Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Calibrating the Hype about Online Higher Education

"Massive open online courses" (MOOCs) and other aspects of online higher education were white-hot a few years ago, but I'd say that they have cooled off to only red-hot. Two economists who have also been college presidents, Michael S. McPherson and Lawrence S. Bacow discuss the current state of play and offer some insights in "Online Higher Education: Beyond the Hype Cycle," appearing in the Fall 2015 issue of the Journal of Economic Perspectives. Here are some points that caught my eye.

About one-quarter of higher education students took an online course in 2013, and about one-ninth of higher education students took all of their courses online that year. 
"The US Department of Education recently began to conduct its own survey of online education as part of its Integrated Post-Secondary Education Data System (IPEDS), with full coverage of the roughly 4,900 US institutions of higher education. As shown in Table 1, IPEDS data indicates that as of 2013, about 26 percent of all students took at least one course that was entirely online, and about 11 percent received all of their education online." 
When it comes to the possibility of education technologies that can operate at large scale with near-zero marginal costs, there's a history of overoptimism. Here's a quick sketch of promises about educational radio, and then educational television. 
"Berland (1992), citing a popular commentator named Waldeman Kaempffert writing in 1924, reported that “there were visions of radio producing ‘a super radio orchestra’ and ‘a super radio university’ wherein ‘every home has the potentiality of becoming an extension of Carnegie Hall or Harvard University.’” Craig (2000) reports that “the enthusiasm for radio education during the early days of broadcasting was palpable. Many universities set up broadcast stations as part of their extension programs and in order to provide their engineering and journalism students with experience in radio. By 1925 there were 128 educational stations across the country, mostly run by tertiary institutions” (p. 2831). The enthusiasm didn’t last—by 1931 the number of educational stations was down to 49, most low-powered (p. 2839). This was in part the result of cumbersome regulation, perhaps induced by commercial interests; but the student self-control problem ... likely played a role as well. As NBC representative Janice Waller observed, “Even those listeners who clamored for educational programs, Waller found, secretly preferred to listen to comedians such as Jack Benny. These “intellectually dishonest” people “want to appear very highbrow before for their friends . . . but down inside, and within the confines of their own homes, they are, frankly, bored if forced to listen to the majority of educational programs” (as quoted in Craig 2000, pp. 2865–66). 
"The excitement in the late 1950s about educational television outshone even the earlier enthusiasm for radio. An article by Schwarzwalder (1959, pp. 181–182) has an eerily familiar ring: “Educational Television can extend teaching to thousands, hundreds of thousands and, potentially, even millions. . . . As Professor Siepman wrote some weeks ago in The New York Times, ‘with impressive regularity the results come in. Those taught by television seem to do at least as well as those taught in the conventional way.’ . . . The implications of these facts to a beleaguered democracy desperately in need of more education for more of its people are immense. We shall ignore these implications at our national peril.” Schwartzman goes on to claim that any subject, including physics, manual skills, and the arts can be taught by television, and even cites experiments that show “that the discussion technique can be adapted to television.”"
The Internet offers the possibility not just of widespread distribution of education material, but also of interactive content. But if the content is to be richly interactive--that is, more than just a short multiple-choice quiz inserted into the recorded material--the costs of design and production could be very substantial. 

"Richly interactive online instruction is obviously much more expensive than Internet-delivered television. The development costs for Carnegie Mellon’s sophisticated but far from fully computer-adaptive courses in statistics and other fields have been estimated at about $1 million each (Parry 2009). Although future technical developments will reduce the costs of providing a course of a fixed level of quality over time, those future technical developments will also encourage the provision of additional features. Universities can invest in improving the production values of such television programs at the margin in ways that range from multiple camera angles to the incorporation of sophisticated graphics and live location video. Many interactive courses could also conceivably benefit from regular updating based on recent events or scholarship ... Our point is that while online courses offer the potential for constant modification and updates, realizing this potential may in fact be expensive, leading to less-frequent updates than for traditionally taught subjects. ... Those who foresee the widespread adoption of adaptive learning technology often underestimate the cost of producing it. Stanford President John Hennessey, in a recent lecture to the American Council of Education, estimated that the cost of producing a first-rate highly interactive digital course to be in the millions of dollars (Jaschik 2015). Few individual institutions have the resources to make such investments. Furthermore, while demand may be substantial enough to support such investments for basic introductory courses in fields that easily lend themselves to such instruction, it is unlikely that anyone will invest in the creation of such courses for upper-level courses unless they can be adopted at scale.
There's no guarantee that online tools will reduce the costs of higher education. One possibility is that well-endowed universities use online higher education as a way to drive up costs--since these schools often compete to provide a high-end experience. For example, expensive schools might "flip the classroom" by paying for both a rich and interactive online course, and then also hiring enough faculty members (not graduate students!) to staff a large number of discussion and problem-solving sections.
Indeed, there is a real chance that at least in selective higher education, technology will actually be used to raise rather than lower cost. There are obvious ways to use online materials to complement rather than to substitute for in-person instruction. Flipping the classroom, as we will explain further, is one. Instructors can also import highly produced video material—either purchased or homemade— to complement their classes, and there could easily emerge a market in modular lessons aimed at allowing students to extend material farther or to get a second take on a difficult set of concepts. If individual faculty members are authorized to make these choices, and universities agree to subsidize expensive choices, costs seem likely to rise. 
Conversely, schools that are lower-ranked and with fewer financial resources may be pushed to focus on implementing a low-cost and mostly online curriculum. 
Broad-access unselective institutions are already among the largest users of online instruction. These institutions are responsible for the education of many students—at least half of all those enrolled in postsecondary education—and they disproportionately educate lower-income students and students of color. Enabling technological advances to support improvement in the educational success of these institutions at manageable cost is an important goal, arguably the most important goal for using technology to improve American higher education. (Of course, the implications of these technologies for global learning would be potentially gigantic.) There is especially high potential for online education to cater to the large number of nontraditional students, which includes adult learners and those who have a very high opportunity cost of attending college whether at the undergraduate or graduate level. For this group of students, asynchronous online learning can be a godsend. Opportunities surely exist for technology to penetrate this market further, and quality is likely to improve as faculty and others figure out how to take better advantage of new educational technology. As the technology improves and as more institutions adopt it, more of these students are likely to receive all or at least some of their education online. 
Yet this great opportunity is accompanied by considerable risk. It is all too easy to envision legislators who see a chance to cut state-level or national-level spending that supports higher education by imposing cheap and ineffective online instruction on institutions whose students lack the voice and political influence to demand quality. It’s equally easy to imagine for-profit institutions proffering online courses in a way that takes advantage of populations with little experience with college in a marketplace where reliable information is scarce.

(Full disclosure: I've been Managing Editor of the Journal  of Economic Perspectives since 1987. All JEP articles from the current issue going back to the first issue are freely available online courtesy of the publisher, the American Economic Association.)