The Point Where the Toothpaste Will Not Go Back in the Tube

Back in August last year, I wrote a piece on How MOOCs Could Kill Higher Education. In the scenario presented, the first step was this:

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.

I’ve been trying to highlight this with administrators and faculty I talk to who shrug of MOOCs as a fad, and with pundits who roll their eyes at it all. Maybe MOOCs are a fad — but the policy changes they leave in their wake have ramifications we will be living with for decades. We are a set of institutions based on some very weird bundling of high and low-cost services, bundling that only makes sense in the current policy environment. Pull that policy out, and the Jenga tower gets rickety real fast.

Hate to say I told you so, but, well:

Under the proposed plan, wait-listed students would be able to take online classes that have been approved by California’s Open Education Resources Council…. Students would have to take proctored, in-person exams to pass the courses. Public colleges and universities in California would be required to accept those courses for credit..the organizations providing the courses would not have to be accredited colleges and universities. They could be MOOCs, or low-cost course providers like StraighterLine, or perhaps a venture led by textbook companies whose offerings increasingly blur the distinction between textbook and course.

This won’t end at wait-listed students. Keep in mind, this is the Democratic version of the plan, by a fairly progressive guy, a former employee rights attorney. The other versions are coming. The other states will begin to jump in. What starts as a plan to help wait-listed students will quickly gain steam as a “solution” to the “higher education crisis.” And due to the particular economics of bundling, it puts the entire architecture of higher education in jeopardy.

And it will likely succeed. It will likely succeed because it aligns the liberal technocracy with the anti-government right. And things that do that almost always succeed.

It’s time to start pitching alternate visions of how this might work, before we get run over by this.

11 thoughts on “The Point Where the Toothpaste Will Not Go Back in the Tube

  1. I am increasingly wondering if there is some magic trick occurring here. Everyone’s eyes are on MOOCs, but it seems to me the biggest thing happening in all this is not about changing how students get the skills/knowledge needed to be credentialed, but how the credentialing itself happens. The creation of new ways of certifying competencies to me has far deeper ramifications for the unbundling of higher ed than the hype around MOOCs as an alternative avenue of how learners might acquire those competencies.

  2. Jim — I’ve been following competency-based credentialing since at least the late 90s. And I hate to say this, but I largely think it’s a solution looking for a problem. Employers would be interested in competency information on top of standard credentialing, but none of them would replace the diploma system. The first sweep at any job is going to involve who got what diploma where. Anything more granular than that becomes incomparable and useless to employers.

    Apart from that, there’s also signalling (see ) going on about how serious a person is at getting into a line of work, and what they are willing to put into it. Spending four years at a college shows that you’re a serious, relatively normal person committed to a serious run at a job in the profession. Or at least at getting serious at all. How else to explain the common requirement that a student have a degree — any degree? Or that a Executive Director of a charity have a Masters Degree — in *something*?

    There’s a great book called The Paradox of Choice, and one of its insights is when we start to compare things at a granular level, at the level of “features” or “competencies” we become profoundly unhappy people. The decisions we like best and we do best with are ones with big bright-line divisions — Top-tier Psych vs. Bottom-tier Soc. Give us more than a couple variables, and we get so bad at decisions we might as well flip a coin. So degrees are big dumb things, but I don’t think they are going away. Badges tend to make sense in the context of professional training — I can show I learned this, so give me a raise. But for job seekers, the degree will remain crucial for quite some time, at least for people going for the mid and upper-shelf jobs.(IMHO).

    • I think the solution has found its problem – unmet demand for class credits (on the path to a credential). And the MOOCsters are only too happy to point this out, and invite themselves in as a big part of the means to the end. (As opposed to lots of other possible means, such as restoring education funding, etc.)

      And I certainly agree with you, Mike, that we are far, far from the day when diplomas/degrees don’t matter. What I see happening in the CA bill is a requirement that institutions certify competency-based learning within a student’s path to a degree. This seems to me to go far beyond the current alternative means students have for earning credit. The CA technocrats haven’t created a fourth higher education system that is dedicated to bundling [DIY education | certified competencies | scattered class credits] into an official certificate/degree, but do you think they’re not thinking about that? Or won’t soon?

  3. Oh, I see what you’re saying — is this the back door to an even greater “disruption”. Oh yeah, absolutely, I think you’re dead on! MOOCs are just the beginning. The degree, at least from public institutions, is going to become an increasing mish-mash of stuff, and competency based will be a piece of it. I haven’t seen the details of the bill yet, but I’m sure that’s coming if it isn’t in there already.

    The thing that’s scary about the way this is happening is that it’s not an “alternate path” but it’s rather legislators pushing this stuff into existing degree programs. If done right, it’s got the potential to dramatically expand what a degree can provide. If done wrongly, I think it will erode what a California degree means. If it’s nothing but CLEP and AP style competencies, I don’t know how much it’s worth. Certainly it’s difficult to see how the degree meets the non-economic ends of education if it just becomes a bunch of SAT style prep courses…

  4. Mike,

    First, welcome to WSU. After reading your blogs, I am really excited that you will be joining us here.

    For this comment – what do you think about the recent TechCrunch article,
    (the links says it all).

    I was most amused by the conclusion, “It’s early days for online education, and the old guard isn’t going down without a fight.”, given the title. And do you think that observations like that are going to influence the California legislature?

  5. Alex — Thanks for stopping by! I’m excited to be at WSU as well!

    I saw that TechCrunch article. It’s difficult to tell what will happen. I have been consistently surprised at the new aggressiveness of politicians on both the right and left with state schools. The traditional oversight functions seemed to have morphed into something quite different, and it’s hard to know what to expect anymore.

    If I had to guess, however, I’d say such articles are evidence that the likely route to credit for *any* free course is going to be assessments run by the _credit-granting college_. And that’s where it starts to get a little odd, because if the insistence is that we need more than unproctored machine-graded tests and peer-graded work — well, then you’ve just sucked the “massive” out of the project, because expert assessment is not free…as Jim gets at above, it starts to look like just an extension of competency-based testing efforts.

    What does that mean long term? I think it means we have at least a bit of time to figure this out, and decide for ourselves what it means long term. (Nice evasion, right?)

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