The cost of attending college is rising above inflation every year, while the premium for doing so shrinks. This obviously can’t last, but no one on the inside has any clear idea about how to change the way our institutions work while leaving our benefits and privileges intact.
In the academy, we lecture other people every day about learning from history. Now its our turn, and the risk is that we’ll be the last to know that the world has changed, because we can’t imagine—really cannot imagine—that story we tell ourselves about ourselves could start to fail. Even when it’s true. Especially when it’s true.
Clay Shirky recently published a wide-angle perspective on the disruption of higher education by MOOCs: Napster, Udacity, and the Academy. To set the stage, Shirky cites the recent history of the music industry:
“our MP3 is the massive open online course (or MOOC), and our Napster is Udacity, the education startup.”
If you’ve not been studying the rapid evolution of free online education, then Shirky offers an excellent introduction. If you have been following MOOCs closely, then I suggest you go straight to the Shirky blog — Clay has some angles that you may not have thought of.
One area that needs a lot more discussion is how credentialing is going to work, and the acceptance thereof by employers. Personally, I think the learning part of higher education is going to benefit enormously from the blossoming of efforts like Coursera and Udacity. This is true even for the lucky few who can afford to give up four+ productive income-earning years while they borrow or spend $250,000+ to attend Stanford, MIT or Oxford. That’s because the MOOCs offer a very effective laboratory for learning about learning while experimenting with new learning modalities. If you spend a bit of time reading the Kahn Academy and Udacity blogs you’ll see that they have an intense focus on learning how students learn and what facilitators are effective.
But the most important payoff will not be collected until Google or Rand Corp. accept and respect demonstrated competence from successful MOOC students. Udacity is advancing on this front. E.g., they are partnering with Pearson on testing. Further, Udacity is channeling high-accomplishment students to employers. Both for fees. Education is free if you work at it. The benefits of what you have learned will cost a little bit. And employers will pay their share.
I’m optimistic that demonstrated competence will gain stature relative to elite school degrees. Just thinking about the tech industry, the vast majority of the thousands of new engineers needed are going to have to come from the median college – not just the elite schools.
Those that forecast MOOCs diminishing the power of the elites are likely to be proven wrong. The elite schools will continue to deliver the signaling and peer grouping benefits. For those with the bucks — the elite schools will continue to be a shortcut to the yellow brick road. But what really matters to the economy and to the next generation, is how the median college performs — how much competence a college graduate buys for their investment.