How MOOCs Could Kill Higher Education

Or *might* kill it at least. Consider this a possible future.

I’ve been kicking this idea around for a while, as have @brlamb, @dkernohan, and dozens of others. But now the issue finally getting some attention.

Basically the bundle that higher education sells is a bunch of relatively cheap to offer interchangeable courses (Psych 101) that subsidize relatively expensive higher level courses that aren’t so interchangable (Psychology capstone seminar).

The way the subsidy works is this — we offer both courses for say $2,000 apiece. But in the 70 person Intro to Psych we make (let’s say) $1500 per student profit. In the capstone seminar, which has, let’s say 12 people in it, involves coordination with community partners and a nice cozy seminar room, we lose about $800 per student.

Maybe that’s exaggerated profit and loss. But even at smaller margins of gains and loss, the problem is evident. The courses that are MOOC-able are the courses that subsidize that college experience that we keep saying MOOCs can’t replace. But if MOOCs replace the MOOC-able courses, the non MOOC-able ones are suddenly far beyond affordability for most people.

In public education, the problem has the potential to get bad quite quickly. Imagine a legislature that says that the state colleges must provide a path to credit through MOOCs offered by accredited institutions. Suddenly the easy, profitable stuff is gone, and even at existing tuition rates colleges will be bleeding red ink. Add to that the fact that the best, most self-motivated students will be taking MOOCs, leaving the most challenging students to take survey courses on campus, and the situation is even worse. We rely on the talent subsidy of our top students to provide the environment which helps our struggling students, and we rely on the financial subsidy of our entry level classes to subsidize our later classes.

In one legislative swoop, both those subsidies could disappear. How will we cope with a change of that magnitude? I think there are definitely models that would work (I have one model I’ll talk about tomorrow called the “MOOC Follow-on”), but it’s difficult to see how we would get there if the time frame becomes compressed…

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