True MOOCs that make almost no use of faculty labor will be very cheap to deliver, but one can easily imagine that they will be plagued by an attrition rate at least as high as what we see in today’s for-profit colleges. Blended online courses that stream lectures while also making use of face-to-face teaching assistants might have a success rate closer to land grant public institutions, where interaction with senior faculty is limited but there is a human support system for students. It should go without saying that the latter are going to be much more expensive than the former.
One way of thinking about higher education, and education more broadly, is that once you get past the students who are the most prepared and most eager to learn, you have to apply increasing amounts of both help and hassle. That is, you need to offer personal attention and tutoring as well as discipline and structure, all of which are labor-intensive in the extreme. The irony, of course, is that the students who need help and hassle the least, like the super-well-prepared and super-eager undergraduates at schools like Stanford, tend to get the most personal attention and structure. The students who need help and hassle the most, like ill-prepared community college students who are not entirely sure that an associate’s degree is worth much in the way of time and effort, tend to get the least personal attention and structure. To some extent this is simply a numbers game: trained professionals are scarce and expensive, and the number of students who haven’t been well-served by their families and by their K-12 schools is depressingly large.
Salam’s points are well taken and the piece deserves a full read. We would note, however, that while MOOCs may indeed have trouble catering to students who are more difficult to educate, this problem isn’t unique to online courses. As Salam points out, a number of marginal students are already studying at for-profit schools or community colleges with relatively little structure or handholding, and dropout rates are correspondingly high. If MOOCs can deliver a similar level of education at a fraction of the cost, this still amounts to a significant improvement—even if completion rates remain low.Update: Just to be clear, we’re still quite bullish on the transformative potential of the MOOC. This is uncharted territory for education, and there are bound to be missteps and teething pains along the way.