The ‘promises’ of online higher education: Overview



Promoters of MOOCs and online courses make big promises about the value of this latest trend in higher education.

MOOCs and online courses, we are told, will both expand access to higher education and reduce its costs for just about every “stakeholder”–for institutions lacking the resources to provide needed courses, for governments hard-pressed to provide adequate funding, and for students and their families, who have paid the price of inadequate public funding through skyrocketing tuition and mushrooming debt.

Behind these big promises, however, are some harsh realities.

Like the rhetorical strategies used to legitimate for-profit colleges and the subprime mortgage industry, promoters of MOOCs and online learning invariably wrap both in populist rhetoric. The strategy is so consistent and so powerful that even to raise questions about this latest trend, it is implied, is to question the value of expanding access to higher education itself and to position critics on the side of maintaining exclusivity and educational privilege.

That both for-profit colleges and sub-prime lenders ultimately used that rhetorical strategy to bankrupt those they promised to save should surely give us pause.

As part of its efforts to foster a fuller, more honest discussion about MOOCs, the frenzied rush to online, and the future of American higher education, the Campaign for the Future of Higher Education will be releasing three working papers in October that address key issues surrounding MOOCs and online higher education more broadly. The series, “The ‘Promises’ of Online Higher Education,” will look behind the sales pitches at key facts about access, costs, and profits in the online higher education.

The first paper, “The ‘Promises’ of Online Higher Education: Profits” will “follow the money” in online higher education. With all the focus on access and cost savings, a truth about online higher education rarely mentioned is the fact that it is big—Very Big—business.

Only by looking at who is making money, how much, in what ways, and with whose assistance can we assess the motivations behind and the full “value” of the seemingly endless stream of technologically-related innovations in higher education. This piece will give us a long overdue start at examining these issues.

A second working paper, “The ‘Promises’ of Online Higher Education: Costs,” to be released on October 16, will deal with the hidden costs of MOOCs and other online courses. Up to now, the question of whether these courses can actually deliver on this big promise has rarely been asked.

The evidence on time faculty put into a single MOOC, not to mention the array of technical support, hardware, and software required to offer one, suggests that while some costs may go down in online courses, others go up to offset expected savings. While many assume online courses offer savings because of their “repeatability,” the expanded class sizes they make possible, and the reduced labor costs that result, the expectation that online classes will be cheaper to offer than traditional face-to-face ones is a pipe dream.

The third paper, to be released on October 23, will address the “access” claims made by MOOC and online promoters. While expanded access and greater equity in educational opportunity must be at the heart of any discussion about the future of higher education, access is a complex, even slippery, term. It means much more than the mere opportunity to enroll in a course just as access to the middle-class dream of home-ownership meant much more than the opportunity to get a loan and move in for a while.

This piece will examine “access” issues such as the digital divide and the well-researched achievement gaps that exist in online learning for many college students.

It also will address some thorny questions at the heart of the MOOC sale pitch: are MOOCs the democratizing force they are marketed as? Or are they just the latest push toward a two-tiered higher education system based on social class—rich experiences with live teachers and other students for the elite and rewindable videos and unmoderated discussion boards for the rest?

Member organizations in the Campaign for the Future of Higher Education hope these papers will be part of a movement to bring more voices, more evidence, and more rationality into the conversation about MOOCs and online higher education. Improving the conversation is, we believe, the first step in fostering quality higher education.