Kevin Carey, today, in the Chronicle:
Finally, and most important, the Obama administration should expand its vision of what publicly supported higher learning can mean. The MOOC provider Coursera recently announced that it would charge students relatively small sums, on the order of $100, for verified certificates of learning. The marginal cost of making a MOOC available on the Internet is $0, which is why those courses are free to students. By contrast, the marginal cost of assessing student learning, at a MOOC or elsewhere, is more than $0. Authentic, reliable evaluation costs money, and so someone must pay for it. Evaluation is also crucial to granting students college credits that lead to credentials.
Why can’t students use their Pell Grants to pay for MOOCs, even those offered by the world’s most prestigious universities? Because MOOCs are not colleges, traditionally defined. But that definition is an artifact of federal policy. Students can give their federal-aid dollars only to accredited colleges, and existing colleges control the accreditation process. So new colleges, eager for aid dollars, dress themselves up as traditional colleges, with commensurate expense to students, even if that makes no sense in the digital age.
I’ve been talking about this for a while, I know, but the big political impact of MOOCs is likely to be something along these lines. What is and isn’t an institution of higher education in this country right now is pretty bright-line. There’s not all that much room for disagreement.
Government funding for MOOCs would change that. The funding could come at the state level or the federal level.
Is this a good thing? It’s good and bad, in ways we can talk about later. But this is likely to be the primary political legacy of MOOCs, left for us to deal with long after MOOCs are gone: the number and variety of experiences and certifications that can be funded by government dollars will expand. And once that is true, capitalism will do the rest. As we stated above, it’s a mixed bag for students (and society), but it’s likely a substantial downward pressure on enrollment and tuition for existing institutions. I wonder how many institutions are ready for that?