Can Tech Save School? The Cost (and Potential) of MOOCs

05/11/2015 - 00:00

E.T. Wilson

American higher education needs to cost less.

That isn’t to say it should be cheaper—in terms of quality, the American university model has become the global standard, which means that more schools (and in turn, more graduates) are emerging all the time; even in America, the flood of graduates has highlighted the need for schools to remain competitive to stay relevant.

Of course, the deluge of students, along with the explosive growth in the cost of higher education, has catapulted the total student loan debt above the levels of home mortgages, car loans, and even credit card debt. The expense seems unavoidable: to have any kind of shot at a career (not merely a minimum wage job), applicants must have a Bachelor’s degree at a minimum.

Assuming workers can successfully land a job at all, they are then faced with another unhappy prospect: their skills, knowledge, and education become quickly irrelevant in the face of rapidly advancing technology and industry. For many—especially the most educated and supposedly highly-skilled, like doctors and engineers—the time required to pay back student loans will be much longer than the life-span of their hard-bought expertise. An unfortunate variable that many students fail to take into account when calculating the time and income needed, upon graduation, to avoid financial trauma.

So what is to be done to ensure that such an education is affordable, available, and perhaps most importantly, relevant?
Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) have been touted since their inception as a strong candidate for solving all three problems of higher education. Taking place in virtual classrooms, they are certainly accessible. Their relevance will vary widely; but stands at least as much chance as traditional courses to stay current. And being free, the at least appear to solve the affordability question.

But MOOCs are plagued by two related problems: first, they have extremely low completion rates. This may be due in part to the fact that they don’t provide any sort of credentialing for those who do complete them—the second confounding feature of MOOCs. Of course, if schools like Harvard and MIT—leaders in the MOOC movement—actually provided equivalent educational value for free, MOOCs would stand a great chance of bankrupting traditional schools.

Evidence suggests they are already taxing institutions—and providing, at best, a mixed return on the investment. Up-front costs for MOOCs range from $20,000 to more than $250,000 for the first year alone. While re-using such courses can, in theory, save money, keeping the materials relevant and the involved technology operational—‘’refreshing” expenses—keep the annual price tag from dipping too much.

So what about the online options of traditional, tuition-based, and officially credentialed degree programs? There is a value trap: by charging less, schools endorse a common perception that online learning can never be as effective as in person—if it were, goes the argument, then both programs would cost the same.

Many schools mirroring their traditional programs with online offerings charge the same price—in fact, they effectively charge more in some cases, because the online program doesn’t carry any in-state discounts, where on campus programs do. In an enterprising move, the University of Florida blended professional Continuing Education with its advanced degree tracks to produce the country’s first (and, to date, only) Master’s in Medication Therapy Management. Typically offered as a certificate for pharmacists, UF brought its program online with an on-campus capstone requirement: in effect, blending the institution’s reputation and research faculty with a nationwide need for professional development.

More telling than the hybrid nature of the program, is who it targets. Continuing education programs—especially for professions that require CE credits, like education, medicine, etc.—are more practical when offered online, as they can be more easily adapted to a work schedule. What is more, offering them online allows for greater industry-wide standardization. Not every doctor or pharmacist could feasibly attend the same course on the same campus to gain CE credits; online, this uniformity is both possible and practical.

So perhaps the most important need online programs have the potential to solve is not a financial one. While campus programs have become factories for churning out indebted but credentialed young workers, online programs—yes, even MOOCs—put the focus back on distributing knowledge and professional skills.

The evolving virtual template for instruction doesn’t solve the problem of cost. It does, however, align academia more closely with the free market, and stakeholders that depend on universities for their workforce. Results-focused employers have the power to demand change. Whether by sending their workers to take advantage of MOOCs, or insisting on secondary degrees for advancement, it is becoming clear that demand for schooling comes not from students, but through them.

In time, this may prove more important for making college affordable by increasing competition and direct comparison between schools, programs, and even courses.