January 13, 2013

The status quo: Traditional higher ed is not meeting expectations.
Currently, several debates are ensuing concerning higher education. What is the purpose and for whom? For employers, the purpose is for potential employees to develop critical thinking skills. For many students, the purpose varies from simply getting a credential, to having the “college experience”, to being prepared for the work force. Whatever the objectives of higher education, they are not being met. Employers complain that candidates do not have the skills necessary for the job, and students are struggling to pay off education debt. (Student debt, now exceeding $1 trillion, has surpassed credit card debt.)

Students are entering college unsure of what they want to do, and consequently pay thousands of dollars for knowledge they may never use. Upon graduating, students expect a high-paying job on the grounds that they’ve obtained a credential. Granted, a credential does guarantee a certain amount of quality; students had to have met some deadlines, fulfilled some teacher expectations (much as they will an employer’s), and worked collaboratively with peers. However, this is a mistaken conclusion. Rather than likening a college degree to a mutual fund that will pay off in time, students should see it as a tool that they need to know how to use. For many, college has become an expensive experience largely disconnected to students’ career paths other than offering a credential by which students can signal eligibility to potential employers.

Some students enter college with the expectation to learn practical skills. At a traditional university, this expectation is sometimes not met when the instructor is an inexperienced graduate student, or their professor is too focused on research, or when the course content is heavily theoretical. Students who only expect to get a credential often put in minimal effort. It’s a catch 22, and either way, students end up shelling out a lot of money. Only a few lucky students are able to have all their expectations met.

On the other hand, many students desire the full “college experience,” and institutions lure them with amenities such as lounges, nice dormitories, and campus-wide events. The fact that many young people pay for this experience illustrates the commercialization of higher education. This is fine, if students are aware that this may be all they’re paying for. The problem begins after college when too many students search for jobs in vain. Thus, on many fronts, traditional higher education is not meeting expectations. It’s time to begin accepting alternatives.

Massive open online courses provide an alternative to traditional higher education.
MOOCs (massive open online courses) are one such alternative. They provide a way to explore different disciplines for free. This is pure unadulterated learning. Instructors are 100% focused on teaching, not research or tenure. Academically Adrift by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa presented a study that found a negative correlation between professors’ focus on research and their focus on students, and a negative correlation between their focus on students and salary. Some college presidents make over $1 million! Furthermore, learning is unaffected by student clubs, sororities, and other commercialized features.

In many ways, MOOCs are superior to traditional classes, especially the introductory college courses that are pre-requisites for more advanced courses in students’ major requirement. These typically have around 200 students and therefore limited student-professor interaction. Also because of the large number, students often receive feedback on tests and quizzes weeks after taking them, well after students have moved to different material and forgotten what was on the test. In contrast, MOOCs can provide more interaction during learning time (not between students and the instructor, but between students and the learning interface) and allow for immediate feedback.

I want to elaborate on an obvious argument against MOOCs, which is the lack of instructor-student interaction. Firstly, this is true only in comparison to intimate classes in which interaction is possible, an opportunity that few students have. Secondly, a study in Academically Adrift suggested that meeting with professors outside of class is not an important factor in learning.

We asked students how frequently they met with a faculty member outside of class during the previous semester, but this form of academic engagement was not related to learning during the first two years in college. This finding seems to contradict a long tradition of research in higher education that emphasizes the importance of interaction with faculty for students’ development and academic achievement (Academically Adrift, p. 95).

While MOOCs may not be ideal when it comes to student-faculty interaction, they do foster a collaborative environment online between students. Keith Devlin (Stanford professor and NPR’s Math Guy) likened MOOCs more to Facebook than YouTube. In his blog, he said, “I am now even more convinced than previously that the eventual (we hope) success of MOOCs will be a consequence of Facebook (or social media in general) rather than of Internet video streaming.” Some might disagree that this is true collaboration, but in our increasingly globalized world, online interaction is growing in importance. With increasing “wifization,” as I call it (everything is going into the “cloud”), MOOCs address the importance of learning to collaborate online and fit perfectly into the increasingly wifized workforce. These days, having an online presence is important, and more and more people have a Gravatar, or globally-recognized avatar. (In fact, I got my job with Udacity because they found me on LinkedIn.)

I clearly see the benefit of MOOCs; this is why I was surprised when I read what I consider a quite closed-minded opinion stated by Nikhil Goyal, 17-year-old author of One Size Does Not Fit All: A Student’s Assessment of School.

Journalists are calling MOOCS ”a revolution.” I chuckle. How ignorant can someone be about education if they think hearing lectures from talking heads, taking quizzes and tests, and writing essays are a revolution? I’m not impressed. In an interview, educator Roger Schank calls MOOCS a “joke.” Moshe Y. Vardi writes, “If I had my wish, I would wave a wand and make MOOCs disappear.” Me too. One headline of a blog post is: “We can do better than lecture videos.”1

I interviewed Nikhil for MathMirror a few months ago, and was impressed with how knowledgeable he is. That’s why I was surprised that rather than seeing MOOCs as another option for students, he and others see them as something that should simply…disappear. I’m not saying online learning is a revolution or the “solution”. I didn’t think Khan Academy was a revolution either. A true revolution would be a shift in society’s mindset, and that happens slowly. But Khan Academy, MOOCs, and just about everything else out there certainly meet previously unmet needs in the world of education. As my boss Sebastian Thrun told me a few weeks ago, it’s very easy to criticize. We need to recognize the value in everything and then move forward with even better answers.

To wrap up…
The way I see it, there is currently only one path that most students perceive as a reliable way to earn a living, and that path requires tens of thousands of dollars. This needs to change. For any significant change to occur, we need a shift in mindsets. We need to remove higher education at institutions as a mandatory stopping point en route to employment. Employers should be willing to accept other qualifications besides a degree. Students should not expect to get a job just because they obtained their degree. Education reformers need to recognize the good in available resources rather than focus on criticizing. I’ll end with some simple advice to students. Read a lot, write a lot, learn practical skills (in school, online, from connections, anywhere), and find somewhere to apply them. Always focus on the end goal and ask if what you’re doing will lead to that goal. If you don’t see a clear bridge connecting the two, maybe you should be doing something else. Especially if you’re paying tens of thousands of dollars.

1 Goyal, Nikhil. 28 December 2012. GOOD Education. Best of 2012: The Five Most Extraordinary Things to Happen in Education. http://nikhilgoyal.me/

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