Coming soon: The university of the internet

Massive open online courses could change almost everything about higher education. And they're coming faster than anyone expected, Steve Kelman finds.

computer and books

At a recent Kennedy School faculty meeting, our dean gave a report on a meeting he had attended with other senior university administrators from the United States and abroad. The topic that attracted the most interest in the discussion was the spread of online university education via so-called “massive open online courses” (MOOCs). These are online lectures, so far mostly but not exclusively in the sciences, given by professors who are very talented as teachers. Most are open for viewing for free, but in some cases one can pay a fee in order to take an exam and get course credit. (Here’s a link to the Wikipedia entry on MOOCs.)

The dean's basic point was that administrators agree the move towards MOOCs is going much faster than anyone expected, and an upheaval in higher education may be around the corner. Universities are, the view seems to be, about to be swept up in technology-induced change in a way that first became familiar when MCI long distance challenged the old AT&T, and that we have seen more recently with newspapers and music. Rather than trying to fight this, Harvard and MIT have joined to form EdX to promote and develop MOOC’s.

Of course, nobody knows what form all of this will take, but there are a lot of fascinating questions. The more material is taught online, the less demand there will be for traditional professors. There is going to be a lot of demand for people to grade exams (except possibly in math or science, where exams can often be graded by computer). At some (or maybe many ) universities, there will be demand for on-site education to complement online lectures -- at Harvard we like to think that many students will still want the kind of in-person experience we offer – but the kind of classroom teaching will be very different from what it is today.

The price pressures that online learning produces will be welcome to all those who worry about the affordability of higher education, but one issue will be the pressures to eliminate the “cross-subsidy” of scholarly research by other revenue sources for universities, and the danger this poses for our country’s foremost position in the world as a source of research. (Somewhat relatedly, the easiest way for universities to raise money from donors is to build buildings, and the “overhead” part of the donation currently helps pay for other activities at the university – yet online education may produce a decline in demand for buildings and hence in universities’ ability to raise money from donors.)

This movement is clearly a survival threat to lower-quality universities that are charging a lot of money for lectures that probably aren’t as good as the ones online. Some will survive by offering degrees to people who can’t pass online course exams, or through the opportunity for young people to socialize or watch football – though in both cases, likely at a much lower price point. At the other end, clearly there are far more students who could pass Harvard exams than there are students who get admitted to Harvard. What will happen to the credentialing and sorting function of universities?

I will confess that my first reaction in listening to my Dean’s discussion was that maybe I should get ready to retire earlier than I expected. We’ll see. Meanwhile, watch this space for updates.

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