What is the future of higher education in the coming era of online learning and MOOCs (massive open online courses)? One frequently heard story is that MOOCs will provide educational experiences, and eventually credentials, to the world, and for free or at very low cost. We will see the democratization of learning opportunities, and the knowledge and learning contained within university walls, protected by high tuition rates, will break free and stream across the world to anyone with an internet connection. Another version of the story: will universities be sent down the path of the newspaper industry, putting content online for free and suddenly finding its business model in disarray?
The President of Stanford, John Hennessy, has said that the advent of online learning is a “coming tsunami”, and that Stanford and other universities must prepare and adapt, lest, I suppose, they be destroyed.
John Etchemendy, the provost and acting president (Hennessy is now on a short-term sabbatical), recently made a presentation about Stanford and online learning at the faculty senate. It makes for very interesting, and bracing, reading.
Here, for instance, is Etchemendy’s take on identifying the core function of Stanford:
What’s the main danger that I see in this very uncertain future? To answer that I want to ask—what is the value of universities as institutions? A lot of people say, ‘Well, the value of a university is—we teach students.’ I think that’s the wrong answer, because universities don’t teach students, faculty teach students. What I want to know is, what’s the value of the university as an institution? It’s certainly not teaching. A university doesn’t do any teaching.
I would claim that the main value, or one of the main values is certification, but not certification of graduates. I’m not talking about the degrees we give out to students after they finish being here. Not certification of graduates—what do I mean? I mean the certification of faculty for the students. First of all, the university selects and certifies that the faculty that you’re coming to Stanford or wherever, [to learn from] or to study with, actually know what they’re talking about. If you want to study physics, and you come here and you take our physics course, [Stanford certifies that] this person knows what he or she is talking about. Notice that’s not something that would be easy to do if there were no universities. If you just wanted to learn physics, presumably people could come, put up signs, and say, ‘Hey I’m a physicist and I’ll teach you physics,’ but how would you know that that person really knew anything about physics? So we certify faculty for our students.
Similarly we select and certify students for our faculty. We make sure that the faculty can count on the fact that the students they are teaching are ready to take the course, are of a certain quality level, so that you don’t waste your time having lots and lots of students, some of whom are ready, some of whom aren’t ready, and some of whom are beyond ready.
That bidirectional certification is what I think is a core competence and core reason for the being of a university.
The problem is, a lot of the online universities that are just starting up want to access that same certification for free, so that they can sell the services of these online courses to their students. And that’s all hunky-dory, and they may well pay a faculty member $5,000, $10,000, $20,000 to produce a course for them—not certainly for the full cost of that faculty member, the full cost is being borne by the university. But for a little bit extra, they’ll produce courses for the online university. The problem with that is that is not a stable model. Why? Because they’re not paying the full cost of the faculty, and if the students then migrate to the online university, then the financial model just doesn’t work. It completely breaks down.
Think newspapers, for example the Chicago Tribune, and think of these reporters [as faculty] and the readers [as students], and what happened? Well, what happened was the online, disintermediation [removing the middleman] of news took the newspapers, who were paying the cost of the production of the news and used to be getting money for that, from its readers; it took the newspapers out of the picture. So the [online news providers] make the money, but they don’t pay for the production of the service. In the long run this is not a stable model. We don’t want to go, neither as universities, nor as faculty, the way of the newspaper industry in the New World.
Will MOOCs destroy the business model of higher education?