Thursday, January 10, 2013

The Prospects of Online Education, con't.

A number of weeks ago I had a conversation with Dan Mullin about the prospects for online education over on Facebook, in response to an opinion piece I posted on this blog wondering about the same. We came to something of a disagreement over the importance of accreditation in a future job market. It was my contention that most of the tech journalists commenting on the spread of online education resources misunderstood the nature of traditional education. They saw it merely as a product to be consumed, and missed out on the important role colleges and universities played in accrediting students for potential future positions in the workforce.

This is important for how one values education, which, unlike food, clothes, and movie tickets, is one of life's very-difficult-to-value intangibles. In order to create value for a course, say, on the study of world religions, Shakespeare's sonnets, or the political transformation of England under Henry VIII, the course is unlikely to do very well if it is just thrown into a marketplace of knowledge, where consumers pick and choose a selection of personal interests. Dan has made the case that there are niche markets for this sort of thing, while I would argue niche markets to do provide a steady stream of income for higher education. It's a far better business model which rolls all of these particular interests into a larger product: academic accreditation. Otherwise arcane topics need to packaged along with other similar courses in a degree that comes with the value added bonus of accrediting the student for a career in a field in which these arcane bits of knowledge are tangentially relevant. It was my thinking that if companies offering courses online were to survive, and make money, they would have to find some way to integrate themselves into the existing system of accreditation, on which the traditional system of higher education still has a monopoly.

Its possible that Dan and I have different ideas in mind when we use the word accreditation. I want to offer, for Dan's consideration, this article posted over on Slate, whose title takes the form of a question: 'Would you pay $100 for a free online college course?' The answer: maybe. Coursera is experimenting with the possibility of offering students the value added bonus of a certificate for completing a course.

But the more immediate question is this: How many people will be willing to pay $100 for an online course that most others are taking for free?

Only a tiny minority, in all probability. After all, the certificate doesn’t count for college credit anywhere, at least at this point. And it doesn’t even necessarily mean that you didn’t cheat. All it does is make people marginally more likely to believe you when you tell them you got an A-minus in, say, Computational Methods for Data Analysis.

But don’t count out the project’s potential just yet.

This is still a long way from the socio-economic value of a universally recognized diploma or degree form an institution in the traditional education system.  But it seems to indicate that companies like Coursera and Udacity recognize people do not generally consume knowledge merely for the sake of consuming knowledge. Other incentives are needed--like the possibility of social advancement.

This is one very important sense, contrary to Dan's contention that traditional system of education no longer enjoys the confidence of a wider world, that colleges and universities still have a leg up on their online competition.

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