What if the cure is worse than the disease?

18 02 2013

On Friday, Aaron Bady (who I seem to get all my MOOC material from these days) was Twitter-fisking an absolutely appalling 2012 report (.pdf) on “disaggregating” higher education from the American Enterprise Institute.  It argues:

Entrepreneurs see a window of opportunity because higher education has become far too expensive for many students. Rather than embracing innovations that have swept over the rest of the economy, boosting productivity, lowering prices, and improving quality, most colleges and universities have chosen to batten down the hatches, raise tuition, and hope for the best.

This is a common position among edtech entrepreneurs.  Indeed, when they tell us to “Think of the children!,”  that’s why.  Cutting costs is supposedly all on behalf of the students and (unless you’re from the American Enterprise Institute) not for the people who’ll be at the receiving end of the redirected money stream at all.

Unfortunately, using distance learning and MOOCs to cut the cost of instruction is like cutting off an arm when the patient’s leg is infected with gangrene because that’s not the site of the problem.  Here’s a Times article from last year on the subject I found thanks to Frank Pasquale that explains the real problem:

It is this cumulative public divestment — and not extravagances like climbing walls or recreational centers advertised on a few elite campuses — that is primarily responsible for skyrocketing tuitions at state institutions, which enroll three out of every four college students.

Colleges have found ways to hold costs per student relatively steady. Since 1985, the average amount that public institutions spend on teaching each full-time student over the course of a year has barely budged, hovering around an inflation-adjusted $10,000, according to a State Higher Education Executive Officers report. But in the same period, the share of instruction costs paid for by actual tuition — not the sticker price, but the amount students actually pay after financial aid — has nearly doubled, to 40 percent from 23 percent.

In theory it’s possible that technologically-enabled cuts in the instruction budget could be passed on to students through lower tuition, but universities have too many other cost centers that technology can’t cure that will still be growing – the growing number of administrators, obscenely high administrative salaries, sports, climbing walls in the gym, energy costs, and let’s not forget debt servicing on all that unnecessary campus construction.

The other thing that MOOC enthusiasts tend to forget is that setting up the infrastructure to run their precious babies is expensive in and of itself.  Sure, Coursera and the large universities that are home for these MOOCs are eating the start-up costs, but they’re doing so in anticipation of future revenue later.  That revenue will likely come, at least in part, from licensing those courses to other schools who will charge MOOC participants for credit.  There goes part of the technology discount right there.  Then there’s the cost of the police state that all those schools  will have to set up in order to prevent their MOOC students from cheating.

Perhaps I’m overly cynical, but I think the real root of MOOC-mania is an edifice complex on the part of university presidents and trustees.  The last time I checked, the average university president in this country served for about four years before moving on to greener pastures.  It used to be that the easiest way to leave a legacy on campus would be to build something.  With bond financing nearly impossible to come by these days, the easiest (but not necessarily least expensive) way to build something is to create a virtual campus.

The really neat thing about taking this route is that you get to give lots of really clever speeches filled with buzzwords that make you sound like a dynamic leader.  Check out the President of MIT, for example:

President L. Rafael Reif has announced the creation of an Institute-Wide Task Force on the Future of MIT Education, saying that the stunning rise of online learning may “offer us the historic opportunity to reinvent the residential campus model and perhaps redefine education altogether.”

Of course, MIT isn’t going anywhere, but what happens to those schools that replace face-to-face classes with MOOCs as a cost-cutting device rather than as a brand extension strategy?  They won’t be able to shove the genie back in the bottle because disaggregation is forever.  Those faculty they’ll have to let go won’t be coming back.  What’s being pitched as inevitable is actually quite a gamble for most schools.

On the other hand, higher education reform could go down another path entirely.  “Imagine,” Adam Kotsko supposed last week:

if we actually invested money in improving instruction rather than actively degrading it for the hope of greater efficiency!

This gave me a scary thought:  What if the real point of disaggregating higher education is to kill the patient rather than to save it?  What kind of legacy would that leave?




6 responses

18 02 2013
Vim, Ph.D. (@Exhaust_Fumes)

I think MOOCs in this way are much like adjunct labor. Both can cut the costs of employing faculty (though the savings w/MOOCs are not nearly as clear or, I’d guess, as significant as those that obviously come from using/exploiting adjunct labor). Any cost savings will get eaten up in the cost of administering, just as you suggest, and in the cost of paying administrators. If cutting costs alone was the magical solution, then the fact that 70% of faculty are contingent *should* have resulted in great changes in pricing structures and the cost of tuition. The fact that tuition keeps climbing despite cutting down on faculty pay should tell everybody that diminishing the pay and number of people teaching isn’t the solution.

But nobody who makes these kinds of arguments is in change of making decisions or influential to those who are. So, MOOCs + adjuncts=forevah. XOXO higher ed.

18 02 2013

Your last questions are the ones that nag at my mind. And Prof. Vim, your comment is a forehead-slapper! Why hasn’t anyone else asked when all the cost savings from the contingentification of higher ed are going to be reflected in reduced tuition? Why haven’t I, who have been looking at costs and administrative claims for four decades, asked it? Thanks to both of you for reframing the issue.

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