Making universities compete

David Glance discusses the online course frenzy, giving a boosterist perspective: “Will free online courseware from the US mean the end of (most) universities elsewhere?” He emphasizes an important question – why do we reduplicate the effort of teaching the same subjects, using ineffective pedagogy, in so many different institutions?

I have often wondered why every university in the world needed to teach exactly the same subjects every year, when the means are now available for anyone in the world to access a subject from a single provider. There are only so many ways you can teach introductory courses, for example, just like there is a limit to the number of introductory textbooks that need to be written. Once you have recorded a version of the course, why is it that we need to have someone deliver that content live each year? More to the point, what right does a university have in charging for that?

What excites me about online learning is the potential to do something better than the traditional model. Hence, I’m disappointed when I see the online model adopting ineffective methods from classroom instruction. For example:

In online courses, assessment can be done with little to no cost by either fully automatically using multiple choice quizzes or by using peer assessment. Support is also crowdsourced. Responses to questions and queries can be rated to guide students into filtering the most appropriate answers (this is similar to the approach taken by a tech support site called Stack Overflow and it is incredibly effective).

As I’ve noted (“Learning by app”), there is some evidence that in some contexts online learning is as effective as classroom learning. But we’re a long way from demonstrating that to be true in general. Automatic multiple choice quizzes and peer assessment are not very good indicators of learning in classrooms, so I question the idea of deploying these assessment methods on a scale of 100,000 students. What right does anyone have in charging for that? Well, that helps to explain why the model is currently free. Personally, I think we can do better than this.

To address Glance’s question – if we assume that universities can begin to “outsource” their introductory courses, this must really destabilize their funding model, which relies on students enrolling in large introductory courses to subsidize the rest. There is a lot of potential for creative destruction here. A university that chooses to become excellent by focusing its teaching at an advanced level can compete for students on the basis of quality. A university that chooses to enable students to finish their degrees in two years after online transfer credits may find ways to reach new groups of students. A university may find ways to bring better laboratory experiences to students as a way of increasing instructional quality compared to online courses. What is sure to fail is complacency. The instructional quality of most university lecture courses is just not high enough to justify their high cost to students.