The champions of massive open online courses, or MOOCs, and other digitally mediated mass-produced education often speak of the “necessity” of transitioning to this model because of all of the increasingly onerous expense of traditional higher ed and unmet demand for education.
Clay Shirky believes the need is dire: “The reason to bet on the spread of large-scale low-cost education isn’t the increased supply of new technologies. It’s the massive demand for education, which our existing institutions are increasingly unable to handle. That demand will go somewhere.” (It’s worth noting that Shirky said close to the opposite of this in 2012, before the limitations of MOOCs became so readily apparent).
I don’t mean to pick on Shirky specifically—I’ve done that already. His post is just the freshest example of an attitude that’s widely shared by important people like Bill Gates, Coursera founder Daphne Koller, and Udacity’s Sebastian Thrun, not to mention the venture capitalist community that fuels this industry with their investment dollars.
However, the more I think about MOOCs and consider the nature of this demand, the more I come to believe that there is no inherent demand for education, and definitely not for the education they're peddling as a possible substitute for the traditional system of higher education.
Because the demand isn’t for education, per se. It’s for what we believe education can provide: a secure, stable life. This narrative may not even be true, as Freddie DeBoer argues in a recent post, but we cling to it anyway, because what choice do we have? If we instead believed that painting ourselves purple from head to toe had the same effect, we’d all be walking around looking like Barney the dinosaur.
Education does provide a necessary credentialing function, and theoretically, an improved MOOC could provide such a service. But the credential is only part—and a relatively small part at that—of what education provides for us in our quest for a secure and stable life. It’s the process of being educated that has a far bigger impact on one’s life trajectory, and not just in the knowledge we learn and the skills we acquire.
It seems to me the most important part of the “traditional” educational experience is the people you meet. The social capital earned has greater influence on graduates’ lives than the credential itself. I'd be curious to know how Sebastian Thrun made it from his native Germany to his first academic posting at Carnegie Mellon, or how he arranged a sabbatical year at Stanford that ultimately led to a position there and with Google. He's obviously brilliant, but I'm willing to bet dollars to gigabytes that it's the people he met who made it possible. Just about anyone with a college degree can consider her current station and see how social capital gained through higher education has paved the way to the life she leads. (Or how a lack of it has presented significant challenges.)
I met two people in college who have had more impact on the life I’ve led than any class or credential. The first is my wife. We’ve been together happily for 22 years, and I can’t really fathom an existence separate from her. The second is my first creative writing professor, Philip Graham, who helped me figure out what to major in, decide where to go for graduate school, and land my first yearlong teaching job at the University of Illinois.
It meant me leaving a stable job in Chicago for a year in my college town, but knowing we were only staying a year made finding an appropriate job a challenge. The other jobs I applied for that fall prior to securing the teaching position were as a driver for the local bus transit service and a night security guard. I couldn't even get interviews for those jobs. My in with a tenured professor no doubt helped me secure a full-time lecturer position. It’s not that I wasn’t qualified—I’d TA’d for three years in grad school—but without that help, I wouldn’t have made it to the top of a pretty large pile.
Without that year of experience at Illinois, I never would have been hired at Virginia Tech when we moved on for my wife’s residency, which led ultimately to Clemson and now College of Charleston. Even college dropout Mark Zuckerberg might not have made it without the good fortune of being placed with roommates who could help fund his idea that became Facebook.
I was a mediocre student, and as a large Research I–level school, University of Illinois is poorly suited to creating conditions for serendipitous connections between student and professor, and yet it happened for me anyway. If that’s luck, it’s a result of product of design, even at universities where undergraduates can get lost in thousand-person lectures.
So thinking about a system of higher education that is divorced from the fundamental person-to-person relationship, where we communicate only via message boards or chat rooms, where our professors broadcast to us rather than interact with us, we no longer have education in its fullest sense, but an education-related product.
In this future, if MOOCs are the route to a credential, they may initially retain some of the popularity that traditional higher education currently holds. But as people realize that the real opportunities continue to accrue to those who are able to attend whatever traditional colleges and universities that remain, they will go to even greater lengths than today to secure those spots. Meanwhile, those for whom access to this opportunity is impossible will be left even further behind.
The shadier operators in the for-profit industry that promise credentials but can’t deliver the social capital are a kind of preview of this hypothetical future. It’s a bait-and-switch when the credential doesn’t have any real-world value and the people you meet don’t have much social capital. And building social capital isn't limited to elite four-year institutions—community colleges provide the same benefits to a diverse group of learners with a variety of needs.
An “education-related product” isn’t the same thing as education, and it doesn’t convey the same benefits. Colleges are under increased scrutiny because of weak recovery in employment, but they're not the reason for the weak recovery, just as they weren’t the reason college graduates did a bang-up job in the Clinton years.
The solution to this problem isn’t making a college education effectively useless—there’s no demand for that.