More on What is Scarce in an Abundant Society: MOOCs and the Future of Higher Education

My last post touched on the disruption of our current economy that 3D printing will cause, and how it's not entirely correct to say that we're entering a totally abundant world. The potential of MOOCs to disrupt higher education shows another side to what internet caused abundance really means.

Maria Bustillos at The Awl had a relatively damning analysis of MOOCs, comparing the positions of Aaron Bady and Clay Shirky.

She correctly identifies the tendency to simplify industries when trying to disrupt them. Making industries wildly efficient involves using hard measurements to drive production. For education, this results in high stakes testing, and evaluating teaching methods solely based off of those numbers. For non-personal industries this sort of cold approach makes sense, but it feels wrong when applied to education.

Maria correctly portrays higher education today as a bundle of services. "College" in America today includes not only a series of lectures, but the forming of a social network of like-minded intelligent people, interacting with professors during office hours, taking advantage of the academic community available to you in college, and the signaling that going to an elite institution provides. She also describes what makes higher education different from other sectors by invoking Baumol's cost disease, but misses an important connection between these two concepts. It's not accurate to simply say higher education suffers from Baumol's cost disease. Parts of the bundle of services that we currently define as higher education suffer from Baumol's cost disease.

Looked at this way, you can see why she mentioned that Shirky and Bady had more agreements than disagreements. they're talking about two different things, and both are neglecting to look at the whole picture. Lectures are very easily adapted to an abundant online format, but the community and professor interactions are not. The comment below is wiser than its snark would suggest:

Touring office hours seems like a fun idea! You have the beginnings of this with the current "celebrity professors." Some professors blog, others have podcasts (and these innovative professors seem to cluster in George Mason University's economics department.) I could imagine this sort of idea expanding in a more local way. A community college professor could become an expert in his or her field, and have periodic talks relating to lectures a group of students is going to.

This line of thinking leads to the problem of incentives and motivation. The hidden benefit of having educational services bundled is to force students to take advantage of the entire bundle. The positive aspects of community, social networks, and professor office hours are not explicitly stated as benefits of college, and cannot be commoditized in the same was as lectures can be.

Commoditizing lectures will be an amazing boon. Students who could previously not afford it will have access to college level and quality information. But, there needs to be a corresponding change in culture. Instead of automatically being placed in an educational environment, students will have to actively make the decision to seek out an educated community of like minded intelligent people.

On the professor's side, there will be less of an incentive to provide open office hours without a tenured university position. While I believe opportunities for students to form their own intellectual communities to accompany lectures will abound once this paradigm matures, professors do not have an incentive to add their expertise to these communities. With lectures largely free or minimally priced, I could see the role of government funding moving towards forming these networks of experts available for students.

Traditional college in America is a luxury. I don't believe there will be a world where everyone will be able to afford to take four productive years out of their lives to live in a dorm, meet new people, and occasionally go to lectures. With MOOCs and targeted government investment in an academic culture however, I believe everyone will be able to have a high quality university level education that we today equate to "the college experience."

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