Co-written by Priscilla Taylor, Audrey Romano, and Adam Hocker
At the heart of the discourse about the past, present, and future of higher education is storytelling: the stories told of the value of higher education, the key players, as well as new possibilities. There is no argument that higher education is being disrupted by online education, which offers affordable and convenient education to wider variety of students, worldwide. The reality is that more and more employers put more value in competency rather than in degrees and institutions. Experience and how one wields knowledge are greater assets in acquiring a job, while any relationship to an institution is only really appreciated on a social level. As Shirky’s illustration states, when “learning comes unbundled from the pursuit of a degree just as songs came unbundled from CDs,” the a-la-cart education will have a greater value and ROI for the student. Christiansen et al. (2011) backs this up by stating that “quality can only be measured relative to what customers value in their own context—their job to be done—and relative to their alternative solutions” (p. 21). Whether it is a resident program, a blended program, or an online one, the expectations of the students will guide their perceived quality level of their education. This once again comes back to the original question of why universities exist and who their target population is.
“For-profit Online University” Video
In the video satire, the students perceived their flexibly affordable “FPU” experience as a highly convenient education of high quality because it satisfied the job they hired it to do. What is surprising is that they feel so despite the lack accreditation, the blatant for-profit marketing, the lack of security, and the sacrifice of accessibility. It’s so convenient, in fact, that “if you have a credit card, you’re already enrolled in For-Profit University”, allowing students to bypass the application process entirely, and turning their non-selectiveness into something they market.
There is also a prevailing cynicism that runs throughout the video. “FPU” is exactly what it says, it is for-profit, therefore it monetizes every aspect of what it offers. The idea of a “thought coin” is both laughable and not that far from the mark. By creating its own digital currency, it ensures that all of your money is funneled through the “FPU” system in as many ways possible (i.e. purchasing food, avatar personalization, entertainment, even academic integrity). “The more you pay, the more you learn.” The idea that you can buy class points to use on test, while thankfully still fictional, could appeal to the lowest common denominator of online student because there are people who rather buy a good grade on a test or project than actually do the work.
Shirky said that colleges should provide “laser focused” programs to get students hired. In the video, “FPU” guarantees the job of “digital farmer” to all its students. The job itself is essentially going through thousands of image captchas to make enough “thought coins” for two Panera sandwiches a day. Virtual slave labor wrapped in Panera bread.
If higher education follows the same market trend as the computing and steel industries, as Christensen proposes, the more accessible and open for-profit online universities stand to push out the traditional universities entirely as they improve their product. The video plays on the fact that the public want universities to be more efficient believing that it will cut down on costs for students. In addition, postsecondary students are looking for a personalized learning experience that is based on their interests and their plans for the future. By and large, they are not finding it in traditional institutions and they are being drawn to new learning models that claim to offer them the personalization they are looking for.
The video also addresses the issue of college rankings. Arising from the “incestuous cocktail party,” ratings place greater emphasis on exclusivity and financial resources of universities as opposed to their academic rigor. Yet, it is those rankings that are held on to so tightly by prospective students and their parents in selecting a school.
New Visions for Higher Education
A new vision for higher education brings with it hopes of reaching larger numbers of students. According to Shirky, the new narrative is that “it’s possible to educate a thousand people at a time, in a single class, all around the world, for free.” And once you imagine educating a thousand people in a single class, it becomes clear that open courses, even in their nascent state, will be able to raise quality and improve certification faster than traditional institutions can lower cost or increase enrollment.
Massive open online courses (MOOCs) have been offered as an avenue to educating masses of students at a time. Many universities such as Stanford, Penn State, Harvard, and MIT have embraced this new model of education and have begun designing and offering courses. Penn State’s own motivations for entering the MOOC market are to:
- Enhance reputation and brand,
- Reinforce leadership in online education,
- Recruit [new and former] students,
- Contribute to the common good,
- Enrich F2F, hybrid, and online designs,
- Conduct pedagogical research or experimentation.
The strategy behind it is still based on the business model to increase revenue as well as the other models by which they operate. While MOOCs are gaining traction, it is important to note that the cost of resources that goes into creating a quality MOOC is far greater than what goes into an average resident course (e.g. Penn State’s Epidemics MOOC with eight faculty members, ten graduate students, instructional designer, and multimedia staff). Based solely on the readings, it doesn’t seem like a sustainable model that can compete with the very real threat of disruption that more focused online universities pose. However, there’s obviously more factors to consider, and Penn State claims success in that the returns they’ve seen from the MOOCs more than justified the resources spent.