Every day I drive my daughter to high school. As we get closer to the parking lot, I have to be mindful of all of the teenagers wandering in and out of the road like dazed cattle. I also have to brave a four-way stop sign, where I am often the only adult at the wheel of any of the four cars waiting their turn.
That stop sign is an every man for himself, Lord of the Flies experience on wheels. I drive a Smart Car, and there have been times where I was glad to make it out alive.
A high school parking lot is like an episode of the television show Wipeout waiting to happen, except there are cars involved, and people could actually die. My own daughter doesn’t drive yet, but as intelligent as she is, the occasional lapses in common sense and basic self-preservation that I see in the parking lot still occur at home.
All of this tells me that the idea that most kids are fully ready to be valuable contributors to the economy straight out of high school, without any further education or development of their critical thinking skills, is just not true.
However, the looming expense for my daughter’s education also tells me that I really want the disruption that is supposed to occur in higher education to come fast, but common sense tells me that it won’t come via the Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) everyone is talking about.
Nothing is Free
However, the idea that the benefit of a degree has to come at the cost that colleges charge is crazy. Higher education is ripe for disruption, and the disruptive force I read about most are MOOCs. A few weekends ago I watched the CEO of EdX, Anant Agarwal, on CNN talking about how disruptive MOOCs are to higher education, and the staggering number of students enrolling in the courses.
EdX is a joint venture between Harvard and MIT, who both provide course content and allow the public to enroll, for free. Coursera, the other large MOOC provider, offers courses from many universities, including some of those prestigious schools in the nation. While I don’t have any personal experience with EdX, I did attend a class offered through the University of Virginia’s Darden Business School—again, for free.
It was a great experience, and I recommend it as a good source of professional development. But while the course was free to me, it certainly wasn’t free for the University of Virginia, which speaks to the fundamental problem of MOOCs as a major source of disruption:
Without the current model, and the revenue it produces, it would be impossible for a school to offer these courses.
Stated differently, nothing is really free.
A Strategy for Preservation, not Disruption
The higher education industry, particularly the business model of higher education, is under attack in the media on an almost daily basis. As a trade association executive, one of the things I have learned a little bit about is how to strategize and respond to attacks on an industry level. One of those strategies is to develop a response that fundamentally changes nothing, while selling it to the public as groundbreaking.
I don’t think Coursera or EdX, or participating schools have done that intentionally, but I think MOOCs as they currently exist have the same effect. One counter argument to that could be that once employers accept 120 credit hours of MOOC courses as the equivalent to a degree, it will be disruptive.
When that happens, the incentive for colleges to provide course content for free will completely disappear.
All of this aside, I think MOOCs are a great resource for professional development, but they will not fundamentally disrupt higher education. We need to keep looking for what will, and create alternatives other than unleashing teenagers on the world or sending them off to accumulate an unsustainable debt load.