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.

Keith Fowlkes, Vice President, Technology Business Category E&I Cooperative Services

June 10, 2013

5 Min Read

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.

About the Author(s)

Keith Fowlkes

Vice President, Technology Business Category E&I Cooperative Services

Keith is a veteran chief information officer serving as CIO for Saint Mary's College- Notre Dame, IN, University of Virginia-Wise and, most recently, Centre College. He is a co-founder and board member of the Higher Education Systems & Services Consortium (HESS) and has recently taken a new role as vice president of the technology contracts category for E&I Cooperative Services in Jericho, NY. Keith is also a frequent speaker and serves as a contributing writer on technology for EDUCAUSE, InformationWeek and the ACUTA Journal. He can be reached by email at [email protected] and more information on E&I Cooperative Services can be found at online.

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