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The MOOC-Led Meritocracy

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John Loo

This week Udacity announced that it had cancelled a scheduled math class over concerns about quality. In doing so, it added another item to the growing list of marked contrasts between MOOC’s and traditional universities. Does this kind of thing ever happen at “regular” colleges? Could it? At minimum, such an event would seem to require (a) defined standards of quality, and (b) some process whereby courses are systematically evaluated against those standards before the beginning of class.

My understanding is that the traditional process consists of posing questions such as “Are we an accredited college?” and “Are enough students enrolled to break even?,” and that’s pretty much that. Perhaps the syllabus is reviewed (although not in my experience), but otherwise it’s a matter of trusting the faculty in question. Which works, sometimes, but often doesn’t. It’s hard to tell because, see again, lack of standards.

This is what happens when new organizations proceed afresh from the logic of their creation, rather than decades or centuries of accumulated regulation, public subsidy, and organizational culture.

The way MOOC’s—massive open online courses—handle student attrition is also instructive. A lot of students drop out of traditional colleges, particularly at less selective institutions, and this is rightly seen as a major public-policy problem. In response colleges have hired retention specialists, legislators have proposed tying funds to completion, and hectoring think-tank analysts have published white papers criticizing colleges with low graduation rates. Meanwhile the vast majority of people who sign up for MOOC’s don’t complete their courses, yet MOOC creators are hailed as visionaries rather than being denounced for their 10-percent completion rates. What gives?

The difference comes down to risk and money. Society invests a lot of money in traditional institutions, and going to college is a high-stakes affair. Students who graduate enter a far more hospitable job market, while dropouts represent large amounts of wasted resources, public and private, along with, increasingly, unmanageable debt. MOOC’s, by contrast, aren’t publicly supported and risk nothing but their students’ time. A free, low-stakes, open-access system has far more license to operate as a pure meritocracy.

That meritocracy will serve as a powerful mechanism for signaling quality to an uncertain labor market. Traditional colleges rely mostly on generalized institutional reputations and, in a minority of cases, admissions selectivity to demonstrate what graduates know and can do. The opacity of most collegiate learning processes (see again, lack of standards) and the eroding force of grade inflation have left little other useful information.

MOOC credentials, by contrast, will signal achievement selectivity. Instead of running a tournament to decide who gets to take the class and very likely get an A-minus or A, they’re running tournaments to decide who did best in the class. That’s why people are already resorting to plagiarism in MOOC courses. That’s troublesome, although perhaps not distinctly so, given that the antiplagiarism software that will presumably be deployed in defense was developed in response to widespread cheating in traditional higher ed.

Kevin Carey is director of the education-policy program at the New America Foundation.

Image from Flickr user John Loo.

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