Free online education is starting to make a lot of people nervous, and for good reason. If done right, MOOCs could pose a serious threat to many current colleges and universities. Andrew Delbanco writes in The New Republic:
The dark side of this bright dream is the fear that online education could burst what appears to be a higher education bubble. Consumers, the argument goes, are already waking up to the fact that they’re paying too much for too little. If they are priced out of, or flee from, the market, they will find new ways to learn outside the brick-and-mortar institutions that, until now, have held a monopoly on providing credentials that certify what graduates have supposedly learned.
If that happens, according to the New York Times, then MOOCs will do to traditional colleges what free news has done to newspapers:
[MIT Professor Michael A.] Cusumano’s concerns grow out of his study of the software and media industries in the face of price pressure from free, open-source software and digital distribution over the Internet. Two-thirds of the public companies in the software industry disappeared between 1998 and 2006, as companies failed or were acquired.
Give-away pricing in education, Mr. Cusumano warns, may well be a comparable misstep. The damage would occur, he writes in the article, “if increasing numbers of universities and colleges joined the free online education movement and set a new threshold price for the industry—zero—which becomes commonly accepted and difficult to undo.”
Cusumano fears that second- and third-tier universities that can’t compete with MOOCs may eventually disappear. Popular online courses will shoot a small number of professors to stardom, while other faculty become obsolete. And in the absence of face to face contact, professors will lose the ability to directly mentor and inspire students, somewhat eroding the power of education.
Perhaps Delbanco and Cusumano are right. It’s certainly true that MOOCs will be extremely destabilizing, and many of those who have structured their lives and careers around the status quo need to make some serious adjustments. MOOCs can’t offer the connections and cachet of, say, the ivy league, but it’s entirely possible that they will poach students from second- and third-tier schools.
But it’s important to remember that colleges are supposed to serve the needs of students first, and not those of the faculty and staff. Students want a high-quality education for much less money, and with some development and seasoning, MOOCs can deliver that.