The Future of the (Online) University

The Economist writes about the innovative Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and how they challenge the traditional higher education strucure of learning. The point here is that, while traditional courses come with high marginal costs — adding additional students entail large investments in teaching staff and physical structure –, MOOCs come with “rock bottom marginal cost” per student. After developing the course and getting started, adding new students is “virtually free,” according Economist.

The story, published in the paper edition on Feb 8, 2014, surmises that
1) “until recently” students were required to be present “in a lecture hall to hear the professor” or “around a table with fellow students” — implicating that teachers are distant to larners in traditional university settings, and that collaborative face-to-face learning is undesirable, or, in the least, not superior to online alternatives.
2) students crave more intimate contact with teachers. The story claims that “interaction with professors is limited to keep costs down.” Nevertheless, interaction with skilled teachers is costly, and online contact is not of the same quality as physical proximity offered in traditional university settings.

Two interesting and relevant corollaries are offered by way of quotations from Stanford professor Caroline Hoxby:

First, “less than selective (read: cheap) institutions are close substitutes for MOOCs. … Most are at serious risk of displacement.”

Second, “elite institutions face very different circumstances.” They offer “labour-intensive education to highly qualified students” aiming to “cultivate a sense of belonging … in order to recoup their investment decades later in the form of donations.” However, when such institutions offer MOOCs, “the personal link between students and the university” is broken, making elite graduates feel less like “the chosen few. For top schools, the best bet may simply be to preserve their exclusivity.” Writes The Economist. On page 64. Of the Feb 8, 2014, edition.

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