takers, could earn up to a million dollars from a course.

I don’t know about you, but I didn’t get into this business for the money. I got into this business because I wanted to teach history. Sometimes those two goals contradict each other. If I started taking cash from students for “A”s, they’d throw me out on my ear. Would someone explain to me how what Straighterline is proposing is any different?

Michael Moore once asked, “Why doesn’t GM sell crack?” His answer was that it’s bad for the country. Why don’t universities sell “A”s or just fire their lecturers and show videos from MIT? Moore’s answer applies here too, as both questions suggest free enterprise gone wild.

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4 responses

27 09 2012
Jonathan Dresner

In the short run, selling A’s, or credentialing the uncredentialable, is a money-making proposition. But they’ll run into the same problem we’re running into which is that several of our critical stakeholder constituencies (business, particularly, but also our colleague schools with graduate programs) need grades and credentials to be usefully meaningful. If they aren’t, then we’ll get the same kind of push for external assessment for these new institutions that we’re getting in our accreditation meetings.

28 09 2012
Weekend Reading: First Twitter Came for IFTTT Edition - ProfHacker - The Chronicle of Higher Education

[…] Rees asks, “Why Don’t We Just Cut To the Chase And Start Selling As?”: Perhaps my foremost objection to these efforts isn’t that these courses are going to be offered […]

29 09 2012
MOOCs for Mooks: local proffie takes one out for a spin : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

[…] the future of higher ed is online, then the future of the republic is a dim one.  (See for example his riff on selling As based on Michael Moore’s question, “Why doesn’t GM sell crack?”)  While […]

5 11 2012
Just say no to technological unemployment in higher education. « More or Less Bunk

[…] of this set up for the quality of education are terrible. Here’s Kelly discussing one of my “favorite” edtech startups, […]

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