Them’s is Fightin’ Words

The Council of UC Faculty Associations President Robert Meister recently sent this open letter to Coursera founder Daphne Koller. In it he snarkily offered to create his own MOOC to educate the masses on what he sees as a disconnect between Coursera’s mission to democratize higher ed and its eventual plans to start charging students for the currently free, learn-all-you-want buffet. In short, Meister argues that Coursera’s “made-up credential[s]”, “threaten the ability of those universities to charge as much as they do now for keeping high quality credentials relatively scarce.” Meister continues, “Coursera and its competitors might try to solve the pricing problem on their own through years of costly experimentation in building their own ‘brands’. He goes on to say, “Students would quickly come to see that without legitimation of their credential by state government, the existing price points [Coursera] could use for calibrating [its] educational products would be those of current for-profit higher education industry, which already has trouble establishing that its offerings are worth what students pay.”

Why shouldn’t Coursera and other MOOC platforms build their brand and put pressure on UC and all other schools to consider what the consumers (students and employers) want? What if a critical mass of students discovered that getting hired by employers because they have a set of valuable skills was actually worth more than a piece of paper with a raised seal? Students are already showing their reluctance to take on enormous debt knowing that the current degrees we are handing out do not guarantee them employment.

Meister wonders what this would mean for “the hundreds of millions of potential students in India and Africa who have no access to a UC and Stanford ‘quality’ education, and can now get it for free through Coursera”? He argues that these students are simply falling into Coursera’s capitalist trap writing “that ‘free’ knowledge is not for the sake of more equality but the entering wedge for enormous corporate profits that are likely to increase inequality still further and to reduce the eventual economic value of the career options that they are seeking online.”

With all due to respect to old-school cowboys, them’s is fightin’ words.

I too am concerned about the imminent day when Coursera announces how much it will start charging for its courses (though perhaps it will incentivize me to actually finish one). However, Meister is overlooking a critical notion that goes way beyond price point. What is so exciting about MOOC platforms like Coursera is is that they enable programs like Kepler to move into these emerging markets and leapfrog the very concept of “credentials” altogether by focusing on competency-based education.

Emerging markets (and dare I say the US) do not need more “real” or “made-up” certificates, unless they are going to be used as bedding for millions of hamsters generating clean electricity. Emerging markets need intellectually hungry students (of which there are millions) with access to high quality education and programs (of which there are a scarcity only in terms of bricks and mortar). Instead of focusing on brands, certificates, and credentials, let’s shift the conversation to employability in global knowledge work and figuring out how to ensure that regardless of where and how students engage in higher education, they have something real, measurable, and desirable to show for it. Fighting turf wars over who owns the “real” higher ed brand name degree is what is going to ensure inequality.

California Higher Ed Gives Credit for Online Courses

According to a recent NY TImes article by Tamar Lewen, California’s public colleges and universities have recently voted to give credit to students taking faculty-approved online courses in cases where those courses were oversubscribed. While this may be a “bottom line” issue for a severely budget-challenged higher ed system, it’s amazing news for those of us who are championing the demise of the credit hour. This decision is also cracking open the market for MOOC providers- another excellent outcome. We need more competition to create higher quality video content across a wider range of subject areas.

This quote from the president of the California Faculty Association sums up the perennially weak counter-argument for MOOCs, “This whole online thing is not well-vetted yet,” she said. “There’s a sort of mania for massive online courses right now, but there’s no good evidence that they work for all students.” Yes, because we know that the traditional higher ed approach is really working for all students (sarcasm). She goes on to complain that MOOCs are giving away “the job of educating our students.” Well, if overcrowding, ridiculous student debt load and low employability are the outcomes from our current higher ed model, I say bring it on. But let’s not stop there. We can have our MOOCs and eat them too… I mean, we can have students watch their MOOCs and still have access to high quality educators if we shift precious class meeting time to flipped classroom models where those educators can actually engage students in problem solving and critical thinking because students have sat through the lecture outside of class time.

So, let’s not just stop at opening up online courses for credit- let’s redesign our higher ed teaching models to make the most of all of our resources. Next big challenge? Creating an inexpensive model for seminars for those California students (and more!) who are taking the online courses with no access to profs… stay tuned as KEPLER tries a few models on for size.