What's Missing From 'Open' Courses

I've been thinking a lot about death lately.

June 6, 2008

I've been thinking a lot about death lately.

Don't worry—I'm not clinically depressed or gravely ill. None of my pets or loved ones passed away last week. I've been thinking about death because I've been watching Shelly Kagan (Clark Professor of Philosophy at Yale University) talk about death, at open.yale.edu. That's where Yale has posted a complete series of his lectures from Philosophy 176 -- i.e. "Death" -- as part of the Open Yale Course project. There are also courses on astronomy, psychology, religious studies, physics and more, all for free. It's pretty cool.

Shelly (he tells his students to call him that) lectures on a wooden stage in an auditorium-style classroom, in front of an old-fashioned chalkboard. He favors jeans and black Converse All-Star-type sneakers, and likes to sit cross-legged on his desk as he explains Plato's views on the immortality of the soul. He's a talented lecturer and I appreciate what he has to say. I'd like to think that I'm wiser having watched the course, that my powers of reasoning are a little more nimble, that my inevitable death makes a little more sense.

And yet, I would like one more thing from Yale. A small thing, but an important one.

I would like a grade.

I recognize that -- unlike sending video to my computer over the Internet -- the marginal cost of giving me a grade is not zero. So I'd be willing to pay. Student grades in Philosophy 176 are primarily determined by three papers. Shelly says grad students do the grading, under his supervision. So I think a fair price would be whatever amount of time it takes them to grade my papers, as a percentage of their total working hours, multiplied by their annual compensation, plus Yale's standard administrative overhead, with a little extra for Shelly's supervision and initial course development costs thrown in. Back of the envelope, I'm guessing this should amount to several hundred dollars, but if it's more or less, just let me know.

And if my grades on the papers are good enough, I would like Yale to mail me an official document of some sort recognizing this fact. I would like credit, in other words, for my new understanding of death. Credit that I could apply, if I wish, toward a degree at Yale, or any other institution of higher learning that will have me.

I'm joking -- sort of. The odds of Yale actually taking my money, grading my papers, and granting credit are rather long. And I understand why.

Universities like Yale are built on exclusivity and the status it brings. Only the best scholars can teach there; only the best students can attend. For nearly all of the first 300 years of Yale's existence, there was no real alternative -- the only way to get a Yale education was to live in New Haven, and there are limits to how large a physical university campus can be. This was to Yale's benefit, because exclusivity turned out to be a great business. Yale has become immensely rich and famous over the centuries, and it sells the perfect product for the 21st Century: branded intellectual property. Kind of like Microsoft, but without having to pay taxes or file forms with the SEC.

But even as information technology is changing our economy in ways that make exclusive college degrees ever more valuable, it's also giving institutions like Yale new opportunities to be less exclusive, by educating people at a distance. This creates an ethical dilemma for Yale and its ilk. Hoarding intellectual resources in an era where they can be distributed far and wide at no cost seems selfish and counter to the spirit of higher education. But distributing those resources too far and wide could undermine the exclusivity on which Yale's fame and fortune are based.

The Open Course Web site is an attempt to split the difference. Yale has clearly thought the implications of this through, which is why the fine print says "Open Yale Courses does not grant degrees or certificates" and "Its purpose is not to duplicate a Yale education." Yale's approach -- free courses, but no credit -- is consistent with similar efforts at other universities, such as MIT's OpenCourseWare initiative and the Open Learning Initiative at Carnegie Mellon.

I don't doubt that the intent was not to duplicate a Yale education. But the question of whether it actually does duplicate a Yale education seems open to question.

As near as I can tell, taking "Death" consists of four discrete activities: listening to Shelly lecture, doing the assigned readings, attending discussion sections, and writing three papers. The experience of the first two can be replicated perfectly at a distance, and the fourth could be, if Yale so chose. That leaves the discussion sections, which I'm sorry I missed. They could, of course, be replicated imperfectly, via chat room or what have you, at very little cost, and I'm told such features are coming soon.

The question of how much I missed by being left out of the discussions, however, can be determined empirically. That's what grades are for. If my three papers aren't good enough, then don't give me credit. If they are, then the imperfect duplication of a Yale education was, by definition, close enough.

There are obviously some limits to all of this. The number of people who could theoretically watch Shelly's discourse on death is essentially unrestricted. The number of papers Yale can grade is not. But it's surely greater than the number Yale is grading now. The costs would be paid from new revenues, and I'm guessing Yale could hire instructors or others more than competent to grade.

The world is extremely large and, comparatively speaking, Yale is very small. It could easily credential ten times, a hundred times more students over the Internet than it currently does in New Haven. Students would have more incentives to take great Yale courses, and the number of valuable Yale-certified learners would increase. This would rankle those who value Yale's exclusivity over the bounty of knowledge, culture, and insight the university could potentially provide. But that's a morally suspect position. Who cares what such people think?

Writing in the New York Times a few years before he died, famous Yale alumnus William F. Buckley defended legacy admissions policies by noting that "there are tribal instincts in life" and "colleges and universities are part of life." True enough. The question is whether Yale and other fantastically wealthy colleges that husband their precious brand names will continue to act on those instincts, or will instead take the new opportunities that technology provides to help as many people as they can.


Kevin Carey is research and policy manager at Education Sector. His previous column was about the demise of the proposed "unit record" system.


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