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November 20 2012

Will online learning destroy America’s colleges?

The American college system is staggeringly large: 2,421 four-year institutions enroll about 18.5 million college students. The proportion of Americans with a bachelor’s degree is at an all-time high — a social victory if they’re able to enjoy a positive return on their degrees, which the Pew Research Center estimates at about $550,000 on average.

And the very existence of that system is threatened, as we are to believe it, by the massive open online course, or MOOC, offered by new ventures from the likes of Stanford, Harvard and MIT. In an essay last week, Clay Shirky compared universities and MOOCs to record companies and Napster: in both cases, the incumbents operated by providing something inconveniently and locally that could be provided conveniently and universally on the web. I don’t agree with the entire essay, but Shirky is absolutely right to point out that the college industry is made up of several markets, and they’ll be disrupted in different ways.

American higher education is deeply divided: it’s outstanding for a relative small handful of students and pretty bad for everyone else. The disruption of MOOCs will likely start at the bottom and move up from there. The question on which we should meditate is: how far up will it move?

Admission rate is a crude way of judging college quality, but it’s available consistently and implies something about the way the market sees a school. There are 2,421 bachelor degree-granting institutions in the U.S. and, according to the College Board (PDF), only 60 of them (2%) accept fewer than a quarter of their applicants (this includes most of the country’s famous schools — Harvard through Notre Dame). But 47% of those 2,421 schools admit more than three quarters of their applicants or have no admission standards at all; 82% of full-time undergraduates attend a school that admits more than half its applicants.

And the educational experience at the least-competitive schools is dismal: 87% of students at the most competitive schools finish their degree in six years or less; 29% of students at open-admission schools finish their degrees in the same period. Even at the 50-75% admission rate schools (a third of all colleges, enrolling 42% of undergrads), 39% of students either drop out or take longer than six years to finish.

That experience at the bottom is ready for destruction. Think of the student deciding between Pace University and a MOOC — maybe a low-cost, non-degree certificate from MIT is worth only 10% of what a degree from MIT is worth in terms of pure return, but maybe a degree from Pace is worth only 20% of what a degree from MIT is worth. Given the difference in cost (tuition, room, board, and fees at Pace amount to $51,364 per year), that certificate from MIT could look compelling, depending on what you’re looking for in the way of a college experience. And if attitudes toward MOOC certificates change, maybe a certificate from MIT starts moving up toward 50% of the value of an MIT degree, and threatens, say, Tulane.

I think Harvard and its peers are safe for the time being, but the vast majority of U.S. colleges aren’t, and even the middle and lower schools in the top tier could be threatened pretty quickly. (That said, there’s a bit of a disconnect at the moment between what Stanford and MIT offer online and what students at expensive, low-tier universities study. Students who enroll in the University of Phoenix’s software engineering program follow a much more applied curriculum than MIT’s computer science students, and even MIT’s high-achieving students find their program challenging.)

Top-tier schools that survive the spread of MOOCs could find themselves subject to new costs and transformations by the creation of a star system for faculty, in which popular teachers will have an international audience. Coursera’s terms of service explicitly prohibit the use of its courses for credit at any university, but it’s easy to imagine that changing at some point — that a University of Florida student could get credit at her school for taking a Stanford computer science class via Coursera. If that happens, Stanford and its vaunted faculty stand to gain; why take a University of Florida CS survey when its famous counterpart at Stanford is available instead? Either way, you’re attending non-interactive lectures (or, increasingly, watching recordings online after sleeping through class) and having your work graded by teaching assistants.

None of this is to suggest that our whole higher-education system will collapse as high school students make careful ROI calculations and elect an online education over four years of seminars in the wood-panelled offices of famous dons. My own liberal-arts education at the University of Chicago was illuminating, and I’d do it over again in a heartbeat — math and economics, with some Greek, history, comparative literature and physics on the side. I’m profoundly fortunate to have had that education available to me.

I think there will be a market for that sort of education for a long time — and, indeed, the giant endowments of the country’s top universities make this kind of education available to an increasingly wide audience. But that’s not really representative of the whole landscape of higher education today; the widest possible grouping of liberal arts majors encompasses only about 40% of college students, and that figure includes tens of thousands of students in majors like biomedical sciences and “science technologies” that are likely applied in their approach.

Students who want a career-focused degree, on the other hand, are already making an ROI calculation of sorts, although it’s not necessarily free of influence from friends and cultural expectations. They make up the vast majority of college students, and they’re ready to be converted.

(Full disclosure: my father is a dean at the University of Virginia, which went through an upset last summer centered in part on the future of the university in the context of online learning. The views in this post are entirely my own.)


April 27 2012

Publishing News: Tor sets content free

Here are a few stories that caught my eye in the publishing space this week.

