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6/10/2013
09:04 AM
Keith Fowlkes
Keith Fowlkes
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MOOC-utopia: Who Really Wins?

Massive open online courses are being promoted "for the students." But software execs and politicians pushing MOOCs have money and disruption at the top of the agenda.

Remember, this is all extreme speculation and extrapolation based on my understanding of U.S. economics and basic trends in corporate structuring and restructuring. One thing is sure in this speculation. Politics, money and survival are at the core of everything. And, unless I've missed something over the last four decades, these factors will most likely be the driving force behind this change in the educational landscape.

So, let's say that it is 2020 and we have reached "MOOC-utopia" (trademark pending). All the faculty and administrator discussions have taken place. Students and their parents now have a choice to join MOOCs based on their chosen institution's choice of validation or to attend a more expensive traditional college or university with recognized accreditation. In this higher educational system, there are now traditional degrees and online degrees as well as MOOC-based certifications and "badges." Everyone has access to education at some level. There were definitely big winners and big losers in the process but in the end, a new type of higher education system was born. What does U.S. higher education look like now? My speculation follows, but I challenge you to make your own extrapolations and post them for discussion on this article's comments section.

First, greater competition in the educational marketplace for prospective students will heat up. The intensity for admissions to bring in students into small public colleges becomes much higher. Students who have chosen to get a certification or "badge" in a technical area of study have reduced state community colleges' prospective student pools. Smaller state colleges and universities also begin to feel the pinch, widening their admissions territories, lowering their admissions prices and their academic entry requirements. I see these small public schools as the biggest losers in the long-term, neither being able to compete in the online education market or being able to take part in the MOOC rage.

Extrapolating from the model that businesses have followed, small state-funded institutions lose students to larger university's MOOCs and begin to merge. Mergers then make possible higher efficiencies within state agencies. This means layoffs for many faculty and administrators.

More faculty and administrators laid off means a large number of faculty and administrators looking for work, which drives down salaries for faculty in the market. Competition for jobs in higher education gets much greater with many qualified faculty and administrators going into freelance online learning positions or leaving higher education altogether.

Many smaller, private colleges have market niches and longer histories but many of these will feel the pinch too. Private colleges will become more competitive in price with larger, state-funded institutions but those privates with less name recognition, academic reputation and fewer services will either merge with other schools or close their doors altogether. The best and brightest private institutions will find ways to collaborate and share resources to become more competitive with the larger state institutions while others not able or willing to do this will fall away.

Nationally, these overall trends will lower teachers' salaries because of the larger supply of qualified faculty in the workforce. It will also make the competition in the teaching profession fierce and will turn some research-focused institutions back to teaching-centered institutions. The institutions that can pay more for the best research faculty will win more and more R&D jobs. Lower R&D revenue in many (not all) state institutions will affect operational budgets, which will again even the cost-based playing field for competition with private colleges and universities.

"It's all about the students."

Let's go back to that statement "It's all about the students" from our software executive. Who are the biggest winners in this paradigm shift? Students?

The biggest winners in my opinion will be the largest private institutions and their entrepreneurial partners, the very people driving this change. Harvard, Stanford and MIT are the institutions that will clearly gain the most from the MOOC revolution. They are tightening a competitive, cost-sensitive landscape in higher education like no other in history. IF successful (and that is a big IF), they will stand to gain hundreds of billions of dollars in revenue worldwide through MOOCs and increased R&D revenues, effectively stealing from the poor and giving to the rich, the rich being themselves. Large state institutions will survive, but many will be very much changed entities.

Now, if you have read my other writings, you know that I have a bent toward conspiracy theories. Politicians have a lot to gain here too. The end game might be very good for state budgets and the federal government in that they could get out of the community college and small college businesses altogether, saving billions on schools that neither produce a high-yield of STEM graduates nor viable graduates able to pay the billions owned in student loans. Only the best and brightest students will need loans to go to college. The rest can sit at home and earn certificates and badges that will aid the shortage of "coders" and other lower level positions to contribute to GDP, for a while.

What I really fear the most is a shortage of people in society that can think broadly about difficult problems, use multiple resources to find solutions and think critically about the long-term effects of their decisions. I fear having a workforce with the extreme academic "haves" and the extreme "have-nots."

There are very good things about MOOC-based technologies related to continuing education, sharing of faculty expertise and institutional collaboration as well as blended learning applications.

However, in the larger context of higher education, I'm not convinced this change is "all about the students," especially not undergraduate students.

I asked one of those software executives where his daughter was going to school in the fall. He said, with a very proud look on his face, "She got into Brown!"

I have a feeling he would have been disappointed if she had decided to get a MOOC certificate, even if one existed.

