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Giving Away the Store

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How will online learning affect brick and mortar universities?

By Paula Marantz Cohen


 

MIT Technology Review recently published an article about the growing appeal of massive open online courses, or MOOCs.

Such courses offer intriguing possibilities, but also point to paradoxes in our system of higher education. These won’t be solved easily, if at all, but they are worth considering as we incorporate online courses into the college curriculum.

The most striking paradox is that MOOCs are being offered by many of the best (or perhaps, I should say, the most prestigious) universities: Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Princeton, and MIT. This makes sense. If people are going to choose to take a course online, especially during this early phase, they will want to go with a brand-name institution. Web advertising accompanying the online course materials can bring these  universities considerable revenue, meaning that MOOCs might help underwrite on-site education. As a result, the gap between online and on-site education could widen, even as courses at these institutions increasingly become available to the public.

By the same token, if good coursework is the basis of a good education, then these universities, by releasing this material free online, are giving away their most valuable resource. In an ideal, egalitarian society, this would be a good thing. But in a market-driven society like ours, it might just cheapen the brand. Assuming that it were possible to measure how much someone has learned through an on-site course, why would an A in biology online mean less than an A on-site? The question is bound to make institutions nervous, since it threatens to expose the problematic nature of college admission: the degree to which attendance at an elite college may be more of a credentialing mechanism than an educational one.

Moreover, if the free, elite online education can be equated with the expensive, elite on-site one, this poses problems for other universities. Most private schools charge high tuition fees in order to be competitive with each other. Less elite universities will sometimes charge even higher fees than more elite ones so they can build facilities (gymnasiums, cafeterias, state-of-the-art buildings) that compensate for their lack of reputation. These institutions are also more expensive because they lack the hefty endowments that more elite institutions use to offset the price of scholarships, honorariums, long-term maintenance, and other less glamorous costs.

How will MOOCs affect these less prestigious private universities?

The answer given by both elite and less-than-elite universities is that nothing equals an on-site education—that students can benefit by learning online, but they derive enormous value from meeting with professors and other students face-to-face. I agree with this. And yet, we see universities incorporating elements of online learning for their fulltime students. It is a final irony that as institutions become more receptive to student desires—building better gyms and more eateries, offering more lavish student centers and more upscale and spacious dormitories—they are also catering to the comfort factor with regard to coursework, offering more courses online to accommodate students who want to do other things (play sports, work, sleep late). In short, as universities become more market-driven, they become more susceptible to the caprices of the market they serve: 18-year old kids, whose sense of what they want from an education is necessarily limited. The paradox here is that one needs to be educated to know what an education looks like. This simple fact undermines the validity of a market-driven education.

You may counter that the market for a university education is not prospective students but the parents who will be footing the bill. This is not true. University marketers sell the idea of an ideal match between school and student. So much is made of this that many parents don’t dare interfere if a child says that a given university is her “dream school”—a ridiculous phrase, if there ever was one. How can an 18-year-old have a “dream school,” unless that dream has to do with beer parties, ivy-covered brick, or climbing walls?

The tensions between egalitarianism and elitism, form (brand names) and content (learning), and cost and value seem to have grown more pronounced in recent years. I like the idea of MOOCs, but I wonder if they will be a means of reinforcing, in new form, the inequities and paradoxes of an educational system whose basic premises need to be re-examined.

 

Paula Marantz Cohen is a distinguished professor of English at Drexel University and the author of the novels Jane Austen in Scarsdale or Love, Death and the SATs and What Alice Knew: A Most Curious Tale of Henry James and Jack the Ripper. Her new novel, Suzanne Davis Gets a Life, will be published this spring.


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