NOTE: This is the third installment in a series of essays reflecting on the future of liberal arts colleges. Some speculate all liberal arts institutions are destined for failure. I disagree. We will explore the current dynamics and set the context for the future of Central College.
In 1999, Columbia University and five prestigious partner organizations created a for-profit education company called Fathom. The initial partners included The London School of Economics and Political Science, Cambridge University Press, The British Library, The Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History and The New York Public Library. Other equally powerful partners joined the enterprise with the goal of launching a web environment that would be the hub of knowledge and education on the internet.
In a 2001 interview for The Technology Source, James L. Morrison spoke with Ann Kirschner, the CEO of Fathom. During the conversation Kirschner described the goals of the partnership and the vast amount of knowledge that could be made available globally through the company. She noted:
Only at Fathom will you have access to hundreds of free courses and a comprehensive variety of paid e-learning options. Some learners are ready to commit to a semester-length program, but most are looking for shorter options. Fathom delivers the broadest possible range of subjects and pedagogical approaches since we select the best courses from many institutions rather than creating the courses ourselves. Currently, the Fathom course directory offers 600 courses. All have been evaluated according to criteria determined by our Academic Council. We also offer more than 1,000 free seminars and special features from our consortium. We provide a service to a worldwide audience of knowledge consumers looking for professional development and lifelong learning.
By 2003 the venture ended and Fathom was dissolved. To be sure, it was a period of economic recession and some would argue Fathom was simply ahead of its time. Yet in 2001 alone, reports indicate Columbia University invested $14.9 million in the for-profit company, along with $3 million in investments from others. The revenue, however, for that year was a meager $700,000. The total loss was never reported publicly. To its credit, Fathom lasted longer than other for-profit online ventures at that time including those at New York University, Temple University and the University of Maryland.
What do we conclude? To be honest, a lot was learned through those early experiments and it’s helped shape the effective online learning environments we have today. Many would credit these early pioneering efforts as the ashes from which the roses of success have bloomed. For example, we learned effective online courses are not infinitely scalable. Some at that time believed once the course was created, it could be placed on the equivalent of cruise control or auto-pilot as the revenue flowed from eager learners seeking a convenient education. It turns out that the teacher still matters.
Let’s fast-forward to 2012. What’s happening now? Massive Open Online Courses are all the rage. The truth is they are a fascinating form of online learning. MOOCs, as they are called, have grown from vastly improved online learning environments since the days of Fathom. The interest and willingness of star faculty to record lectures and provide course materials is coupled with a student market drawn by one very important word – FREE. While it may feel like MOOCs appeared out of nowhere, it was the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) that made a rather surprising choice in 2002 and reset the course of online learning. The MIT Open Courseware initiative began making course content available to anyone. With the support of a few foundations and donors, more than 2,000 courses are now available in some form, ranging from basic course outlines and reading lists to video captured in classrooms. Best of all, the Open Courseware content is – FREE. There’s that word again. It’s an enormous public service. Those seeking knowledge around the world can obtain content for learning regardless of their location, socioeconomic status or prior learning opportunities. These efforts often have been referred to as the democratization of global education – something we can all applaud.
The MOOCs, however, are beginning to morph. Venture capitalists have identified the pattern they seek for a new opportunity – high demand, low production costs and infinite scalability. Late this summer, a company formed by two Stanford University professors known as Coursera surpassed the one million student course enrollment mark. Udacity, a rival company moved above the course enrollment level of 700,000. Other companies are entering the competitive space as well. The venture capital is flowing, courses are being developed and star faculty are eager to sign up. These companies have existed for only months, but already are securing prestigious partner universities to make sets of courses available to the demanding public. Predictably, pundits are forecasting the demise of college and university campuses – again.
Even as eager individuals and institutions are energized by the possibilities, there are a few problems.
First, no one has figured out how to make any money from MOOCs. Remember, they are FREE courses offered through for-profit companies. The basic agreements with colleges and universities carry very little risk for institutions beyond time, energy and some production costs. If the MOOCs can be monetized, the universities will make a small percentage on the revenue base. For now these companies are living on millions in venture capital. They have discussed a few ideas for generating revenue such as selling the courses to other educational institutions that could substitute MOOCs for existing course offerings, charging various kinds of fees for students seeking certificates of completion and validated assessments of learning, and identifying talent for employers among those who complete the courses. Eventually, these courses will need to generate profit or Coursera and Udacity will be seated in the depths next to Fathom.
Second, there is no way to validate the quality of learning. Attrition for these courses is incredibly high. The completion rate ranges from about 10 to 20 percent of the enrolled student population. There appears to be a lot of browsing. That’s fine if we are seeking to simply make knowledge available to lots of people. Let them browse. If our goal, however, is to responsibly educate citizens and train professionals, the system is severely deficient. What is more, we have no way to prevent cheating or fraud. At present, there is little interest in cheating since money is not flowing and the courses have not been uniformly accepted by institutions of higher education or industry. Attempts to monetize MOOCs, rest on the ability of these companies to certify course completion, validate learning and provide assurance of any credentials awarded. There is no credible infrastructure available to do this, making the possibility of cheating and fraud more likely. I can already see a cottage industry of learning assessment firms which will be happy to collect fees and pass out credentials.
Third, teaching and learning is a fundamentally human relationship. If we view MOOCs as a vehicle for simply making content for learning broadly available, many of us salute the effort. Those who have worked hard to advance teaching and learning through the effective use of technology, however, are growing increasingly concerned. A MOOC generally offers brief video segments, after which the student completes some online assignments (i.e. quizzes that are automatically graded), and can participate in online communities. For all they offer, they are a passive form of learning. There is no teacher or faculty member present to the student to create active learning scenarios or address the particular needs and interests of a class. In this one-size-fits-all approach, there is no context for understanding student background or capability, thus allowing for adaptation. What some describe as a liberation of the learner is actually the abandonment of teaching.
For decades there has been an obsession with driving the cost out of education through innovations in technology. Usually the claim is the learning will be even more effective and we can save tons of money. Perhaps one day we will understand all forms of education are subsidized by society in some form. Public and private/non-profit institutions both rely on subsidies whether they flow from government appropriations or philanthropic support. What we too often miss is that our for-profit colleagues also rely on subsidies. For Fathom it was dollars derived from non-profit organizations and foundations. Coursera and Udacity are riding on the speculative interest of venture capitalists. The major for-profit educational institutions are funded largely by federal student aid dollars. For many, this is nearly 90 percent of their revenue. When will we learn there is no free ride for education?
Next time: How will the opportunities and threats from for-profit institutions, competency-based education and online learning affect liberal arts colleges?