Friday, August 9, 2013

If MOOCs Are (or Are Not) the Solution, What Is The Problem?

Steve Kolowich writes in yesterday's Chronicle of Higher Education that MOOCs may not be the disruptive technology they are being hyped to be. He notes that many recent attempts to translate MOOC certificates into college credits have crashed.

California bill SB 520, introduced in May, which would have required public universities in the state to grant credits for designated MOOCs, was first de-fanged - a successful amendment restored to the universities to power to accept or reject the MOOC certificates as they chose - and then withdrawn. Its sponsor, state senate leader Darrell Steinberg, gave in when the universities agreed to expand their on-line offerings.

Kolowich offers several similar examples, and concludes that political, regulatory, administrative and faculty barriers to credit for MOOCs have proven to be quite high. Nonetheless, Russell Poulin of The Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education Cooperation in Educational Technology states that "Credits are the coin of the academic realm, and if that's where the coins are, these companies (the MOOC platforms) are going to drive there." Kolowich concludes that "given the institutional monopoly on credit granting privileges" MOOCs will be "catering to colleges rather than attempting to undermine them."

Sebastian Thrun of Udacity seems to agree with this assessment. He has actively been forging partnerships with universities to generate credits for Udacity's MOOCs, saying that a learning medium where only web-savvy, highly motivated people sign up and only 10% succeed "doesn't strike me quite yet a solution to the problems of higher education."

This raises an interesting question: If MOOCs are (or are not) the solution, just what IS the problem?

We might define the problem in terms of the need for affordable yet effective universal higher education. If that is the problem, the recent crash of the San Jose State University use of MOOCs to teach remedial math could be seen as a serious setback. (For those not familiar with this episode, SJSU partnered with Udacity, with Gates Foundation funding, to pilot a MOOC for developmental courses. In a follow up study it was revealed that 74% of the students in the face to face group passed, compared to only 51% in the MOOC. In the aftermath, SJSU put its MOOC efforts on hold.) Of course, it might also be argued that the results from this pilot effort cannot be generalized. The LA Times editorialized that the project was "practically a model of how to do online education badly . . .rushed into existence and sloppily overseen". But let us grant that if we are trying to educate the least prepared college students well at low cost, MOOCs are not the solution.  

But maybe that's not the real problem. Think of it this way. When only 20% of American 18 year olds possessed a high school diploma, the diploma meant something. It differentiated its holders from 80% of the population, and could be used as a job filter to reduce transaction (search and selection) costs for firms with jobs to offer. Today 77% of the age cohort receives a diploma. At that rate, the diploma can hardly serve as a proxy for high levels of knowledge or skill - even the GED is more demanding. And more to the point, it doesn't differentiate diploma holders from anyone who would compete for a job. As the rate of graduation increased, the socio-economic advantages of the high school diploma decreased. Today a person with high school but no further education is little better off than the high school drop out, and the differential continues to shrink every year.

 As a result of the high school diploma's failure as a filter, employers turned to the college diploma as a job filter. But as more and more people gain college diplomas, they too differentiate less and less. As a result the college diploma also becomes less and less valuable as a job filter - it no longer can be used to decrease transaction costs. Adding to the proportion of diploma holders by providing access to the least prepared students will only make the problem worse - like the high school diploma, the college diploma will lose all differentiating value. Employers are already in need of new, more effective filters than college diplomas.

And this is where MOOC certificates enter the picture. In the age of the Internet, individuals can make themselves visible on line through websites and blogs and videos and comprehensive digital portfolios, and employers can use search capabilities to locate them. And in today's rapidly changing economy, employers are more interested in specific and demonstrable capabilities than markers of a standardized level of knowledge such as college degrees.

So maybe Thrun is simply wrong. Maybe a  learning medium where only web-savvy, highly motivated people sign up and only 10% succeed is the precise solution to the problem of higher education. It provides the next job filter for the highly competitive global economy, an economy no longer capable of providing jobs for all college grads that seek them.

This transition from diploma-based to capabilities-based filters will take some time. But MOOC certificates, as elements of digital portfolios, will play an important role in the process - connecting those with highly specific knowledge and skill demonstrated through certificates to employers with matching needs. To track this transition, keep your eye on Coursera's expansion into the employment agency business.

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