Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Nicholas Lemann on higher ed

Nicholas Lemann in The New Yorker on MOOCs, with my comments:
Now that we know that either Obama or Romney will be President next year, we also know that, from 1989 through at least 2017, every President of the United States will have had a degree from either Harvard or Yale or, in the case of George W. Bush, both. That could be a three-decade accident, or it may be a sign of something lasting—the educational version of the inequality surge, elevating “one per cent” institutions far above the rest.
Lemann also says that the name schools aren't charging enough, because the social capital that they confer means that people will pay any amount for them.
The top schools, led by Stanford, are now aggressively exploring online education, which they had previously left to the for-profits. This doesn’t mean that they will suddenly start granting degrees online to ten or a hundred times as many students; instead, they are likely to offer a second, cheaper (or even free) tier of education that will only enhance the lifelong value of their traditional, in-residence degrees.
I wondered about this: how could free online education "enhance the lifelong value" of a name-university education? Then I realized that what it really enhances is the brand. The top 20 or so schools are basically in a demolition derby to enhance their brands internationally--hence the MOOC concept.

It's possible or maybe even likely that both sets of brands, once the Ivy-lite brands become more available, will crowd out public education. Stanford degree-holders can run the companies, and Stanford-lite badge holders can run the machines. Public institutions can't even play in that demolition derby because they're too poor to buy the cars for it.

Once I thought of it in this way, the willingness of high-profile schools and professors to cheerlead for MOOCs made sense. A lot are probably motivated by altruism--teaching to the masses--but they don't particularly care about the effect on other universities because they don't have to. They'll still have their jobs and be teaching no matter what.

Lemann also sees (as I do, but he knows what he's talking about) the possibility of a two-tier educational system:
In higher education, the United States may be on its way to becoming more like the rest of the world, with a small group of schools controlling access to life membership in the √©lite. . . . All those things which commencement speakers talk about—personal growth, critical-thinking skills, intellectual exploration, breadth of learning—will survive at the top institutions, but other colleges will come under increased pressure to adopt the model of trade schools.
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