• December 20, 2014

Why Online Education Won't Replace College—Yet

When I decided to become a professor, I was comforted by its employment projections. Professors hired to teach the baby boomers are retiring: It'll be a seller's market. Now I'm told Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOC's, threaten that rosy future. One person can teach the whole world with a cheap Webcam and an Internet connection. Sebastian Thrun, a Stanford University research professor and co-founder of the MOOC provider Udacity, told Wired that in 50 years there will be only 10 institutions in the whole world that deliver higher education.

I was scared. So in early 2012 I joined 90,000 other students who enrolled in one or both of Udacity's first two courses. I selected CS101: Building a Search Engine. What with video lectures, online discussion boards, and learning from the field's top minds, it was easy to believe that online education was the beginning of the end for the ivory tower. But I came to realize that MOOC's have five fundamental problems.

1. It's too easy to cheat. While Udacity encouraged students to help one another on the discussion boards, we weren't allowed to post answers. The honor code worked, but only because we couldn't get college credit. The incentive to cheat was very weak.

Make the class count for credit, or serve as the first step to a good job, and phantom forums and answer keys will follow. Despite our best efforts, the proliferation of cheating is higher education's dirty little secret. Take away the classroom and you've made a bad situation much worse.

2. Star students can't shine. It became immediately clear to me that even if I excelled at this course, no one would know who I was. Networking, either with my fellow students or with the professors, was virtually impossible.

In traditional academe, I know my best students well enough to write recommendations describing their personalities and accomplishments in detail. Online anonymity results in references that mean virtually nothing. The best Udacity can offer is to pass on résumés of top students to interested employers. If just 1 percent of students in Udacity's two courses were exceptional, that's 900 recommendations to write. And none of them would be worth reading.

3. Employers avoid weird people. Firms hire workers to help execute their plans. They are generally not after radical thinkers who want to turn a company upside down with bizarre ideas. Those who have a problem with authority are to be avoided. To show they are good team players, interviewees are polite, agreeable, and wear the usual suit and tie. Getting an unconventional degree suggests you're probably one of the usurpers who are more trouble than they are worth. MOOC's are the nose rings of higher education.

4. Computers can't grade everything. MOOC's are feasible because a program grades all assignments. This works fine for answers that easily translate to machine language, but a machine can't grade an essay or a presentation. Papers are out of the question. But good communication is a valuable skill and one that's difficult to master. Fortunately there is a glut of Ph.D.'s in the liberal arts who can pick up the teaching in this area.

5. Money can substitute for ability. Higher education leads to a better salary because a college degree is a signal. Yes, you gain practical skills in college, but a degree is largely about showing potential employers that you're smart and hard working. Grades function the same way. Get an A in philosophy and people will find you impressive even if what you learned isn't practical. But the signal only works if most people didn't get an A. Signaling is relative.

If college is cheap, students have a strong incentive to spend those savings on anything that can give them an edge over their fellow students. Students will hire tutors to help them on homework, and they will buy dishwashers to free up their day. To prevent too many people from acing the class, the class will have to get harder. The arms race will intensify—each student spending to get an edge over the other—until online education is no cheaper than traditional education.

It's happened before. A college education used to be a rare thing. It was so rare that having one guaranteed you a job. But as incomes rose, more and more people started going to college. A bachelor's degree isn't exceptional anymore; it's expected.

If only one or two of these issues existed, the days of higher education as we know it would be numbered. Udacity is already looking at test centers to combat cheating, in the event that its courses are ever offered for credit. Students could get recommendations from organizations outside of an online university. MOOC graduates might become common enough to overcome their seditious signal. It's theoretically possible to build a robot to grade papers. An arms race between students isn't inevitable if building practical skills is emphasized more than getting good grades. But together these complications prevent online education from inevitably usurping us. A professor is simply more economical.

All this assumes that the classroom won't stay conventional. There's a lot to learn from online education, and if the academy doesn't adapt, this new medium will flourish despite its challenges. Professors must harness the advantages MOOC's use so well: online resources, regular practice questions, and a forum for students (perhaps from multiple institutions to capture some of those economies of scale). And we'll have to cut costs in uncomfortable places (no sabbaticals, less tenure, smaller salaries).

If we don't learn from the MOOC's, we will disappear. But we have a better chance to adapt than the Sebastian Thruns of the world would have us believe.

David Youngberg is an assistant professor of economics at Bethany College.

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