On the End of College

In a recent interview on NPR, Kevin Carey, author of the book The End of College, described how he thought online education was going to transform higher education.  He shared his experience taking a MOOC (a massive open online course) at MIT and suggested that some version of MOOCs would become common in the future.  He noted that a recording of a lecture from a MIT professor was actually more useful pedagogically than attending the lecture.  Moving to MOOCs would make higher education less costly and more accessible to those who are not wealthy.  He calls this vision of higher education based on free MOOCs the University of Everywhere.

What Carey does not mention is that the completion rate at this MOOC University right now is less than 7%.  This is based on the data of an Open University doctoral student doing research on MOOCs.  Mary Ellen Flannery is the Editor of the National Education Association office of Higher Education. Her article below describes the recent experience of San Jose State University with MOOCs. They essentially conducted a controlled experiment that compared the performance of traditional classes, hybrid classes and MOOCs. While the completion rate in Algebra classes was normally around 65% in traditional classes; in the Algebra MOOC it was around 25%.  The University ended the study early when officials saw the results.  Udacity is the company that worked with the University on the project.  The cofounder of the company, Sebastian Thrun, was quoted as saying we have a “lousy product.” Only the most highly motivated students appear to get a benefit from MOOCs. They do not help reach the poor under-motivated students the courses were supposed to help. Hybrid classes proved to be the most effective.

In an interview with NPR on December 31, 2013, Thrun stated that Udacity is now developing MOOCs 2.0 which have an expanded human centered support network. They are seeking to expand the human interactions that take place in the student experience. They acknowledge that these interactions have a big impact on student outcomes.  Coursera is creating learning hubs at consulates around the world with instructors to foster weekly discussions.  Since the results from the San Jose State University study were released, Coursera, Udacity and Edex have also all begun to focus more on job training rather than higher education.

The evidence demonstrates that if you explode the student/teacher ratio, the completion rate goes with it.  There is an alternative that is being explored right now all across higher education: taking higher education online effectively without exploding the student/teacher ratio.  Professors are beginning to post their lectures and powerpoint presentations and interact with students using video-conferencing technology.  We can now offer synchronic online classes that meet at a specified time but are virtual in space.  This will enable institutions to reduce costs substantially by no longer needing the brick buildings to house classes.  We have just begun to scratch the service on the savings that can be generated here.  We know this reduction in cost can be generated without undermining completion rates if we do not also try to explode the student/teacher ratio at the same time.  The evidence suggests that this is the domain that will expand in a non-linear fashion over the next few decades.

So at the University of Everywhere that Carey describes coming in the future there will be colleges with higher relative completion rates and they will tend to have lower student/teacher ratios.  Their courses will be flipped and students will meet with professors in high definition video-conferences all around the world.  The student/teacher relationship will be taken online without undermining its integrity — by burdening it with 20,000 students.  We are working on creating this University of Everywhere right now.

Prepare For ‘The End Of College’: Here’s What Free Higher Ed Looks Like
, NPR, Interview with Kevin Carey author of “The End of College”

Here a MOOC There a MOOC, Mary Ellen Flannery, NEA Advocate, November 2013, volume 30, number 5.


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