Monday, November 19, 2012

Why are universities so afraid of on line education?

A climate of fear is enveloping our major universities. One after the other they are signing up for being part of well capitalized venture financed operations that are offering free on line courses. The companies are paying the universities so, of course, the universities are taking the money. What do they have to lose?

New offerers appear regularly, the latest being one that wants students to attend classes remotely and pay full tuition for the privilege of doing this.

Something important is going on, but it is not quite obvious what. Well, it is to me.

The universities are desperately afraid. Of what?

The university that started all this was MIT when it announced over a decade ago that they would put all their course materials on line, free for all to use. The press made quite a fuss about this, but I said at the time that they just wanted to appear to be doing something, when MIT well knew that the course materials that professors prepare constitute a very unimportant part of what it means to receive an MIT education. (What is important at MIT? Working with faculty and students to create new ideas and new projects.)

I was asked if I wanted to head up that operation and told MIT that I would make real course offerings to create a world wide MIT on line delivery system. I was never called back.

I built a series of on line masters degrees for Carnegie Mellon University a decade ago and was not only not praised for doing this but was immediately fired.

I was explicitly told that Carnegie Mellon didn’t want to sully its brand by having too many Carnegie Mellon degrees out there. They want to be an elite brand name, as do all the major universities.

But, suddenly it seems the game had changed. Every university wants to go on line. But, this is not really the case.

To understand this, you have to think for a moment about courses and what they are all about. Most students take four or five courses at a time as full time students at a university. While they are doing this they play football or work for the student newspaper, or maybe even hold down a real job. Plus there a great many social events to attend, in addition to the constant action of dormitory life.

In the life of your average college student, a lecture course is something to be barely paid attention to at best, or slept through at worst. The fact that a friend can make a video recording of them for you means you can skip them all together.

And this, of course, is the origin of on line courses. As long as someone is making his recording of the lecture available to his friends why shouldn't the university do that and say that that was they wanted to do in the first place. Add a quiz or two, and no one ever has to show up. Voila! Coursera!

But why do the universities agree to this? The answer, as always, seems to be money.

But really the answer is fear. The issue is understanding what they are afraid of exactly.

Here are four things universities are deathly afraid of:

  1. What if the model that “everyone must go to college” stops being pushed by employers and governments?
  2. What if they simply can no longer charge large tuition fees to students?
  3. What if professors, who at top universities are primarily researchers, were actually made to have teaching be their primary activity?
  4. What if the students stop showing up on campus?

The money issue is a big one. Tuition amounts have risen way ahead of inflation supported by readily available student loan programs and by the belief that anyone who doesn’t go to college is more or less useless. We fail to observe how many successful people have never graduated college, including Bill Gates, who never stops promoting school standards, teacher evaluations, and now on line courses. Mr Obama wants to everyone to go college as do the authorities in the U.K. Why exactly? Because the universities are afraid and are lobbying hard for this. When you need a PhD to work in McDonalds however, the model will fall apart, and we are headed in that direction.

All that tuition revenue, and donations from alumni who fondly remember the great football teams and parties, help sustain what is actually an absurd model and every university knows and fears the downfall of that model.

The model is what I like to call the “superstar system.” Top universities compete for superstars in the same way that baseball teams and movie producers do. There are only so many big names and the university that has the most wins. If Harvard has more Nobel Prize winners than Yale, Yale is thinking about this all the time. (I say this as someone who was on the Yale faculty for fifteen years.)

Research universities want to sustain the model that has made them great places to live and work. I loved working at them for 35 years. But the students were, and are, being cheated. Some professors care about the undergraduates at an Ivy League school I am sure. I certainly didn’t.

I was once yelled at by an undergraduate who said he paid big tuition to Yale and I should meet with him at times other then my few and far between office hours. Of course he was right. But the incentives at the research universities are all about publishing and international fame, not about happy undergraduates. 

(I did meet with him by the way and he eventually became a researcher at a major university where the undergraduates find him to be very hard to find.) 

Just the other day, Northwestern University where I ran the Institute for the Learning Sciences for many years announced proudly that they would let people attend classes remotely if they met admission standards and paid full tuition. They should be ashamed of themselves. There are still plenty of people at Northwestern who know how to do on line education correctly. We pretty much invented it there.

But, what we invented was using the computer as a learn by doing device, eliminating lectures and classrooms, and replacing them by projects one could do on the computer with the help of faculty and other students.

I am slowly finding universities who want to use this model on line but the faculty always object to it. No lectures? No theories? Just learning by doing? Oh, the horror. The faculty might have to teach.

So, don’t be too impressed by MOOCs non-MOOCs and any other nonsense that keeps courses with a teacher talking still the staple of university education. Students put up with that because they get degrees they can brag about, not because of all the wonderful stuff they learned. It is not any more wonderful if you are at home in your pajamas.