Tor breaks the stick

Tor-Forge-Logo.JPGJoe Wikert, O'Reilly GM and publisher, asked this week, "What if DRM goes away?" As kismet would have it, publisher Tom Doherty Associates, which publishes popular science fiction/fantasy imprint Tor under Macmillan, stepped up to drop DRM and find out. An announcement post on stated that by July, the company's "entire list of e-books will be available DRM-free." President and publisher Tom Doherty said for the announcement:

"Our authors and readers have been asking for this for a long time. They're a technically sophisticated bunch, and DRM is a constant annoyance to them. It prevents them from using legitimately purchased e-books in perfectly legal ways, like moving them from one kind of e-reader to another."

Author Cory Doctorow said the move "might be the watershed for ebook DRM, the turning point that marks the moment at which all ebooks end up DRM-free. It's a good day." Author Charlie Stross took a look at the big picture and what this might mean not only for the future of publishers, but for book retailers, supply chains and ebook reading technology. In part, he said the oligopoly may be in jeopardy:

"Longer term, removing the requirement for DRM will lower the barrier to entry in ebook retail, allowing smaller retailers (such as Powells) to compete effectively with the current major incumbents. This will encourage diversity in the retail sector, force the current incumbents to interoperate with other supply sources (or face an exodus of consumers), and undermine the tendency towards oligopoly. This will, in the long term, undermine the leverage the large vendors currently have in negotiating discount terms with publishers while improving the state of midlist sales."

Jeremy Trevathan, publisher at Tor UK's parent Pan Macmillan, told The Guardian that Macmillan has "no thought of extending [the drop of DRM] beyond science fiction and fantasy publishing. But it's in the air. We've not talked about this to other publishers, but I can't imagine they haven't been thinking about this, too."

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Harvard offers up big data and open access research

Harvard University recently made a couple of notable moves to open up access to its data and research. Last week, Harvard's faculty and advisory council sent a memo to faculty members regarding periodical subscriptions. The memo opened: "We write to communicate an untenable situation facing the Harvard Library. Many large journal publishers have made the scholarly communication environment fiscally unsustainable and academically restrictive."

Ian Sample at The Guardian reported:

"According to the Harvard memo, journal subscriptions are now so high that to continue them 'would seriously erode collection efforts in many other areas, already compromised.' The memo asks faculty members to encourage their professional organisations to take control of scholarly publishing, and to consider submitting their work to open access journals and resigning from editorial boards of journals that are not open access."

This week, The New York Times (NYT) reported that "Harvard is making public the information on more than 12 million books, videos, audio recordings, images, manuscripts, maps, and more things inside its 73 libraries." Access to this volume of metadata is likely to fuel innovation for developers. The NYT report stated:

"At a one-day test run with 15 hackers working with information on 600,000 items, [David Weinberger, co-director of Harvard's Library Lab] said, people created things like visual timelines of when ideas became broadly published, maps showing locations of different items, and a 'virtual stack' of related volumes garnered from various locations."

The post noted the "metadata will be available for bulk download both from Harvard and from the Digital Public Library of America, which is an effort to create a national public library online."

News scoops for sale or rent

There also was a dustup in the news space this week. It began with Felix Salmon's post at Reuters suggesting the New York Times could rake in revenue by selling advance access to its feature stories to hedge funds. (This was all brought on by the newspaper's feature piece on a Wal-Mart bribe inquiry on a Saturday and the market response the following Monday.)

Salmon argued:

"The main potential problem I see here is that if such an arrangement were in place, corporate whistleblowers might be risking prosecution as insider traders. But I'm sure the lawyers could work that one out. The church-lady types would I'm sure faint with horror. But if hedge funds are willing to pay the NYT large sums of money to be able to get a glimpse of stories before they're made fully public, what fiduciary could simply turn such hedge funds away?"

GigaOm's Mathew Ingram posted a response from a journalism ethics standpoint:

"One of the things that bothers me about this idea is that I think there is still some kind of public-service or public-policy value in journalism, and especially the news — I don't think it is just another commodity that should be designed to make as much money as possible. And if the New York Times were to take stories that are arguably of social significance and provide them to hedge funds in advance, I think that would make it a very different type of entity than it is now. What if it was a story about a dangerous drug or national security?"

Salmon posted a follow-up argument, in part responding to Ingram:

"The journalism-ethics angle to this hasn't really been fleshed out, though. Mathew Ingram, for instance, says that if news is being put out in the public service, then it shouldn't be 'just another commodity'; if the NYT were to go down this road, then 'that would make it a very different type of entity than it is now.' It's all very vague and hand-wavey."

All three posts in this back-and-forth exchange (here, here and here) as well as the debate on Twitter that Ingram storified here are well worth the read.


January 12 2009

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