The death of distance

About 20 years ago I was invited by the High Mistress of St Paul’s Girl’s School to give a talk to the sixth form. St Paul’s Girls is an academically selective and expensive school in the posh enclave of Brook Green in the otherwise not very posh Hammersmith district of west London. It is one of those British private schools where the intelligent offspring of the global rich are sent. (The less intelligent go to Switzerland). The girls were faultlessly polite, bright, self assured and ever so slightly intimidating. This effect is presumably what their parents are paying for.

My talk was entitled “The death of distance”. I argued that soon it would be possible for a lecturer to address an audience almost anywhere in the world at virtually zero cost and that this would both liberate education and cause great change to existing universities. (Not having done an MBA I hadn’t yet heard of the term “disruptive” or perhaps it hadn’t been coined yet). Like quite a few of my predictions this was, I think, roughly correct but premature.

Bear in mind that this was before the web had been born. I hadn’t even used email at that point, as the investment bank I was working for didn’t think it was necessary. (That bank no longer exists.) I had started covering some media companies and started to realise where the technology was leading.

I thought that my prediction would come true in a decade; it has taken two. In the last year or so the rise of MOOCs – massive online open courses – has caused a shudder to run through universities. The combination of technology and the involvement of some of the world’s best universities offers the fascinating prospect of a huge and wonderful democratisation of elite university teaching plus the bankruptcy of many universities.

State of the MOOC art

A MOOC is an online course that allows an unlimited number of students to join a course taught by a professor in an established university. It goes beyond the conventional distance learning approach in allowing full participation in the course, without payment, registration or qualification. Some additionally offer an exam that provides accreditation, sometimes at a fee. Since the marginal cost of course involvement is zero, there is no limit to the number of students and already some courses have attracted over 100,000 students.

As is so often the case, the pioneers come from Stanford University. There are two systems with roots in Stanford. Udacity, founded by Stanford professor Sebastian Thrun in late 2011, is a for-profit organisation that grew out of an online course called “Introduction to artificial intelligence” which attracted 160,000 students.

The co-teacher of that course, Peter Norvig, has a fascinating and inspiring TED talk on the subject, called “The 100,000 student classroom”. If you’re sceptical about MOOCs this talk should go some way to changing your mind.

Coursera is another for-profit company that offers a platform for universities to offer MOOCs, also founded by Stanford professors. Both Udacity and Coursera have received venture capital funding and hope to make money from charging for exams, certification and other services. The courses are completely free.

edX, which is not for profit, was launched in 2012 by MIT and Harvard, and now has other leading US universities, such as Berkeley, Georgetown, the University of Texas and Wellesley College. MIT has been offering some course content free for some years but edX offers entire courses, with all materials free to anyone who wants to join in.

In the UK, the Open University, which is a pioneer in distance learning and adult education (and extremely good at it, I can personally confirm) launched a British platform called Futurelearn in December 2012.

How MOOCs may change the world

The first effect of MOOCs should be entirely positive. Millions of people across the world, especially in lower income countries, can now take courses from leading universities at virtually no cost. Many poor people still lack internet access but these courses offer a vastly cheaper way for universities and schools in poorer countries to teach advanced education.

Education has become a near public good, where it costs nothing to offer the service to other people and so, from a social welfare point of view, the benefits are far higher than in the former, closed world.

But what does this mean for existing universities? The service that universities provide is part consumption – the current benefit of being with lots of people your own age, getting away from home and having a lot of fun, as well as the pleasure of studying a subject in depth – and part investment – improving your future earning potential and ability to enjoy life more generally. MOOCs threaten to replace the investment service, though they can’t substitute for the consumption element, or the network benefits of going to (some) universities.

Will students continue to pay many thousands of pounds or dollars for these services when they can pay very little for a course taught by the world’s best teachers? What will universities be able to offer to justify their fees?

These questions have many universities deeply worried. And those that aren’t worried probably haven’t yet woken up to the threat. Much of the value that universities offer is in the credibility of their qualifications. Employers know that a degree from some universities is worth more than from others, because the better universities are more selective in the quality of their students. So it is likely that the value of selection will continue – those “elite” universities which are very hard to get into will continue to offer valuable qualifications because the main service they offer is academic exclusivity.

But for many other universities there is little exclusivity so the qualification is worth less. If a student can get credible qualifications from taking MOOCs that satisfy an employer, then why go to university? Note that the credibility is critical. A student will need to be able to show that he or she took the exam, which requires cost effective fraud protection. This is already a challenge that is being faced by other online assessment such as GMAT so it can probably be overcome. As to the credibility of the courses themselves, only last week the American Council on Education endorsed five Coursera courses as suitable for earning credits at its 1,800 member colleges. And in mid-January San Jose State University announced a trial of Udacity courses for algebra and statistics courses. And it is often said that, as California goes, so goes the country.

It’s hard to predict how the remarkably fast expansion of MOOCs will affect the university “industry”. But it seems likely that most universities will be affected and many, especially private universities of doubtful value, will probably go out of business. Others may change to offer a blend of attendance, accreditation and facilitation of online courses, at a much reduced fee. It seems fair to say that under most scenarios there will be a much lower demand for university teachers. The pay of university academics is already pretty low at non-elite universities (and, I regret to say, at the University of Cambridge). Jobs are likely to become scarcer in the coming decade so those complaining about low pay now may soon have no job at all. Outstanding teachers who can become famous and reach vast new audiences through MOOCs may prosper. But this will be a tiny fraction of the profession. You only need a handful of outstanding courses in physics or, dare I say it, finance. So the other 99% may become redundant.

