MOOCs In Search of a Problem

That web site update I mentioned earlier will likely be finished over the weekend and for blog readers the only significant change will be that these entries will now appear on a specific blog page, rather than making up the entirety of the site. New pages focus on my upcoming book (which now looks slated for publication in early October), speaking appearances, and some writing and consulting services I’m now offering.

Monday blog entries will continue to explore the cost of college, but today I’d like to get back to MOOCs and give some thought to what kind of problems they are supposed to be solving.

When they first made it big, the problem for which MOOCs were a proposed solution (at least to boosters like Tom Friedman of the New York Times) were the skyrocketing cost (and lack of access those costs created) of higher education.

It’s clear why the availability of free courses from some of the world’s best colleges and universities might be seen as a potential replacement for the $50-$60,000 per year programs elite schools were offering (or at least the $20-30,000 alternatives available to the majority of college students). But as we discovered last year, when given the chance to take a MOOC for credit vs. attending a traditional college in the same subject, most students weren’t interested (even when the MOOC was offered at a fraction of the price of the residential alternative).

Now it may be too early to conclude that MOOCs cannot provide a decent option for cash-strapped, college-age kids, especially since we have at least one data point (my own Degree of Freedom project) that indicates a self-motivated student can get a reasonable education from these no-cost courses. But even if MOOCs were integrated with other free (or even paid) learning resources in a way that could provide schooling at the price college should (vs. does) cost, I suspect that MOOCs as a complete replacement for college is not in the offing, except for a very tiny cohort of particularly enterprising 18-22 year olds.

So perhaps MOOCs are solving problems for those most attracted to them: older students who already have a post-secondary degree. After all, a vast majority of MOOC enrollees and MOOC graduates fall into the 25+ age bracket with most of them already having a BA, MA or PhD. So what kind of problems does this group need solved?

Job readiness comes to mind, which is why Udacity chose to pivot away from teaching math to undergraduates and instead focus on teaching programming skills to anyone (which mostly includes older learners) looking to reskill for a job market that still seems hungry for people with programming and other computer-related skills.

But job readiness might also include supplementing one’s resume with training in a wide variety of skills, which helps explain why MOOC providers seem to be experimenting with new types of credentials (whether those be Udacity’s nanodegrees, Coursera’s Specialization program, or Harvard’s credit-bearing MOOC options offered through their Extension School).

Here I would also add another problem: the lack of a socially acceptable option for someone who has already earned a degree who wants to study something new in a formal learning environment. This was a problem I suffered from, having earned a traditional degree in chemistry many decades ago who later became interested in new subjects (classical history and, through that interest, philosophy). For someone with this profile, “going back to school” in the form of applying to be an undergraduate again is not a realistic option, but lacking undergraduate experience in my new chosen discipline closed off options to take the socially acceptable route of applying to graduate school.

And even if I found an undergraduate or graduate program that would accept me, do I really want to spend several years and tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars in order to study something for the sheer joy of learning (especially since, as a husband and parent, I have family and financial obligations I did not have when I was an eighteen year old).

In this case, MOOCs were indeed a reasonable, affordable, and effective alternative to these unrealistic formal education options (or the only other socially-acceptable choice of informal auto-didactic reading on the side). And while I’d be first to say that this problem does not rival educating the world’s neediest in terms of importance and significance, we should at least take a look at a problem MOOCs are actually (vs. theoretically) solving right now.

And with regard to educating the neediest, if we take a look at how MOOCs are being used in the developing world, I think it’s safe to say that this is a problem they are also solving right now (albeit in a patchwork fashion) that is more significant than whether or not they will ever provide an alternative to a debt-laden Princeton graduate. With college prices scheduled to break through the ionosphere over the next few decades, solving the cost crisis in higher ed remains a pressing concern. But, as I’ve described in the past, the solutions to this problem (and many others) are more likely to emerge from the places MOOCs are eagerly being used now to provide the only alternative for college level learning. The only question is whether MOOCs end up a major or minor component of what those solutions will eventually turn out to be.

No comments yet, your thoughts are welcome »

Leave a Reply