The disruptive digital innovations that have transformed music, movies, and news are now changing business models in higher education. This month’s Cato Unbound features a set of essays on the possible effects of changes like universities offering MOOCs (massive online open courses) at zero price. In the lead essay, Alex Tabarrok argues that online courses offer the prospect of excellent learning opportunities while overcoming Baumol’s cost disease (i.e., the traditional education model is not particularly prone to productivity enhancements). Alex is walking the talk here, in the form of his Marginal Revolution University initiative with Tyler Cowen.
The three response essays make varying critiques of Alex’s claims for the benefits of online education — Alan Ryan contends that the traditional model’s benefits have been robust to other innovations, so we should be wary of claiming too much for online disruption; Siva Vaidhyanathan thinks Alex engages in hyperbole and doesn’t account for the diversity of classroom experience and its benefits; and Kevin Carey thinks that Alex doesn’t go far enough, and that online education technology may be truly disruptive and transformative.
The one area where I think all of the authors would agree (as do I) is with Kevin Carey’s statement that “… as with so many things, Neal Stephenson got there first” (if you haven’t read Stephenson’s The Diamond Age: Or, A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer, you should; it’s my favorite book of one of my favorite authors, and he sure did get there first).
This collection of essays is a thoughtful set of analysis of some of the issues in online education. Clay Shirky also analyzed the potential implications of online technology for education recently, and thoughtfully. He analogizes higher education to the music industry in the 1990s, and how in the face of Napster the music industry members did not imagine that digital innovation would ever make the album format obsolete. And yet it did, with a mix of implications, good and bad, that are still playing out — advertising or subscription as a revenue model? Artists selling music, or giving it away and selling concerts and other merchandise to make a living? It’s an analogy worth considering, and it’s going to require faculty, administrators, and students to think more consciously and creatively about the benefits and values in education, the various ways to generate those benefits, and the relationship of cost and benefit in those various methods of generating value.
I don’t have a good answer for this, and I take Yogi Berra’s caution seriously that prediction is hard, especially about the future. Both individually and at the university level I am thinking about these changes and how best to use technology to improve my teaching and the value of what I contribute to the residential higher education model, and lots of other faculty are doing the same. There are ways that online resources are complements for classroom learning, and ways that they are substitutes. When they are substitutes for what we do in the classroom, that should push us to be creative and think differently about how to improve learning, thoughtfulness, habits of mind, and critical thinking in face-to-face learning.