Going, going…gone?

3 07 2014

Thanks to the great Sarah Kendzior, I picked up a copy of Gone Girl when I was in Target yesterday.  While I’ve barely started it, I can tell it’s going to be really, really good.  What I think made me do it was that until I read Sarah’s piece on the death of malls, I didn’t realize that the book had economic themes, like this quote from the beginning few pages:

“I’d arrived in New York in the late ’90s, the last gasp of the of the glory days, although no one knew it then.  New York was packed with writers, real writers, because there were magazines, real magazines, loads of them.  This was back when the Internet was still some exotic pet kept in the corner of the publishing world–throw some kibble at it, watch it dance on its little leash, oh quite cute, it definitely won’t kill us in the night.  Think about it: a time when newly graduated college kids could come to New York and get paid to write.  We had no clue that we were embarking on careers that would vanish within a decade.”

I love good magazine journalism.  I have an almost religious devotion to the New Yorker since my parents were subscribers.  Yet I also read the Huffington Post and give content away for free at this very blog.  Does that make me a bad person?

Of course, it’s easy to imagine some bitter magazine writer muttering to themselves, “You’re next, professor.”  That, at least, is what the disrupt higher education crowd would like everybody to believe.  Longtime readers know that I constantly go back on forth on the question of whether or not my profession will “vanish within a decade.”  Today, I’m definitely in “I will survive mode.”

What’s improved my mood is an op-ed at Inside Higher Education.  The author, Randy Best, is discussing the pricing model for online classes:

These days, two out of three students attending on-campus programs receive some form of generous subsidy or discount, while their online counterparts, generally ineligible for such assistance, foot the full sticker price even though they do not benefit from all the amenities of the revered campus life, do not take up parking spaces, inflict wear and tear on facilities, or take up as much instructor time. Instead of embracing these online learners who produce considerable incremental revenue for institutions, colleges and universities are penalizing them, which has troubling implications not only for students’ bank accounts, but also for universities’ own vaunted views of fairness. By introducing e-tuition, which is appropriately lower than the on-campus price tag, universities could easily capitalize on the scale, brand extension, and new revenue synonymous with online learning while maintaining far more equitable pricing for online students.

Never.  Gonna.  Happen.  How do I know?  The entire existence of online courses is predicated on the notion that they’re just as good as the courses on campus.  Because offering online courses cheaper than face-to-face courses strongly suggests that these courses are somehow inferior to the courses that are offered on campus, universities will do nothing to discredit their brands.* Besides that, many of them have undoubtedly already spent the money they expect to take in through online courses on new administrators and climbing walls in the gym.

Best’s example of a university that’s bucking this trend is the online computer science MA at Georgia Tech.  If you remember though, this is the MOOC-ish MA in which people spend most of their time watching video, with minimal outside help.  They’re only discounting the sticker price because they’re hoping to make it up in volume and, as Chris Newfield has argued persuasively, their revenue estimates are probably inflated.  That would make this an exception that proves the world.

The problem here is prestige.  A long time ago, when I was in another one of these “I will survive” moods, I wrote a post called “The Walmart of higher education will not be online”:

The assumption that college is too expensive is certainly correct. The problem with this article is that it assumes that online education is the way to solve that problem. As I’ve noted before, it is possible to do some really interesting things with education online. However, if you’re just doing it to save money so that your university can keep more money for other things, your online courses are going to be awful. As a result, nobody will learn anything and they’ll all end up unemployed. The negative feedback loop will then lead to a real crisis in higher education, brought on by the people who thought they were saving it.

Maybe this time I’ll stop changing my mind.  The future is a lot closer than it was when I first wrote that post, and the evidence of discounting still hasn’t surfaced.  What’s going to make them change their minds?

*  Of course, the good online courses aren’t inferior to the ones offered on campus, but if you discount them the market will still likely treat them that way.




3 responses

3 07 2014
Maha Bali

Hey Jonathan, your post probably warrants an entire blogpost response with more reflection but I’ll just react here.
It made me realize that two of my best online leaning experiences are completely different:
A. My for-credit masters degree, which, to be good quality, meant we were between 3-10 students in each group with a tutor
B. cMOOCs, where we were 100s of professionals learning from each other with a facilitator there somewhere

I need to reflect a lot about both these experiences and how they each worked well and why… I think the early MOOC discourse faced the issue of conflating online edu with MOOCs when most good eLearning pre-MOOCs was very SPOC, right? That was the ‘good practice’ at the time.

What really ends up happening (to me, anyway) in a connectivist MOOC is that I connect deeply with about 10-12 people (maybe deeper with 3-4) and work with the others tangentially. But i have that choice of which 10-12 people, as opposed to a for-credit course where this is pre-determined. I actually tried a MOOC with someone who’s famous for her eLearning work in the past decade, and she tried this pre-determined grouping thing and failed miserably … Which goes to show, I think, that traditional eLearning wisdom does not necessarily scale well in an age of abundance… I guess that’s maybe what connectivism is about?

But I think you’re entirely right: downpricing online courses makes them look like lower quality and doing online to save money is not a great idea. On the other hand, you are also totally right about the fact that online students miss a lot of physical perks (and in that sense maybe are costing the uni less money unless they cost v highly in terms of tutoring/teaching in small groups). Some sort of equilibrium might be reached by each institution, I guess, depending on what they’re trying to achieve and who their audience is…

3 07 2014
Jonathan Rees


I’ve learned a lot over the years about online learning so I’d never be dumb enough to discount all of it, but I do know that a lot of people aren’t into it for noble reasons. Perhaps this would make a good new position statement: If you think online learning is a way to wipe out conventional professors then you’re probably doing it wrong.

How does that sound? I think I’m going to go tweet that now and see how it plays.

3 07 2014
Contingent Cassandra

Best is simply wrong that online teaching takes less instructor time; in order to supply the same degree/quality of interaction (a key point, as you realize), it takes more. Of course, I’ve yet to see a model in which instructors are compensated for that extra time — but I’ve also yet to see a model in which instructors are able to teach the same course to more students simply because they’re doing it online.

And while parking lots (and dorms and gyms and dining halls) aren’t cheap, neither are servers and (especially) the people who keep them, and the software on them (yes, LMSs) running. In fact, they’re more expensive than most professors in the sort of “commodity” courses most institutions want to put online, because it’s so easy for IT folks to get work outside the university, usually at higher wages. And online students still need other expensive services, e.g. library services.

Finally, in my experience, most online students are also on-campus students. In fact, some of them are taking online courses from their dorm rooms (leaving them more time/flexibility to make use of gyms, etc.; in fact, a good many of my online students have been student-athletes with demanding training/game schedules).

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