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.