I agree with the New Media writer Clay Shirky that the time is right for a massive disruption of higher education. In his blog, “Napster, Udacity, and the Academy,” Shirky explores how higher ed content is–like music after what’s been dubbed the ‘Napster moment’–set to become ‘unbundled.’ Udacity’s power play is to ‘decouple’ the course from the brick and mortar university (thereby offloading costs associated with labor and capital) while also undercutting the shameless for-profit online education alternatives whose content is subpar and motivations shabby. The question is whether Udacity (or, more likely, its successors) can deliver excellent content at bargain basement prices to 100,000+ students living around the globe; the answer, I would venture, is yes.
Here, near the end of the article, is Shirkey’s conclusion:
That’s because the fight over MOOCs [an abbreviation for massive open online courses] is really about the story we tell ourselves about higher education: what it is, who it’s for, how it’s delivered, who delivers it. The most widely told story about college focuses obsessively on elite schools and answers a crazy mix of questions: How will we teach complex thinking and skills? How will we turn adolescents into well-rounded members of the middle class? Who will certify that education is taking place? How will we instill reverence for Virgil? Who will subsidize the professor’s work?
MOOCs simply ignore a lot of those questions. The possibility MOOCs hold out isn’t replacement; anything that could replace the traditional college experience would have to work like one, and the institutions best at working like a college are already colleges. The possibility MOOCs hold out is that the educational parts of education can be unbundled. MOOCs expand the audience for education to people ill-served or completely shut out from the current system, in the same way phonographs expanded the audience for symphonies to people who couldn’t get to a concert hall, and PCs expanded the users of computing power to people who didn’t work in big companies.
The Ivies will be unaffected (the chief reason being that it is selling an intangible asset: prestige), the R1 universities should be just fine provided the funding for engineering and science continues apace, but the no-name mediocre schools that make up most American students’ college experience will be unable to compete. In a few decades, we can expect these schools–like past manufacturing hubs–to pass out of existence.
Why might this model work well for the delivery of content, especially in IT? For starters, consider the costs of a four-year education. Usually, experts will speak about student loan debt, expected return on investment, and opportunity costs, but we should also consider the cost of staking oneself to a career, e.g., as an engineer. The time investment in becoming an engineer as well as the expense are important. Yet the further investment–let’s say: 10 years or more–in becoming a well-established engineer at a stable company must also be taken into consideration. If instead of this understanding of educational training, MOOCs could allow the student to achieve the proper competence in, say, engineering without the sorts of commitments and in a short enough period of time, then he may be more apt to let go of a life of engineering–and to do so more quickly and with a lighter heart–should he discover that this line of work is not for him.
I’m intrigued, then, by the possibility of allowing young persons to gain competencies in engineering or programming that can later be refashioned or repurposed for other possible ends. The point, it seems to me, is to unburden the young during a period of greater economic and ecological volatility, a period when resilience and adaptation will become more crucial attributes than an education in accounting.
A second reason for optimism is scalability. If MOOCs can teach 100,000 student subjects such as statistics and can do so in a competent fashion, then there is no use for the small scale statistics courses offered at colleges, community colleges, and universities. Furthermore, if MOOCs can offer such a course at a low fee, then they can also (thank God) outcompete the University of Phoenix’s and Kaplan Universities. Neither university is providing a valuable social service, and both are responsible for sidling their alumni (?) and dropouts with massive amounts of debt.
A third reason to hope for the success of MOOCs is that they are open to change. Whereas most universities are impervious to change (unresponsive to external pressures and internal demands), an MOOC can, at least in principle, do a better job at retooling courses and at offering up-to-date material in light of changing knowledge. No bureaucratic hurdles, no committee meetings, and hopefully greater goodwill.
Perhaps most encouraging of all is the imprimatur of companies like Google. Google has said that it would recognize these courses as legitimate and, in time and if all goes well, one would expect other large companies to follow suit. For too long, university transcripts have been the main way of demonstrating that one has done well in a set number of courses. But, apart from this and the useless, outmoded resume, there are other ways of gaining legitimacy in the eyes of would-be employers, other ways of opening up opportunities to talented, though less connected young persons.
Some have asked me why I care so much about MOOCs. I care not because I want to see the burgeoning of the tertiary (service) and quaternary (IT, finance, etc.) sectors of the economy and not because I think MOOCs are a good model of education but because I would like to see different models of education come to the forefront, toyed with, tried out. Posing a challenge to the higher ed consensus is a very good start. In the next couple of days, I want to argue that what we may be witnessing is the cracking open of novel possibilities for how education might look. I’m keen to philosophize anyway.
Coda: A Biographical Note
Many conversation partners who are now in or who have passed through my philosophy practice are in debt. I think about how–over the course of 10 or 20 years–debt can narrow an individual’s imagination and whittle away at his spirit.