the lectern banner

By Steve Kelman

Blog archive

Coming soon: The university of the internet

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.

Posted on Feb 20, 2013 at 12:09 PM


FCW in Print

In the latest issue: Looking back on three decades of big stories in federal IT.

Featured

  • FCW @ 30 GPS

    FCW @ 30

    Since 1986, FCW has covered it all -- the major contracts, the disruptive technologies, the picayune scandals and the many, many people who make federal IT function. Here's a look back at six of the most significant stories.

  • Shutterstock image.

    A 'minibus' appropriations package could be in the cards

    A short-term funding bill is expected by Sept. 30 to keep the federal government operating through early December, but after that the options get more complicated.

  • Defense Secretary Ash Carter speaks at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference in San Francisco

    DOD launches new tech hub in Austin

    The DOD is opening a new Defense Innovation Unit Experimental office in Austin, Texas, while Congress debates legislation that could defund DIUx.

  • Shutterstock image.

    Merged IT modernization bill punts on funding

    A House panel approved a new IT modernization bill that appears poised to pass, but key funding questions are left for appropriators.

  • General Frost

    Army wants cyber capability everywhere

    The Army's cyber director said cyber, electronic warfare and information operations must be integrated into warfighters' doctrine and training.

  • Rising Star 2013

    Meet the 2016 Rising Stars

    FCW honors 30 early-career leaders in federal IT.

Reader comments

Wed, Feb 20, 2013 Alan

Arnold Kling has excellent commentary on this- he is pessimistic about MOOCs and more optimistic about future technological advances. The heart of his objection is that MOOCs force an even larger body of pupils to conform learning styles to one instructor. The alternative is program a large variety of teaching styles into one website/machine and have the website/machine confrom to the pupil. Having taken a MOOC, I'm inclined to agree. Your job is still relatively safe, Prof. Kelman.

Please post your comments here. Comments are moderated, so they may not appear immediately after submitting. We will not post comments that we consider abusive or off-topic.

Please type the letters/numbers you see above

More from 1105 Public Sector Media Group