Sunday, August 18, 2013

Higher Ed's Triumph of Hope Over History

August 18, 2013, 10:30 a.m.

Why Pay $100,000 or More for What's Available For Free?

Over three years ago I addressed in this blog what seemed to me a potential challenge to the future of higher education: "Higher Ed: When UI Loses Its Monopoly; From SUI to ACT," February 20, 2013. [Photo credit:]

In this morning's Iowa City Press-Citizen Tara Bannow reports on UI and other institutions' administrators' reactions to what is called "MOOC" -- massive open online courses. Tara Bannow, "MOOCs: Revolutionizing education or destroying brick-and-mortar universities?", Iowa City Press-Citizen, August 18, 2013, p. A1. [Photo credit:]

Tara Bannow's excellent reporting reveals at least some higher ed administrators to be somewhere between naive and unimaginative regarding the potential impact of MOOCs: "[One administrator] said she thinks MOOCs are a tool worth experimenting with, but certainly are not the end-all in higher education. They serve a specific role, one that does not infringe upon the university’s traditional mission. . . . Likewise, [another] said although his crystal ball can’t predict where MOOCs will take higher education, nothing will replace the value of brick-and-mortar universities."

Such reactions remind one of those newspaper executives who, when to appear cool and get on board with "the digital revolution," started to give away free content online before they had a business plan for doing so.

Of course, there are differences between a MOOC education and an on-campus college education -- especially if the notion of spending four years in the nation's number one party town appeals to a student, and their parents are willing and able to pay for it.

But what if a significant part of the motivation of a student (and their parents) is to pay as little as is necessary to obtain the ticket to the jobs that pay more than McDonald's -- namely the certification called a "diploma" that can, today, only be granted by a college or university that profits from the monopoly they have over diploma granting?

What if a certificate was available for free, as well as the course content -- the college equivalent of what the GED is for high school diplomas? What if students had a choice, when buying that ticket out of the minimum-wage market, to: (a) pay $100,000 to $200,000 for an on-campus college degree, or (b) $0 for a certificate that is its equivalent in the eyes of future employers? (Many employers tell me they'd prefer the certificate over the diploma, because it would give them a better idea what an applicant can actually do.)

Why would UI students pay to get credit at Iowa for participating in MOOC education, just so they could have a "diploma" -- when they could get the course, plus a certificate, for free?

Institutions do undergo radical change -- and sometimes disappear. General Motors -- and American manufacturing generally. Newspapers. Kodak -- offered and refusing video recording, the Polaroid and Xerox processes. Swiss watchmakers, convinced digital watches would never catch on. I recall when hosting PBS' "New Tech Times," back in the '80s, getting footage at the Consumer Electronics Show in Vegas, asking an Encyclopedia Britannica booth operator when the encyclopedia would be available online -- "Never!" he said aggressively. How many kids do you know who still use their MySpace account? Have you been watching Dell's stock and laptop sales recently, while the Internet moves mobile?

What basis is there for the conviction that higher education's colleges and universities constitute the one institution that will forever remain immune to such forces?

If you are interested in more on this subject give a read to, "Higher Ed: When UI Loses Its Monopoly; From SUI to ACT," February 20, 2013.

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