Disruptions: MOOC the Revolution?

I am a higher education junkie. I read the Chronicle with abandon every day, I intently follow the #highered hastag on Twitter, and I read blogs that discuss my industry. I can’t get enough of higher education reporting and analysis.

I became a higher ed junkie during my transition from humanities graduate student to academic librarian through the blog of Steven Bell, The Kept-Up Academic Librarian, a wonderful site that collects news from around American higher education. Reading this blog in 2007 gave me the first wave of awareness that higher education is an industry, not just a collection of noble institutions invested in educating students.

Last Friday, I had the pleasure of attending the Association of College and Research Libraries New England Chapter annual conference where Bell was the keynote speaker. True to form, he helped New England librarians look at the wider landscape of higher education and discussed our role in facilitating positive changes that will benefit our students.

There are many columns, articles, and think pieces out there about the future of higher education, especially about the emergence of MOOCs, Massive Open Online Courses. Why pay for an education when you can take classes for free at MIT, Yale, or Stanford? There’s a lot of emphasis on cost-savings and effectiveness. Personally, I think it’s too soon to gauge the effectiveness of the courses and how online courses affect job security across fields, but I am committed to learning more about them. However, the question of cost is far from settled.

This morning, my weekly edition of EdSurge hit my inbox and I found an array of links that got me going:

THE REVOLUTION WILL BE TELEVISED ONLINE: The much-acclaimed arrival of Udacity, Coursera, edX have many proclaiming the arrival of a “revolution,” including Thomas Friedman. Per usual, as with all revolutions in history, there’s always the question of who’s really leading the charge–and TechCrunch’s Gregory Ferenstein is placing his bets on Stanford. All this bickering over MOOCs may be moot, though, if we consider Dan Pontefract’s suspicion that the frantic pace and close proximity of their launches are ultimately driven by money and a “potential merg[ing] of corporate learning with academic institutions.”

The money question. Oh indeed. Education is a hot commodity for VCs and family foundations. Diane Ravitch has done marvelous reporting about the growing influence Gates and other wealthy family foundations play on primary and secondary education. There is serious money to be made in the higher education game. And I think we can’t blindly assume that VCs are investing this money in online education simply because they think education should be free. They expect to earn money.

For profit education in the United States is a leading driver in student debt; it leads the industry in the number of students who default on their loans, and scores of students start programs that they never complete. It’s been widely reported that public institutions of higher learning are receiving less and less state aid  -driving up tuition prices- and tuition at private colleges continues to rise. We can all agree that the issue of cost is central among our concerns about the future of higher education, but I don’t think that MOOCs represent the solution. What might be free now will cost someone, somewhere further down the line. Without clear business plans for these online course ventures, it’s unclear who will shoulder the burden, who will profit, or who will lose.