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Keith Fowlkes
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Keith Fowlkes,
User Rank: Apprentice
6/26/2013 | 12:31:50 PM
re: MOOC-utopia: Who Really Wins?
Sorry that should been... http://chronicle.com/blogs/wir...
Keith Fowlkes
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Keith Fowlkes,
User Rank: Apprentice
6/26/2013 | 12:30:44 PM
re: MOOC-utopia: Who Really Wins?
Very interesting regarding MOOCs and the higher ed financial haves and have nots... See http://chronicle.com/section/H... that just came out.
David F. Carr
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David F. Carr,
User Rank: Author
6/13/2013 | 3:44:46 PM
re: MOOC-utopia: Who Really Wins?
I also can't help thinking of the comparison with journalism and publishing, where every professional operation from InformationWeek to The New York Times suddenly found itself in competition with every blogger willing to publish content for free. The whole economic model of the industry was disrupted, and many established publications failed to make the transition.
Keith Fowlkes
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Keith Fowlkes,
User Rank: Apprentice
6/13/2013 | 3:17:09 PM
re: MOOC-utopia: Who Really Wins?
VERY good posts here and previous!! You all have just outlined even more of my concerns with your very intelligent extrapolations. Your points are well taken in that this whole process follows previous trends that have damaged the IT industry, talent pools and U.S. wages. Thank you so much for your input here. Greatly valuable!!
Certifiable
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Certifiable,
User Rank: Apprentice
6/12/2013 | 10:09:20 PM
re: MOOC-utopia: Who Really Wins?
The upcoming devaluation of educational staff salaries for professors and teachers alike will occur because of labor arbitrage. As the need to physically attend a course decreases, both for professor and student, the access to and availability of offshore educational staff will become more important and relevant. The offshored staff benefit from much lower fixed and variable costs like cost of living, education debt, etc. So they will work for much less than locally grown talent and require fewer US based benefits such as Social Security, Medicare, unemployment. See where is this going? Anyone? Anyone?

We have seen this before with the IT profession having been massively offshored and outsourced over the last 10 years. It was driven by the ability to manage and troubleshoot IT from vast distances with little need for a physical presence. So now your potential labor pool opens up to countries where worker's wages, rights and benefits are considerably lower than in the U.S. Naturally, corporations drooled at this prospect and have since embraced it wholeheartedly. With the outflow of jobs came the destruction of local IT talent and their career prospects. Then came the current mantra and feigned surprise by corporations and government alike that we have an IT talent shortage!

Now we will be repeating the cycle with our education profession and MOOCs, where the US based highly qualified, PHd-only need apply, to justify their much higher wage and benefits demands. The lower, less qualified US based ranks will be supplanted by cheaper offshore "talent", which are "good enough". What is an aspiring student or career changer going to do, who wants to be an educator or professor, but can't get their foot in the door because most or all of the lower level educational opportunities have gone to the lowest bidder offshore?

If you don't nurture the US based career prospects of the lower rank and file in any industry, be it IT or education, how can you be surprised by a future talent shortage?
cbabcock
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cbabcock,
User Rank: Strategist
6/12/2013 | 9:21:07 PM
re: MOOC-utopia: Who Really Wins?
I don't know how to answer the question of who wins and who loses among educational insitutions, other than suspecting the status names will gain and the little knowns will suffer. But I do know society as a whole benefits from a wide variety of educational insitutions. For education to get homogenized and concentrated around a few brands would be a huge loss of diversity, and the hidden intelligence contained in such diversity. It's that possibility that makes me nervous about MOOCs. Charlie Babcock, InformationWeek editor at large.
Some Other John Barnes
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Some Other John Barnes,
User Rank: Apprentice
6/12/2013 | 4:06:24 PM
re: MOOC-utopia: Who Really Wins?
The biggest problem with MOOCs, since David referred in passing to
science fiction, is that they're likely to be something rather like
getting credit for taking a multiple choice quiz after watching TED
videos, and I can see that very quickly leading to a "reverse Turing
Test" result like the one in the classic D.C. Poyer story "Turing Test" -- rather than the machines' messages becoming indistinguishable from
the ones sent by people, people lose the ability to tell the
difference. In particular I worry about the "smart lecture" effect
(people think they know more than they do after listening to a really
good lecturer) leading to people getting certificates mostly for feeling
smart rather than knowing anything.
Keith Fowlkes
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Keith Fowlkes,
User Rank: Apprentice
6/11/2013 | 5:53:44 PM
re: MOOC-utopia: Who Really Wins?
Excellent post! My article does actually state the broader concept of education that you espouse. I also agree with your idea that people learn in different ways and I also agree with your thoughts MOOCs increasing access to education for a larger population. I'm more concerned about what the market will do to those with MOOC credentials and exploiting those people with lower salaries than those with traditional degrees. Thanks for the good feedback!
raltmaier950
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raltmaier950,
User Rank: Apprentice
6/11/2013 | 4:46:34 PM
re: MOOC-utopia: Who Really Wins?
Mr. Fowlkes presents an absurdly narrow view of the purpose of education. It is not to produce programmer atomatons or to produce broad thinkers of difficult problems. Education is to strengthen ones own understanding of the world such that you can be a productive member. The programmer is to write correct Java programs that don't crash, do useful things that users & customers want, and are fun. The public thinker is to understand the balance of human failings, motivation, legal constraints, and cost effective results.
If I the student can learn something to increase my skills from a MOOC, and less from a droning professor in a class, hurray! People learn in different ways. People seek out the school which works for them. MOOCs sure look like they can educate a few million people who otherwise might go without that education.
If no one seeks out University of Nowhere, yes they go out of business.
David F. Carr
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David F. Carr,
User Rank: Author
6/11/2013 | 2:08:49 PM
re: MOOC-utopia: Who Really Wins?
The MOOC Research Initiative funded just announced by the Bill & Melinda Gates foundation may provide some data to replace speculation about the role of MOOCs. That would be a good thing.

See http://chronicle.com/blogs/wir...
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