Tim Taylor in his blog quotes an Ernst and Young report on Australian universities which has much wider relevance: “Our primary hypothesis is that the dominant university model in Australia — a broad-based teaching and research institution, supported by a large asset base and a large, predominantly in-house back office — will prove unviable in all but a few cases over the next 10-15 years.

And Cambridge?

Cambridge is not, I think it’s fair to say, an early adopter in educational technology or pedagogical method. In my (undergraduate) experience, the lecturing at Cambridge is of rather uneven quality, partly because the dominant purpose of the University is research and partly because until recently most students didn’t pay much so they were less bothered by the teaching quality. It is also sometimes said that the teaching can be of mixed quality because the student quality is so high, but that’s a bit of a cop out. An important part of undergraduate teaching is in intense, small group supervisions (tutorials at Oxford) which usually are of a high quality and cannot be replaced by online courses.

The University already gives a lot of content away free, both on podcast and in the form of public lectures (which are of course limited to local access). There is a committee (naturally) looking at online courses and I hope that Judge Business School will be active in whatever plans the University eventually adopts. The Cambridge Executive MBA, run out of Judge, is already using distance learning to great effect and is a natural platform on which to build. Online courses probably won’t offer any extra revenues but the University is a charity and it is consistent with its mission that we provide a free public service where we can.

The law stops anyone from getting a Cambridge University degree unless they spend a minimum number of nights physically in the city. This restriction offers a degree of exclusivity – whatever courses Cambridge will (I hope) eventually offer online, nobody can get an actual Cambridge degree without being admitted to the University.

We should not be complacent. The MOOC revolution is just starting and could change the industry in ways that I, at least, have not imagined. But for the world as a whole, this is a wonderful thing.

6 Responses

  1. Anthony Smith

    How times change. I did an extremely obscure paper on pre-Chuacerian English. Only four of us on the course. Only one copy of a particular book in the UL, that was essential. If it wasn’t there, I knew more or less who to hassle to borrow it.

  2. Chris Sutherland

    Do top-quality researchers at universities such as Cambridge allocate time to the development of their pedagogical skills? Is there room for the contemporary researcher/lecturer to evolve into a more classroom-focused role in an effort to maintain competitive advantage over MOOCs? Perhaps this is not realistic given the demands of leading research, but as an aspiring professor, I am looking for a bit of hope.

  3. Andreas K.

    Interesting topic! – Sorry in advance for the long post –

    1. I agree that elite universities (like Cambridge) are unlikely to suffer from this development, because (academic) exclusivity and access to an exclusive network are still worth a relatively large investment. If the universities are clever, they can even gain some significant extra profits by providing online degrees.
    Demand will concentrate on the online programmes of the top universities. First, they have the money and the brand name to attract top professors, and thus to deliver online courses taught by the “stars” of the academic discipline. Second, they can provide students with a certificate from a top university. Even if the teaching material might be free, students who are doing online/distance degrees still have an interest in being examined and getting some sort of certificate to satisfy future employers. I guess most of the students are also interested to obtain this certificate from a top university (even if this means paying a small price premium). Since marginal costs are close to zero, universities are now able to serve and to cash in on this nearly-infinite demand. They should only take care to clearly distinguish between online and offline degrees, in order not to dilute the value of the latter.
    By the way, this is no entirely new thought. I am currently pursuing a distance degree at the University of London in cooperation with the London School of Economics (LSE). When I graduate, I will receive certificates from both the UOL (which provided the organisational structure) and the LSE (which provided the academic material and reviewed my exams). I would lie if I’d say that having LSE in my resume didn’t affect my decision to take up exactly that programme.

    2. I do not think however that the market for professors and second- or third-tier programmes will shrink significantly. No matter how good an online degree is – studying from distance for a couple of years is still very exhausting and needs a lot of self-discipline (I can speak from experience). It will always be inferior to a well-taught face-to-face programme (or to a Blended programme, with a mix of online and face-to-face phases). Those universities who would otherwise struggle thus have to focus on interactive and interesting teaching methods in order to attract students. This might also mean that they have to reduce classroom size in order to bring about a more individual and interactive teaching experience. Smaller classrooms require more professors (given that the student number declines in a smaller rate than the classroom size).

    3. Finally, if second-tier universities can attract students with innovative, interactive and fun teaching methods, they might even put the top universities under pressure to focus more on great teaching as well. In the end, all students profit:
    – many online students gain access to top education that they otherwise couldn’t afford
    – “classical” offline students – from top universities as well as from others – profit from better teaching quality as a result of new competition between online and offline programmes.

    4. PS: As a JBS admit for the 2013 class I’d wish that they’d use the eLearnings that they have developed for the executive MBA as a mandatory preparation for the full-time MBA (I do not know if they actually do this or not). This way, they could lift all MBA students to a relatively similar basic knowledge level and directly start with more advanced academics.
    In the automotive industry (where I work) this is already standard: Staff education programmes usually transfer most factual knowledge in eTrainings and then focus on experiencing/ developing skills/ anchoring this knowledge/ etc. during phase-to-phase trainings.

  4. Andreas K.

    This topic couldn’t let me sleep…

    I was wondering that you could also use online students as a source of academic input. You could assign them tasks for field experiments and thereby create massive amounts of valuable statistical data. If you let them write academical papers (as a part of route towards a paid degree), you could use the best papers as a source for further academic research. If you work with something like a “subject guide” as an academic manual for each course, you could also create this as a Wiki-like document that can be improved by all enrolled students during the academic year. Or you could assign them a specific mission: Plant a tree/ update a Wikipedia article on your study subject/ improve the (open-source) software of the learning environment/ whatever… Having a large online student crowd has so much potential!

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