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Why MOOCs May Drive Up Higher Ed Costs
March 11, 2013 - 9:00pm

Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are wonderful things. 

We should applaud MOOCS, participate in MOOCs, teach MOOCs, and encourage our institutions to participate in the MOOC movement.   MOOCs will help us improve our own courses.   MOOCs will catalyze new platforms, techniques and methods to improve teaching and learning.   MOOCs will focus attention of the classroom, and elevate the status of our best educators.  MOOCs will provide learning and perhaps low cost credentialing opportunities to the vast majority of our global population currently excluded from the post-secondary education system.   

But what MOOCs may not do is lower the costs of higher ed.  In fact, an argument could be made the the rise of the MOOCs will put new cost pressures on institutions, introducing new expenses over and beyond the direct cost of producing and delivering a MOOC.  These additional costs incurred by the MOOC movement may show up in higher tuition prices.

How could this be?  Doesn't the emergence of free courses provide new opportunities for both individual learners and institutions to lower the acquisition costs of learning? 

Won't colleges and universities be able to reduce the costs of offering some courses by utilizing the content and materials from a free MOOC, paying for teaching assistants and exams rather than professors?   How could something that is free end up costing us more?

The key to understanding why individual MOOCs may eventually drive up costs is to grasp how innovations in one area can raise expectations, and standards, across an entire system.  

Running a large lecture class, particularly a large lecture class built on a model of content delivery, is already pretty cheap.   

When I first started teaching (at WVU) I was always given Intro to Sociology to teach. It was me, a few teaching assistants, and a couple of hundred students.  I'd deliver my lecture, the students would take notes, and at some point I'd assess how well they learned sociology by giving quizzes and exams.   

Almost nobody thought that this was a great way to facilitate a love of the discipline or authentic learning, but as long as I was mildly engaging and energetic everybody seemed to be okay with the bargain.   

The existence of the large lecture class, particularly when taught by the solitary faculty member and a few TAs, is the mechanism that helps pay for all those small seminar courses.   

The large lecture class is efficient, with a low per-student cost as the expense of the instructor resource is spread across so many students.  Every institution of higher learning would love to only have small classes, but the economics simply don't work.  Faculty are too expensive.  The large lecture class subsidizes everything else.

Nowadays, I question if our students will be so accommodating of the norms and rhythms of the traditional large lecture class.   Students (and their parents) are smart consumers, and they will question why they are made to pay the same number of dollars per credit for a large lecture and a small seminar course.  

Any class where the primary value is content delivery will soon settle in perceived value to what can be had on the Internet.   Content, even content packaged in the form of a course, is now free.   

What students (and their parents) will pay for is what cannot be gotten from a MOOC.   They will pay for interaction with the faculty member.  They will pay for relationships with educators.  They will pay to be able to enter into the process of knowledge creation.  

The large lecture class designed around the delivery of curriculum is dead.  MOOCs have killed this model of education, and good riddance and about time.   The classes that will replace the one-way learning large lecture courses will be superior, but more expensive in every way.     

We will look to build in robust methods of formative assessment into our course designs (following the examples of the MOOCs).  No longer will a system of mid-term and finals (summative assessment) feel adequate - particularly when quizzes for learning are so embedded into the MOOC design.

We will place an increased emphasis on active learning.  On faculty and student interactions that are flexible and personalized to the needs of the learner.   We will devote resources to flipping the classroom, moving content delivery out precious "face-to-face" time, reserving in-class time for interaction, exercises, and exchanges.   

All of these changes away from the traditional content transfer course to an active learning course require new inputs.  Inputs in faculty time to create materials to flip the classroom and design engaging assignments.  Inputs from learning designers to work with faculty on the components of the new on-ground and online teaching methodologies.  Inputs from colleagues in our teaching and learning centers and our departments of academic computing to support and catalyze methods of teaching that go beyond what was possible in either a MOOC or a traditional lecture course.

MOOCs will raise the floor on what both faculty and students believe is an acceptable course. 

This is a good result.  A great result.   But we would be naive to think that the benefits of MOOCs will come without cost.

 

 

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