MOOCs That Matter

by Reihan Salam

Late last year, Bryan Caplan poured cold water on the hopes and dreams of would-be higher ed revolutionaries when he made the case that “MOOCs,” i.e., massive open online courses, aren’t likely to upend higher education, pointing to, and laughing at, the modest sums of venture capital raised by the most well-regarded MOOC platforms like Udacity and Coursera:

The number of students is indeed impressive.  But the dollars of venture capital raised are laughable.  Pitiful.  The obvious explanation is that venture capitalists see online education as a rival for blogs, Wikipedia, and other online infotainment, not actually-existing higher education.  The only lunch online education might eat is the one that existing websites already provide for free to all mankind.

Matt Yglesias offered a more sanguine take, arguing that MOOCs and online education more broadly needn’t bring brick-and-mortar higher education incumbents to their knees to make a valuable contribution to the common good. Yet Caplan added some much-needed cynicism to the “higher education bubble” discussion, noting that brick-and-mortar higher ed will endure because it will continue to serve as an imprimatur or signal to employers. And so far, at least, Udacity and Coursera don’t offer credentials that employers find terribly attractive.

But Kevin Carey has drawn attention to projects like MITx and Western Governors University’s system of competency-based credentialing, which offer more viable alternatives to traditional higher education because the one leverages the prestige of one of America’s most elite research universities while the other leverages the power of its public sector backers. Many students pursue graduate education so that they can “level up” in jobs in public bureaucracies, e.g., teachers pursuing graduate degrees to gain a salary increment in so-called “step and lane” compensation systems. The fact that WGU degrees are widely accepted in this universe gives WGU great heft.

This is why I was very pleased to see, via Nathan Ingraham of The Verge, that a consortium of public universities are offering free MOOCs, with real live credits attached, as a kind of teaser to potential students:

Forty public universities, including Arizona State, Cleveland State, and the University of Arkansas, are planning to offer free online courses that carry full credit in an effort to entice potential students to sign up for a full degree program. The new initiative, know as MOOC2Degree (MOOC stands for massive open online course), is being run in a partnership between the universities and Academic Partnerships, a commercial company that helps universities move their courses online. As part of this initiative, Academic Partnerships will work with the universities to recruit for these courses and will receive a cut of any tuition from students who sign on for further study.

This is the kind of program that could enhance the credibility of MOOCs, thus overcoming the conformity barrier — risk-averse students will tend to shy away from a MOOC-heavy approach out of fear that employers will do the same — Caplan rightly identifies.

The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.