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MOOCs, costs, and Dan Ariely

MOOCs will solve our education problems. No one wants to pay for education. Everyone wants education to be free. MOOCs will at least bring down the costs and bring the best lecturers to all the world. I own some land in Florida, the Glengary project. Perhaps you’d like to buy a tract? I am fascinated by MOOCs but reject the claims being made about them as demonstrating some sort of magical new education system.

Yet, when I think about taking a great class with a master teacher, I get excited. Heck, I already listen to lectures from iTunes U and MIT’s Open Course Ware when I work out. MOOCs seem like a step up. And the reality of the cost problem means that they will likely play a role. Then I saw that Dan Ariely is offering a MOOC. And he wrote about the experience. His thoughts track much of what I think. On costs he says, “I have learned that some students feel that it is their basic human right to get free education (they call it free but of course free in this case is a shorthand for “someone else should pay for it,”) while the majority feels privileged to live in a time when such adventures are possible.” But more important are his ideas about where MOOCs may fit and why live learning has a place. I think he is correct, but he may miss a deeper problem.

On MOOCs’ place in the future, Ariely offers:

I don’t think that the future of the university is doomed for a few reasons. First, having a scheduled class with obligations, deadlines, exams, real consequences and real rewards is incredibly important for human motivation and getting people to spend the necessary time and effort to really understand the material. The second reason is that the model of many universities, in which students study and live together, is a particularly helpful model for creating the environment that people need to take their education seriously. It is not just about the particular classes, but about being immersed in an academic environment for a substantial period of time.

The latent problems of MOOCs flow from the benefits of physical place-based teaching; they are expensive and will be for the few; not the many. Assume Ariely is correct. The advantages of the scheduled classes etc. matters. That can be mimicked online. That kills the claim that schedules will require the university. Studying and living together is important. Think of The Social Life of Information by John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid. Drawing on Xerox PARC, (and the California “Virtual University”) they show that social context is vital for technology and information to help society going forward. But again that physical structure costs money. My concern then is how do we leverage MOOCs and other technology to improve the way education is delivered while not offering only the virtual world, one that may lack social context, to the poorer parts of society.

If we run to replace classrooms at state schools, only the rich will have the benefits I had. That is a mistake. I was lucky. I went to private schools, UC Berkeley, and Yale Law. I have gained social capital. I know some of the language, manners, styles, and more that are part of getting into the game and playing it. That aspect of life is possibly undercut unless everyone in the future works only on social networks and online culture. To date, it still matters to be in Silicon Valley, Wall Street, Hollywood, etc. so that one can have the day-to-day chance to leverage connections and be part of the so-called conversation. Put differently, back room deals are about who you know. Interviews, for now, may be on videochat, but they still reveal diction, ideas, and manners that influence hiring. Plus, I prefer to read, explore, and solve things on my own. Those who may not be so motivated are precisely those for whom a more disconnected teaching system will not work. So far the drop-out rate for online courses is high. Now, I think there are ways to address these issues. I have believed and continue to believe that technology coupled with social reality can be powerful and beneficial. I stand by that belief.

The danger is to think that because certain facets of universities cannot be duplicated, universities will survive and all is well. Only certain versions of the university will survive. Duke and other elite schools will survive. At those schools students will be part of all the benefits, on and offline, education can offer. For others, access to the benefits Ariely sets out will be even less than today.

Education is a public good with many dimensions beyond the obvious mastery of a subject. It is better thought of as liberal, as in freeing, one to address the myriad problems and changes one encounters in work and life. MOOCs and other advances in technology can and should help that process. Relying on them alone may increase the problems of an education system that delivers a meal, proves that person ate the meal, but the customer has no idea how to fish for herself when on her own.

1 thought on “MOOCs, costs, and Dan Ariely”

  1. Deven, while I agree with many of your sentiments, our problem with education cost is very real, and a symptom of something economists call “Baumol’s cost disease.” MOOCs are virtually the only solution I’ve heard that addresses this problem in education. So it’s not possible to provide everyone with the same kind of education you (and I) enjoyed — MOOC’s can help get something perhaps nearly equal to it, to more people, than we otherwise would be able to.

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