MOOCs and the future of college

kirk mooc

Last week’s post on MOOCs focused on the the “bundle” of disparate things you get from attending college. Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are a real threat to this bundle, in particular for job skill teaching and job credentialing, so it’s appropriate colleges are freaking out. But since MOOCs (another word for online video classes) only threaten a subset of the benefits of attending college in person, this disruption will play out in odd ways.

At this point it’s already clear MOOCs will give away their online college classes for free. Leaders in the MOOC movement such as Udacity, EdXCoursera are all embracing free for classes. And creating online video classes is now so cheap volunteers are creating outstanding content. Khan Academy being a great example. With free volunteers being the primary MOOC competition, it’s hard to conceive of a scenario where charging nothing for online classes will change. This is especially true for basic undergraduate classes, which tend to use standardized textbooks and curricula.

So what will MOOCs bundle with their free online classes so they don’t go broke? MOOCs will charge for two things: 1) credentialing, which includes human proctored exams as well as earning a certified college degree, and 2) human tutoring and coaching. Credentialing will cost money precisely because it’s so easy to fake your identity on the Internet. For example Udacity gives it’s CS101 course away free, but optionally you can spend $79 to take a human proctored exam which will ”count towards a credential that is recognized by employers”. And the recently announced Georgia Tech Master’s in Computer Science is charging $6600 for the degree, although the classes themselves are online for free. Their FAQ spells it out: “How will you guarantee academic honesty? All exams are proctored using national proctoring standards. We have access to 4,500 physical proctoring facilities and are working with online proctoring institutions.

The second way MOOCs will charge money is by providing human tutoring, coaching and emotional support for their free classes. This is an example of the freemium model. In fact the need for human tutoring and coaching will be far greater for online classes than for today’s typical student. College students attending in person have the benefit of being part of a community with norms for getting their degree, which the college itself enforces. Without this cultural and normative support, many students will drop out and fail, as we saw when San Jose State cancelled it’s MOOC because half the students failed the exam. Studying is tedious and hard, and without normative support most people give up. A good analogy is how people hire a personal trainer to help them stick to their exercise plan.

To envision what a MOOC world will look like, let’s start with the Internet’s impact on newspapers and music. Both have become cheaper and far better for consumers while simultaneously being terrible for industry revenue and employees. There’s no way around this. It’s not a good time to be a college instructor. Next recall that disruption attacks from the bottom, so the first MOOC credentialed students will be people who would otherwise not get a degree at all. Maybe they are from outside the US and want a US degree, or maybe they are working and need the flexibility of online classes. After this, disruption will move to community colleges.This is a big deal since community colleges account for 40% of existing college students. But note 70% of community college students drop out. Undoubtedly the drop out rate for MOOCs will be even higher. Why? Greater flexibility and far lower costs will attract more students. The net effect will be lower graduation rates (more drop outs), yet more completed college degrees. Everyone will MOOC, at least a little bit.

One possibility is community colleges will stop trying to be watered down Harvard liberal arts schools. Instead they’ll morph into a sort of Kaplan test prep and emotional support system, helping aspiring students pass their MOOC credential exams. Likely we’ll see major corporations become a source of vocational MOOC programs. Once this change hits its stride we’ll find we have way too many community colleges, just as we had way too many local newspapers. It will take decades to play out, but community colleges and many mid-tier schools will disappear or be transformed beyond recognition. While this happens expect college professors to spend their time whining about how education has become too crass and commercial.

With that said, it’s pretty clear that MOOCs will never completely replace the existing bundle of college experiences, in particular at big state schools and elite universities. College is an identity and class marker. If you are young and have well-to-do parents, you’ll go to college in person because that’s what upper middle class people aspire to. For the wealthy there won’t even be a question. And it’s likely that elite and large schools will continue to charge a lot, though less in total than before. They’ll change their fee structure to make tuition costs really low to compete with MOOCs, while making living on campus and attending classes in person super expensive. This will mean that students who get their degree via a MOOC will be seen as cheap and second class. The (largely false) status gap between bloggers and journalists comes to mind. MOOC students won’t have the college bonding experience of cheering at football games or socializing in person. This gap will persist despite the fact that the MOOC course material itself will be nearly identical, coming from the same elite college instructors.

In fact elite schools are likely to dominate in winner-take-all fashion during the MOOC era, producing the lion’s share of MOOC college graduates. This is why schools like MIT, Harvard and Georgia Tech are rushing to create online classes. Ask yourself whether joe student will choose to take an Econ 101 class from Harvard or from the local community college, when both are free. You get the picture. Additional winners will be poorer students able to get a college degree for far less, and people who need vocational job skills. We’ll also see a few “MOOC prodigies” who binge learn and get recruited like outstanding high school athletes do today. The losers will be local community colleges, mid-tier schools, and their associated teachers and professors. MOOCs will be like many digital technologies, making everything cheaper and more accessible, while simultaneously pushing the elite farther and farther beyond everyday reach.

Categorized as Economics

By Nathan Taylor

I blog at on tech trends and the near future. I'm on twitter as @ntaylor963.

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