Politicians who saw MOOCs as a means to cut the cost of higher education are having to think again after two high profile initiatives in California recently came to a crashing halt.
First was the partnership between San Jose State University and for-profit MOOC provider Udacity, initiated last January in a blaze of publicity by Udacity co-founder Sebastian Thrun and California governor Jerry Brown. The public-private agreement called for Udacity to support three remedial classes developed and run by professors at San Jose State. Hopes were high, but when the results came in, the euphoria quickly evaporated. The passing rates were 29%, 44% and 51%, respectively, much lower than hoped for. As a result, the university and Udacity have announced that no further such courses would be offered until they had analyzed what went wrong.
The other train-wreck, also in California, was the announcement that Senate Bill 520, a controversial piece of legislation seeking to incorporate for-credit, partially-outsourced online education in all three of the state’s higher education systems, has now been put on hold until at least 2014.
Though SB520 was not focused on MOOCs per se, the MOOC explosion had spurred legislators to take a pro-active role to overcome what they felt was too slow a pace by the state systems in embracing new delivery technologies to reduce the costs to students.
As with the SJSU-Udacity project, it would be unwise to view the possible-death of SB520 as anything more than the end of phase one of what will be an ongoing process. Governor Brown killed (or at least stunned) the bill – but not the goal – by imposing a line-item veto on his own earmarks. Significantly, however, he did not take away the funds. Rather, he left it to the three systems to decide how to use the money in order to assist students complete degrees at a lower cost.
What both episodes tell us is that, while there may be ways we can use technology to reduce the student costs – and perhaps the waiting lines to get into courses – that currently bedevil higher education, last year’s naïve predictions of an imminent revolution are being replaced by a more sane attitude.
Teaching and learning are complex processes. In particular, education has a significant feature unfamiliar to most legislators and business leaders, who tend to view it as a process that takes a raw material – incoming students – and produces graduates who emerge at the other end with knowledge and skills that society finds of value.
But the production-line analogy has a major limitation. If a manufacturer finds the raw materials are inferior, she or he looks for other suppliers (or else uses the threat thereof to force the suppliers to up their game). In education, however, you have to work with the supply you get – and still produce a quality output. Indeed, that is the whole point of education.
Some parts of education require interaction with a trained expert over extended periods of time, and hence are not scalable. But those parts are just that: parts.
Of course, calling something a failure depends on what the goals are. If you view MOOCs as a way to make quality higher education available to the entire world, for free, then they are already a huge success. That goal is what initially motivated all the MOOC pioneers, myself included. It was when people started looking at using them to break the hitherto unstoppable growth cycle in the cost of higher education that difficulties arose.
My own best prediction – and we are all having to base our judgments and decisions on less than two years of experience with the medium – is that MOOCs are likely to be part – but not all – of the answer, and the biggest impact will come from taking advantage of the underlying technologies on which MOOCs are built.
At Stanford, we are stripping higher education down to its smallest components and seeing how technology can be used to enhance or make more efficient each part, before reassembling them into what may be (and I think will be) a new higher education landscape.
Progress is likely to be slow and punctuated by many false starts, with advances for the most part coming in small increments. Just like most other research, in fact.
There will, I am sure, be disruption in higher education. Flipped classrooms are already being adopted and will eventually dominate, at least for basic courses. I think that chances are very high that we will see a partial separation of education from accreditation, with students assembling their education from a number of providers, the way they currently put together their degree by choosing different modules and courses at their college or university. Separate entities will assemble and certify the student’s portfolio. Along the way, some colleges and universities will go out of business, and others (having different structures) are already starting to spring into existence.
But, unlike the rapid and dramatic way technology upturned the music industry and journalism, I think that change will more evolution than revolution.
Keith Devlin blogs regularly about MOOCs at http://MOOCtalk.org. The third offering of his Stanford MOOC Introduction to Mathematical Thinking begins on September 2.
A much longer version of this article first appeared in the Huffington Post. (2420)