Caught Between a Rock and a Hard Place

by Watson Scott Swail, President and CEO of Educational Policy Institute and EPI International

This morning, an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, titled Why Professors at San Jose State Won’t Use a Harvard Professor’s MOOC, illustrates an upcoming shootout at the MOOC Corral. San Jose State University professors are rejecting a Harvard MOOC course that is being forced upon them by the administration. In a letter to the administration, the professors see this push as a process to “replace professors, dismantle departments, and provide a diminished education for students in public universities.” They state that it is better to have students taught by a live professor rather than by a video version of a Harvard professor. And, of course, they are right and they are wrong. This is the proverbial rock and a hard place.

I’ve written before about many of the challenges facing higher education. At the foremost is the increasing “cost” of higher education. That is, the cost drivers which result in higher prices for taxpayers and users (e.g., students; parents; corporations). Higher education is enormously expensive and continually rises above inflation due to the high cost of human resources, which take up approximately 80-85 percent of institution budgets. In the future, we must find a way of recasting the cost structure of higher education.

So, where is the dividing line between cost containment (e.g., MOOCs), live instruction (faculty), and educational quality? I side with the instructors when they say that live instruction is better than video. Mostly true. However, we are weighing a perceived quality of the San Jose instructors (and, let’s assume they have high-quality instruction) and a proven, world-class quality of a video instructor. This is a tough one, because it is easy to argue for either. With measure.

The professors argue that this trend will leave us with “two classes of universities” where one will be well-funded colleges where “privileged students get their own real professor,” while the other will be “financially stressed” where “students watch a bunch of videotaped lectures and interact, if indeed any interaction is available on their home campuses, with a professor that this model of education has turned into a glorified teaching assistant.”

They are correct. But it is also misleading to argue that this is not the case now. We currently have a multi-tiered system of higher education, separated by sector (public/private), type (two-year/four-year/other), and instructional style (online/traditional). We further bifurcate institutions by affordability (e.g., not all public four year institutions are the same) as well as quality of instructional staff.

There are students who go to Harvard or Stanford; Wellesley or Bryn Mawr; UC Berkeley or Chapel Hill; Michigan or Ohio State; George Mason or San Jose State; Pima Community College or Red River College; Athabasca or University of Phoenix; or Kaplan, DeVry, or ECPI. We run the gamut now, and these choices are made primarily based on income and academic wherewithal.

Thus, the professors’ thesis that MOOCs will cause further division and inequity in our already inequitable system is moot. The real cause of inequity in higher education is not by adding new alternatives, but by limiting them. The real cause of inequity in higher education is based on poor academic preparation for too many of our youth because they are tracked in bad schools with lesser-skilled teachers with lesser resources.

We are at a nexus in higher education. We have to simultaneously cut costs while also improving access and quality, three conditions that are seemingly mutually exclusive. How do we increase both access and quality without adding more fiscal and other resources to the formula? How do we increase access knowing that those who gain access have even lesser academic ability, therefore potentially reducing quality? Either we have to figure out how to do all three, or one of the legs of the stool has to go. And my bet it is quality, followed by access, then cost. Cost will be the last item left standing because we are doing little to nothing about that issue. That said, we aren’t doing much about quality, either. Access? Sure, we’ve been doing that since 1862.

To the San Jose professors, we get your point. We need to protect “live” instruction because that’s what our institutions do best (arguably, considering research and other services). But we have to look at the reality of reducing cost and improving quality through MOOCs and other alternatives. What would the professors say if San Jose State University started sharing classes with City College of San Francisco? Isn’t that the same-but-different scenario?

Like everything, there needs to be a balance. San Jose State SHOULD be offering more alternatives, including MOOCs, to students. They also need to support their instructional faculty via professional development and other means. This does not have to be a lose-win scenario, but an understanding that the foundation of higher education is shifting—for arguably the very first time, or at least the first time in a long time—to something we don’t fully understand or appreciate at this time. I predict that the end result will be more access, better quality, and less cost. But there will be growing pains as the sands shift between sectors and types of institutions. It will settle. Sometime.

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About Educational Policy Institute

The Educational Policy Institute is a Washington, DC-based research think tank on education and the social sciences. EPI conducts evaluation and policy studies on various educational issues from Pre-K to workforce outcomes in the United States, Canada, and beyond. Visit us at educationalpolicy.org.
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