Friday, July 20, 2012

A Bit More on Online Education and the Future of College

I often wait a week or two between when I find a topic and when I write about it, in large part because there are so many other interesting perspectives on any topic that I want to get a more complete picture. But my last post, on the ways online courses will change the way we think about education, went from seed to sprout more quickly, and I didn't get a chance to consider this post by Benjamin Lima. He writes about the unbundling of higher education (and uses the term the same way I use disaggregation), and makes some great points. First, that education is much more than a bundle of courses, it is a bundle of different benefits and experiences: 

A college education has traditionally bundled several different kinds of goods together: 
  1. The curriculum: mastery of specific knowledge and development of more general reasoning, analytical, and communication skills.
  2. The extra-curriculum: a network of friends and contacts, and experience gained from clubs, sports, internships and other activities.
  3. The signaling process: validation of general talent or status by completing all of the above at a “better” or highly ranked college.
  4. The college experience: everything that is personally interesting, enjoyable or rewarding about living in a certain place with certain people, and having experiences that are personally valuable to the college student, regardless of their value to anyone else or to society at large—everything from late-night conversations about the meaning of life, to road trips, to pranks, sports rivalries, and “school spirit.”
Traditionally, colleges provided all of these goods in a bundle, simply because the best way to provide them was to expensively gather a lot of students, faculty and resources in one place for several years at a time. But now, with the internet, is the logic of bundling starting to break down?
I think this is a great summary of why we consume college, and he goes on to note that the Internet can probably do a good job of unbundling #1 from the other three benefits, but those other three benefits still retain significant value. He additionally notes that the second and third benefits (arguably, at least) have value to society and are thus worth supporting in some way, while "the college experience" is essentially personal consumption, comprable to travel. Therefore, it is unlikely society will continue to subsidize it once it is unbundled from the other benefits. His conclusion, then, is worth noting:
Top colleges might be able to continue to use their vast resources (in the words of Kevin Carey: wealth, prestige, and exclusivity) to provide an expensive, valuable college experience (category 4) that helps attract top students, high-paying students, top faculty, and donations, in a self-reinforcing cycle as the rich get richer. This self-reinforcing cycle might very well increase the stratification among colleges, as fewer and fewer colleges are able to “play the game” and attract scarce “stars” among students and faculty. Over recent years, one could argue that this has already been happening, as top public universities in the U.S. are less and less able to compete with top private universities.  These top universities provide their students with bundle that includes both a lot of “college experience” to consume, and a high return on their human-capital investment.
If I was an administrator at, say, Providence College, this would terrify me. My alma mater is a good school, that offers a solid combination of the four benefits listed above. But it doesn't have the massive endowment of many schools in the Northeast, and it doesn't offer any elite academic programs, its alumni can't necessarily open a lot of doors for new graduates, the name doesn't cause HR directors to stop and take notice, and Providence, while wonderful, can't compete with Boston as a host for the full college experience. So how does it continue to fill its classrooms when those same students can virtually enroll in Ivy League courses? (If they hired me to do their strategy, I'd give a long look at doubling down on their Catholic identity, on the theory that there will always be parents who want their children to be morally educated and will steer them away from schools that indoctrinate their students in liberal secular humanism.)

Elsewhere, Walter Russell Mead, who inspired the original post, notes that studies indicate students learn as much from online courses as they do when they park their butts in the classroom, removing one obvious objection to online learning.

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