MOOCs: The Prestige Factor (2012)

Buried in the public responses to the news about MOOC (Massive Open Online Courses) and OER initiatives from Harvard, MIT, Stanford, Penn, Princeton and others is a deceptively important assumption. The assumption goes something like this: the open digital educational materials made available through these initiatives are of value because they are the product of these prestigious, highly selective institutions.

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On the surface, this seems perfectly logical. It’s an interpretation of value based on the deeply engrained, long-used logic and criteria used to rank different institutions. According to this logic, the “best” institutions, like Harvard and Stanford, provide students (those with the money and grades) with access to the most respected academics, and in turn, to the latest and best thinking on academic subjects. The excitement about MOOCs from Princeton and others is that it gives the public access to materials that are otherwise available to a privileged few.

However, in this case the traditional criteria for evaluating value in higher education may be misleading. Prestigious institutions may, in fact, be the least well prepared and least well-suited of all types of institutions to lead the MOOC expansion. The orientation, interests, and market focus of these institutions could limit their capacity to meet the needs that MOOCs typically seek to fulfill.

Prestigious University = High Quality Digital Instructional Materials?

Consider the specific “output” of these initiatives. Harvard and others are producing digital education content, wrapped with some form of assessment. This work will flow out of the institution’s teaching capacity and operations. But these elite institutions earn their high ranking by placing their emphasis on research, not on teaching. This is true on an institutional as well as faculty level. Faculty members hired by these institutions know that their labour market value is based primarily on their research productivity;  the ability to garner research funds, conduct research, and publish (Some research suggests that the gulf between rewards for teaching and research is actually increasing, despite the rhetoric). When it comes to teaching, there is remarkably little commitment, as Derek Bok - former President of Harvard - writes of American colleges:

“A remarkable feature of American colleges is the lack of attention that most faculties pay to the growing body of research about how much students are learning and how they could be taught to learn more. . . .  One would think faculties would receive these findings eagerly. Yet one investigator has found that fewer than 10 percent of college professors pay any attention to such work when they prepare for their classes. Most faculties seem equally uninterested in research when they review the curriculum.” Derek Bok. 

We have, then, a general misalignment of institutional strengths and incentives with the project's output (i.e. digital learning materials). The ability and motivation to produce high quality educational media, particularly the type that requires considerable independent learning, is not the same as deep subject matter expertise that comes from a research focus. Yet, it is the research productivity that is at the foundation of the excitement behind these initiatives.

This is not to suggest that there aren’t a number of great educators within these institutions. There are, of course. But the ability of an organization to deliver the best possible value - whatever the type - is always dependent on the focus of the organization; what kinds of work it incentivizes, the criteria used in hiring, how it defines excellence, etc. Whether we are analyzing the politics of global trade or higher education, it’s always important to “follow the money”.

I suppose one could counter this argument by pointing out that these elite institutions have the resources to invest more heavily in teaching materials. Which is true, but it is also irrelevant. Yes, more money can produce better results and compensate for the lack of focus on teaching and learning. But what we are seeking is “value”, and value is always a balance between costs and quality, and superior value is less likely to come from institutions whose focus lies in research.

Learners and Content, A Misalignment

Again, the excitement generated about these materials and courses is based largely on the fact that they come to us from well-known, elite institutions. It then follows that the more similar these courses are to those traditionally offered from the elite institutions (for the “real” students), the better.  However, the “authenticity” of MOOC’s may actually conflict with the broader social and educational objectives that MOOCs serve.

The majority of people that don’t have access to higher education and who would most benefit from MOOCs are generally speaking not the same people for whom MIT-level material is appropriate. If a student is able learn MIT material via edX, then it is highly likely that they are more than capable of obtaining access to a college education, if they haven’t already. Moreover, to benefit from these initiatives, the learner must be relatively self-motivated and disciplined. The ideal learner for such initiatives, then, is someone that is at the top of the academic ladder and self-motivated; in other words, the cream of the crop.

If these initiatives, on the other hand, plan to pitch the material at a much lower academic level; a level well below what is normally taught at their institutions in order to serve the needs of students that are more likely to need access to free courseware, then the fact that they these initiatives come from elite institutions becomes of little significance, if not misleading.

Do Intentions Matter? 

MIT, Harvard and others are not launching these initiatives in order to grow their markets, expand revenue, or reduce costs. They are not doing this in order to survive a period of budget austerity, as might be the case at other, less well-established and financially solvent institutions. In fact, growth is generally not an objective for these schools; maintaining exclusivity remains their prime concern. In order for these institutions to maintain their relative standing in the higher education hierarchy, there must be exclusivity, lack of access and scarcity.

Rather, the motivation for Harvard and others is primarily social and reputational. While the initiatives may generate some benefits for their own students (going “digital” has a tendency to impose more discipline on course design, for example), they are “giving away” their wares because they can afford to, and because philanthropic acts such as these support their brands.

If the objectives of the education community is to find new strategies that will improve the quality and cost of higher education, betting on institutions whose success is based on exclusivity and who have the most to lose if the current model of higher education is disrupted may not be ideal.

I applaud the efforts of these prestigious institutions. Their participation has generated considerable publicity for new models of higher education. And their initiative creates more movement, more flux in the higher education space which likely will be the impetus for more new ideas, which is exactly what's needed. Nevertheless, our excitement about their participation in MOOC and OER; excitement based on the traditional logic for evaluating excellence in higher education, has little bearing and relevance in this case. If our objective is to find and support new models of higher education that are likely to address the most needy students, increase quality and reduce costs, I’m not sure that this philanthropic model, coming from institutions with little need to truly innovate, and that have a deeply vested interest in the status quo, will produce the best outcomes.

Thank you to Dr. Lloyd Armstrong whose post edX: A Step Forward or Step Backward stimulated my interest in this issue.