MOOCs and economic reality

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In “We’re All to Blame for MOOCs,” Patrick J. Deneen proposes a transformation away from global universities and toward identity-driven colleges as a defense against the coming shakeup from novel forms of online education. While developing this theme, he quotes me on the rise of MOOCs, and imagines this makes me an opponent of his views.

Yet as I read along, I found myself nodding in agreement. MOOCs as a continuation of existing trends? Check. Most faculty members unprepared to argue against the logic of scale? Check. Universities as globalizing institutions, organized around disciplines? Check and check. It’s impossible to understand what’s happening with MOOCs without understanding what’s happened to higher education in general.

Deneen’s characterization of my views on MOOCs is mostly correct, but he ascribes to me one belief I do not hold. He writes “Our contemporary educational Filene’s, according to Shirky, must get big or get out.” I have never said that of higher education, nor would I. My core belief instead is this: Institutions that don’t keep expenses below revenues eventually collapse.

This observation, commonplace in most of society, comes with a hint of bomb-throwing in the academy, suggesting as it does that institutions of higher learning are economic units (which we are), and that the faculty may not be entirely in control of our own fate (which we are not).

Whatever our curricula or identities, colleges and universities have only three financial levers. We can raise revenue from our students or their parents. We can raise revenue from grants, gifts, or endowments. And we can limit our spending. The required balance is equally restrictive: Tuition plus income minus outlay must exceed zero, more years than not. This is not a formula for academic success, of course. It’s just the minimum requirement for our continuing existence.

Until recently, this has not been much of a problem. Running a college was cheap enough that the surplus between dollars taken from our students and value produced for them was enormous. It was so enormous, in fact, that we never had to resolve the tension between the view we faculty have of ourselves (molders of youth, transmitters of sacred tradition, wise elders) and the view most of our young charges and their parents have of us (instructors in the skills needed in the modern world, including especially preparation for gainful employment).

That tension is becoming increasingly hard to ignore, strained by continual growth in student debt and by decline in return on that investment. Our financial adjustments these last 40 years—steady increases in tuition, class size, and nontenured faculty—are no longer enough to keep cost and value in equilibrium. The net benefit from a bachelor’s degree has shrunk every year of this century, with nothing today suggesting a reversal of that trend. This is the environment in which MOOCs have appeared, and the context in which they challenge traditional education.

As has been widely discussed, most MOOCs reiterate the ancient form of the lecture, and do not signal much of a leap in pedagogy. (As McLuhan noted, the contents of the new medium are the old media, at least at first.) The effect of MOOCs on the academy, though, is no more likely to be about pedagogy than the effect of MP3s on the music industry was about audio quality. The adoption of nontraditional forms of education hinges on accessibility, flexibility, and cost—not quality.

As ordinary as their educational sensibility may be, MOOCs represent a change in expectations among our clientele that cannot easily be contained in traditional structures. For as long as students and their parents have nervously scanned tuition bills, they’ve asked themselves “Isn’t there another way to do this?” And for that long, the answer has been “no.” Now, for the first time, the answer is “maybe.”

You would think that this “maybe,” from a few nontraditional learners, would be a small threat to existing purveyors of higher education. Though the conversation about MOOCs is now widespread, the overall number of students is still small, and the mechanisms for converting completion to college credit are, so far, few and rarely used. But the trend lines point up, driven by a force whose existence has surprised us: a widespread desire for cheap provision of complicated knowledge, delivered outside traditional institutions.

Deneen is right that small, identity-driven colleges might find some respite from those changes (both he and I have pointed to Deep Springs as an exemplar), but even that is no guarantee of viability. Antioch College and Cooper Union each had the sort of identity Deneen celebrates, clear in their purpose and beloved of their students, yet each sleepwalked off a fiscal cliff. (Antioch in 2008, Cooper this year.) Their problem wasn’t a failure of mission or communal connection or institutional purity. Their problem was forgetting to keep expenses below revenues.

The one place I think Deneen’s analysis goes wrong, in fact, is that I don’t think he is pessimistic enough about the ability of traditional institutions to alter their practices when faced with such unfamiliar competition. Most institutions couldn’t actually turn themselves into smaller, purer versions of themselves without financial implosion. Even Notre Dame, Deneen’s institution, would not be able to manage this transition; it is already promoting online offerings like the Advanced Specialized Certificate in Intercultural Management which, whatever its virtues, does not sound like “a unique scholastic endeavor rooted in place and history.”

MOOCs are not the future of higher education—that future will be far more various and surprising than we can see now—but they do expand the horizon of the visible. One of the things we can see in that expanded landscape is that the demand for complex knowledge far outstrips our ability to provide it via current colleges and universities.

This gap between what we offer and what the public wants hasn’t appeared because of our estrangement from some Arcadian ideal. It has appeared because a generation’s worth of institutional fiddling at the economic margins of the price and cost of college has exhausted the easy fixes for widespread, affordable education. All that’s left now are hard questions, questions about how people who want to learn after they leave high school can do so without bankrupting themselves or giving up the better part of a decade.

Being at the kind of college Deneen celebrates is a reaction to those questions, but only as a dodge, more a way of escaping the coming transformation than engaging with it. Such institutions, by definition, will only ever reach a tiny fraction of the people who want higher education. (The parallel with farmers’ markets is quite apt.) Someone somewhere still has to wrestle with the bigger questions, and MOOCs are more relevant to these questions than are small colleges.

This isn’t because massive online classes are the future tout court, or because scale is the only way to bring cost and value into acceptable balance—neither is true—but because they are the first practical alternative to college classes as a way of learning complex things cheaply. As with other inventions that produced an inferior product at a much lower price, from the printing press to the steam-driven loom to Wikipedia, what happens now is largely in the hands of the people experimenting with the new tools, rather than defending themselves from them.

Author Bio: Clay Shirky is an associate arts professor at the Interactive Telecommunications Program and an associate professor in the journalism department at New York University. He is also a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society.

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