Class Warfare Blog

June 5, 2013

The New Face of Higher Education?

Filed under: Education,History — Steve Ruis @ 10:25 am
Tags: , , , ,

The embedded graphic below (thanks to Allison Morris) shows what is happening with Massive Open Online Courses or “MOOCs.” The question here is “is this the future of higher education?” (More text below.)

Courtesy of Allison Morris (

While I will not play the role of a modern Luddite and say there is no role for online learning in the future, but there are any number of questions that need to be addressed before these things “grow like Topsy” and become a force in and of themselves before we have considered those questions. The foremost is: are these courses “loss leaders” and, if not, how do they get paid for? (A “loss leader” is an item advertised at a ridiculously low price to get you into a store where you will buy other stuff.)

In effect these are free college level courses and a number of states, including my home state of California, are considering whether to give normal college credit for them. Please realize that I basically had a free college education growing up in California. I went to a community college for two years and then finished my undergraduate degree at a state college. My fees and books were under $250 per semester (under $100 at the CC), which compared to the current situation was practically free. But that was government-supported education. The state and county of my residence paid for my education (I certainly did not) but then I paid those entities back through higher tax receipts based upon my higher earnings as a college graduate. This was a good deal for both the governmental agencies and for me.

But these MOOC’s aren’t a product of a government program. So, who is paying for them? Good question! A better question is who will be paying for them? Ask yourself: what other businesses (yes, higher education is a business) gets the grand idea “Hey, let’s give away our product!” And this in a business which has been raising prices about as fast as the health care sector, so inclined to give anything away . . . not.

In order to make good online instruction, it takes several hundred hours of work to make a one hour online presentation. Of course, that hour can then be “duplicated” a zillion times. But here’s the rub. All of the research shows that such courses cannot be given in isolation: they need to be accompanied by chat rooms, Q&A sites, actual physical meetings with tutors and/or professors, etc.. And, these courses grow stale in short order. (There is nothing funnier than watching old movies made for school audiences, e.g. Gosh, Mr. Wizard, that’s complicated!). So, including the server costs, the site building and maintenance costs, the production costs, the monitoring and customer servicing costs, these courses are not “free” to create and offer. So, who is creating them and why?

A major study of online courses in Colorado a while ago showed that a large chunk of online courses were being taken by students already in residence at the colleges (almost half). The reason those students were taking those courses was primarily convenience. Instead of getting out of bed and to an 8 o’clock class, they could sleep in and take their lessons at 2 AM. In other words, a large number of course takers had the option of taking the courses in a physical classroom but chose not to. Now, for colleges severely cramped for classroom space this may be a boon. For others it may be a gigantic waste of money (creating duplicate versions of courses for no reason other than student convenience).

One aspect I have raised over and over is that education is a social phenomenon. Interaction with others is needed to help process information and generate understanding and skills in argumentation, logic, presentation, etc. The history of education is replete with all kinds of “distance learning” efforts. Courses were delivered by mail (Correspondence Courses), by television, by audio tape, by radio, and self study, and now via computer. The results have been disappointing by any measure, certainly disappointing with regard to the hopes and dreams of the instructional creators.

The primary reason there has been disappointment in the distance learning biz is because such systems require the student to not only take the course, but also to manage their own progress, time, effort, etc. While “distance lessons” can include instructions like “read Chapter 3” and “do all of the problems in Section 4B,” the program simply waits for the student to come back to the material; there is no time pressure. (Our waggish comment when we did this kind of work was “Self-paced is a euphemism for slow.”) Traditional classes have tests on specific dates, homework due in a specific period, readings to be finished by certain dates, due dates for papers, etc. It is basically peer pressure and the structural support provided by course structures that sweep students along.

It is a valid question as to whether the students should adjust their tempo to the tempo of the courses or the courses adjust to the tempo of the students. Consider the “old structure:” a baccalaureate degree was considered a “four year degree.” In my tenure in higher ed that was the “norm.” My degree took four and a half years, which was the norm for a BS degree which had higher requirements than a BA degree. But many students would take as long as six years to get this degree and “reformers” pointed out this “flaw” in the system. Of course, it was not a flaw, but a feature. The system was set up so that a student could take 15 credit hours per semester, resulting in 30 credit hours per year and after four years could have 120 credit hours on the books. The typical number of credit hours for most baccalaureate degrees was 120 or so, so this could be accomplished in four years.

But this was also predicated on the fact that you took all of the right courses, that you didn’t change your major after two years, that you passed all of your classes, that you took the classes in the right order. In my case I could not get into trigonometry in high school, so I wasn’t ready for calculus as a first semester freshmen. So, I took trigonometry and then tried to sign up for calculus in the spring semester, but that wasn’t allowed, so I didn’t get into calculus until my sophomore year and some of my major courses required that as a math prerequisite, so I had to postpone certain of my major’s classes. Getting a four year degree done in the nominal four years requires a good deal of good fortune and some management skill. Then you find out that some of the courses you were told would transfer from your community college to the university didn’t, so you just lost some credits, and . . . etc.

The biggest problem for students is that that 15 credit hour load equates to a 45 hour per week study load (1 hour in class + 2 hours of study outside = 1 credit hour). But many students have to work to support themselves. A consequence is they can’t handle a “full load” of 15 credit hours. (The system was set up so that that 45 per week study load was for the average student taking courses of average difficulty and resulting in average grades. If your courses were of above average difficulty and you wanted above average grades, even if you were an above average student, you might still need 50-60 hours per week for your studies.)

A student working half time and going to school half time will need eight years to complete a four year degree and that is with no mistakes being made managing their programs. Currently, even if the cost of going to classes is low, one still has to cover living expenses while being tied down getting an education. This is why I am for heavily subsidized college educations through state institutions. To pay for a top tier university education plus living expenses while not being able to work results in the situation we have now: students buried under mountains of debt.

So, MOOC’s … who is going to pay for them. Right now, it looks like students, either through an inferior educational experience, or an educational experience that doesn’t drive them toward completion of the goals, or through costs that will somehow magically appear once the students are “hooked.” Drug dealers are known to give away free samples, at least at first.



  1. Weesh, that was a big, but a good one! I actually looked at an online course just last week only to decide there on the spot that i’d quickly get bored with it.

    You ever thought about getting into politics, Steve? You should, even if its just your local school board. There’s wisdom in those veins of yours and it should be fire-hosed over the landscape.


    Comment by john zande — June 5, 2013 @ 10:57 am | Reply

    • I was in politics, well academic politics anyway, and now I am retired. Too old, too lacking in energy to ‘do the work” any more. But thank you for the kudo, seems I can imitate a fire-breathing dragon from time to time.


      PS When students in my classes looked bored, I challenged them to make the class more interesting. Some took up the challenge and partnered with me to get me to a better job for them. This can’t happen in an online class … along with myriad other social interactions.


      Comment by stephenpruis — June 5, 2013 @ 11:25 am | Reply

  2. Interesting


    Comment by lbwoodgate — June 5, 2013 @ 12:53 pm | Reply

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