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When I mentioned this idea to Koller, she was way ahead of me.

“I think down the line you’re going to have instructors who re-mix content that’s prepared by potentially one, two, or three different instructors—or more—and create trajectories that make sense,” she said, sketching a future in which the professor becomes a sort of DJ. “That is what it’s about to be an instructor, I think. It’s a curation process.”

If so, Coursera’s pedagogic model, which unbundles lectures into still smaller parts, may threaten the very idea of the course as the fundamental unit of a college education.
“Unbundling is a good thing,” Koller says, “because it allows you to extract units from courses that are of value in and of themselves, and provide them for students.

“At the same time,” she goes on, “I think there is a sense about courses—and more broadly about degrees—that the whole is bigger than the sum of the parts … and students are better served, shall we say, by having access to larger units and being forced to take larger units.”

Price has thought about this, too.

“If you unbundle things like the course, and then you start to imagine unbundling things like degree programs, et cetera, it starts to look as though it permits a radical reconceptualization of an undergraduate degree program,” he says. “How quickly that develops is unclear in my mind, and the exact trajectory that it might follow is also unclear.

“I could imagine a world,” he muses, “in which they reconceptualize the system to be more like a tutorial system where a student comes in and, in close consultation with faculty, identifies a subject area and is qualified for advanced study, making use of a variety of unbundled educational experiences, and then is taken through a research enterprise.”

After thinking for a moment, Price remarks, “The credit unit was invented to serve particular purposes. It continues to serve valuable purposes. I don’t see it going out of use any time soon. On the other hand, it is an invention.”

On the issue of other institutions awarding credit for Penn-produced Coursera classes—or materials, if unbundling is indeed the future—Rock is agnostic. He compares MOOCs to textbooks.

“When somebody buys Brealey, Myers, and Allen’s Corporate Finance textbook for their finance course,” he says, referring to a volume co-authored by Wharton’s Franklin Allen, “we don’t tell them what kind of grades on the final exam are required in order for them to give credit for the course. That’s their business.”

Does he fear that Penn could be giving away the keys to its kingdom, the way newspapers did, to their apparent financial doom, in the web’s early days?

No more than any professor who’s ever written a book.

“Paul Samuelson wrote the leading economics textbook that dominated the market for 30 years, okay,” Rock says. “Samuelson taught at MIT. One could take Samuelson on economics at any university in America, including really inexpensive universities. Do you think that that reduced the attractiveness of MIT versus the competition, or do you think it increased the attractiveness of MIT? My guess is it increased the attractiveness … because it came with the guy.”

Ulrich takes that logic a step further.

“Universities like Penn deliver at least four benefits to students,” he observes. “They confer alumni status, which carries with it prestige and a signal of quality to employment markets. They create a social network among individuals likely to be powerful in the future. They provide an engaging environment in which to make the transition into adulthood. And they provide an academic education.

“My sense is that for most students, the academic education is of substantially less value than the other elements.

“Elite universities are among the oldest institutions in the world,” he adds. “They appear to be very resilient institutions, rivaling religions for longevity. I believe a key reason for their success is that institutional prestige is very hard to replicate and takes decades to develop. For this reason, I am confident that the top handful of universities in the world will continue to be successful for decades.”

Ulrich isn’t alone in distinguishing between the outlook for the “top handful of universities” and the prospects of all the rest. Last year Sebastian Thrun, founder of the MOOC platform Udacity, predicted in Wired magazine that 50 years from now there will only be 10 institutions of higher learning in the world.

Extreme forecasts are always the most titillating, but there’s no getting around the enormous potential of MOOCs to disrupt the business of higher education.

“The big disruption will not be to the elite universities themselves,” Ulrich reckons. “Rather, I believe that the institutions whose primary benefit to students is education—such as community colleges—will need to adapt quickly to the availability of excellent content via the web.

“It’s easy to imagine how they might do that, [by] employing instructors who serve more as mentors and facilitators than as lecturers,” he adds. And “if that approach proves highly effective, affordable, and attractive to students, then it will move ‘up market’ to the middle tier of institutions.”

It’s also easy to imagine how MOOCs could imperil those institutions—and the students they serve. After all, using MOOCs to amp up face-to-face instruction is not the only option. A more tempting one, in an era of cash-starved state universities and community colleges, might be to let MOOCs simply replace all that good stuff.

That possibility can’t be discounted. Then again, neither can the fact that for a lot people—particularly in the developing world—MOOCs aren’t a replacement at all. They are the difference between no college and at least a taste of it. And even a taste can be incredibly empowering.

While I was taking Greek and Roman Mythology, so was an autistic 17-year-old named Daniel Bergmann. Amazingly, considering that he communicates by typing letters one at a time, and relied on his father’s physical ability to cut and paste sentences as he crafted the first essays he had ever attempted, Bergmann was simultaneously taking Filreis’s poetry class.

“I can’t yet sit still in a classroom so ModPo was my first real course ever,” Bergmann wrote in a personal letter to Filreis. “During the course I had to keep pace with the class, which is unheard-of in special ed … I started to dream about a life in an academic setting where I might someday be of use to others as so many people have been of use to me. The effect is that I feel dramatically less isolated. Your notion that digital learning need not be isolating is very right where I am concerned.

“The specifics of your course were no less transforming,” he went on. “My father asked me the other day whether ModPo had had an effect on my openness and I was astonished to realize it had. My whole intellectual life as I’ve started to emerge from the misty darkness of autism has been an adventure in beauty housed in form and structure … Structured art was what I needed to develop my mind, but you showed me a larger world. In special ed they love to talk about the least restrictive environment a child can function in and you have taught me to function in a greatly expanded artistic one.”

Meanwhile, halfway around the world, a 22-year-old computer-science student named Askhat Murzabayev turned to Coursera for a class that didn’t exist in his native Kazakhstan. As reported by NPR, he took Stanford’s Machine Learning course, and parlayed his completion certificate into a job offer from Twitter, where he is now a product manager based in Almaty.

As Koller told me in January, one of the biggest surprises for her and Ng has been “the extent to which the impact we felt we were having wasn’t just about providing education to tens of thousands of students, but the direct and immediate impact that you have on the lives of a few hundreds of students—in the sense that it completely transformed their lives to have access to the educational experience.”

At Penn, Price echoes that sentiment.

“My fondest hope is that this produces an elevation in the quality of undergraduate education,” he says. “It stands to improve the quality of secondary education [as well], because it circulates collegiate material, puts it in the hands of secondary-school faculties and bright secondary-school students.”

Yet an anxiety tempers that optimism, and it is to the University’s credit that its chief academic officer pays heed to both things.

“My biggest fear, frankly, is not a fear connected to Penn at all,” he says, “It’s a fear that thinking right now about higher education, and especially public higher education, is driven by logics of efficiencies, concerns about the spiraling costs of education, et cetera. And that, too rapidly, these [MOOCs] will be seen as ways of bending the cost curve. And that efficiencies, real or imagined, will become a device for withdrawal of support from high-quality education, and replacement of that experience with something that’s perhaps adequate, but not outstanding. I’m very, very concerned with the misuse of these technologies in a way that is viewed as a cheap way out.

“There is no cheap way out of educating a population,” Price adds. “It is the best public investment that any society can possibly make. And this country has benefited from critical moments in time where wise public leaders recognized that and made those investments, and they built fabulous institutions of higher learning.”

Those institutions have new company. And the next critical moment in the history of higher education might just be the present one.

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